Are You Feeding Pet Food or Feed?
Pet food is a pretty hot topic these days. What’s the best way to feed? What’s the best brand? The best food? How can you tell if your diet (raw or processed) is actually balanced and complete? Is raw dangerous? There is so much conflicting information. Making decisions is hard because I’m scared, I’ll do it wrong.
So why is there so much conflicting and polarized information between kibble and raw?
To get to the root, let’s go back to the beginning and how the concept of pet food came about. Isn’t it just food?
When I Googled ‘pet food,’ I discovered these definitions:
Wikipedia: “Pet food is animal feed intended for consumption by pets. Typically sold in pet stores and supermarkets, it is usually specific to the type of animal, such as dog food or cat food. Most meat used for animals is a by-product of the human food industry and is not regarded as "human grade".
Encylopedia.com: “Intended for pets… not for human consumption.”
It is interesting that this definition makes no mention of health, wellness or longevity – which seems like a pretty important metric for me as a pet parent. And what exactly is meant by “animal feed”? This is really where the two very different roads for how we feed our pets begin … There is food and there is feed. Let me explain.
What Is Food?
Food is defined as any naturally occurring substance that is nutritious and can be eaten to sustain life. It comes in endless different forms including plants, animals and minerals. Examples of food are bananas, yams, steak, liver, eggs, bugs, lettuce, salt, grass, etc. Fresh food has a short shelf life and needs to be fed in a timely fashion. Ingredients are selected based on variety, freshness and whole food value, as evident in the Canada Food Guide.
As humans, we have high expectations for food – we expect it to support health and healing.
What is (Animal) Feed?
Feed refers to pet and livestock rations: highly heat treated, extruded and synthetically fortified with a long shelf life. It’s a product of industrialized animal agriculture and was developed as a mechanism to cheaply and conveniently feed animals, regardless of health or welfare consequences. Animal feed often contains waste products (by-product) from human food industries because ingredients are selected using a math equation of how to meet the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutritional requirements in most cost-efficient way. The product is cooked down with high temperatures in order to form it into dried pellets. As the mixture cools, synthetically formulated vitamin/mineral premixes are added to compensate for the missing nutrients in the heated-treated mixture. It is then formed into pellets and dried for storage. The shelf life is sometimes guaranteed for years depending on the formulation.
The Intention and the Science of Feed
Animal feed was designed and specially formulated to supply all essential nutrients as defined by AAFCO to feed livestock. It was convenient and a great way to reduce feeding costs, while allowing companies to use materials deemed unfit for human consumption and would normally go to waste. Health and longevity were not really a consideration because animals raised for meat don’t live very long.
There is a reason why we don’t recommend meal replacements like Ensure for healthy adults. We only use it in extreme situations where the person can’t get nutrition from a fresh food diet. Because a processed food, even when it contains all essential nutrients, is not an adequate replacement for a fresh food diet. It is true for people, and it is equally true for pets.
Pet food companies do not add vitamins and minerals out of kindness. They do it because the ingredients at the top of the ingredient list are so low quality or over processed that they lack the ability to nurture and sustain on their own.
Pet feed production is cost- and convenience-driven, not health driven: how can we squeeze the largest profit out of each nugget? It’s business. Period.
If you’d like to do a deep-dive on what’s happening in the pet feed industry (from the viewpoint of a concerned, independent pet parent), we highly recommend following Susan Thixton at The Truth About Pet Food.
Intention of Food
The intention of healthy eating requires thoughtfulness. It requires a “back to basics” approach about what food really is. Healthy eating is a mindful practice that doesn’t necessarily involve scientists and math. The science of how whole foods support health is abundantly clear in the human world to the point where there is no question. So why is it such a debate in the animal world? We want pet parents to feel confident to embark on a journey into the true foundation of animal health: fresh food!
To us, fresh food is just common sense, but if you need some science – you can check out some the studies for animals
AAFCO is not the holy grail of nutrition – it’s not even about food …
The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary member association that is in charge of setting out the standards for animal feed in the US but the guidelines are also followed by Canadian pet feed companies. AAFCO uses research conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) to give feed manufacturers the (known) nutritional requirements for different species. Most requirements are listed as minimums to avoid nutritional deficiencies, not what’s needed to thrive.
Simply put, AAFCO standards are intended for FEED, not food.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I am not completely ignoring minimum nutrient requirements. But they should be used in a same manner as human daily recommendations for nutrients - as guideline for fresh food diets over a period of time, not as an absolute for every meal.
So just to make it really simple, here are the key difference between Food and Feed:
Conclusion: If your goal is to supply minimal nutrition for survival, then animal feed will do the job – but if your goal is to support optimal health and longevity, then food is the only answer. Feed is simply not designed for this purpose.
What You Might Want to Consider
People often tell me that they are scared they won’t balance a raw diet properly and so they don’t want to feed fresh food. I always ask: would you apply that logic to yourself? To your children? Do you need to be a scientist or doctor to understand the concept of healthy eating for your human family? Fresh food is the foundation of health. Without it, our bodies can only compensate …until they can’t anymore. There’s a difference between thriving and surviving. And it’s no different for our pets. Logically and scientifically, it makes sense.
So, what are you feeding your pet? Food or feed?