Carter RA, Bauer JE, Kersey JH, Buff PR. Awareness and evaluation of natural pet food products in the United States. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2014 Dec 1, 245(11):1241-48.
The quality of pet food available is increasingly of major interest to consumers when they shop and purchase food for their pets. Natural pet food is currently the fastest growing segment of the market. Sales of natural pet foods doubled from 2008 to 2012, much of this driven by the toxic contamination of pet foods by melamine and other derivatives from the Chinese market in 2007. The growth is also fueled by the unsupported belief by a large number of consumers that diets containing meat, whole grains and fewer by-products offer better nutrition to their pets. Natural is a commonly used term in the marketing of products. The term can have different meanings to different people or groups depending on their perspective.
From the regulatory and AAFCO perspective, the AAFCO definition of natural is: “ a feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices. Some synthetic nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are not considered by definition as natural, they are allowed in natural pet foods and are usually listed on the pet food label as “natural with added vitamins, minerals, and other trace nutrients”.
From some pet owner’s perspective, natural may denote the belief that the pet food is organic, contains no by-products, has high protein, or is veterinarian recommended. Synthetic ingredients, additives, and preservatives are considered not natural by pet owners. There may be ingredients in this category that may be viewed as poor nutritional quality for pets yet are natural by regulatory definition. Ingredients like corn, soy, and animal by-products are defined by AAFCO as natural but are not accepted by pet owners in natural pet foods they would purchase.
Veterinarians usually keep in mind three important factors when they recommend a pet food: ingredient quality, safety, and trust in a company or brand over what individual ingredients are present. Some ingredients are commonly associated with food sensitivities in animals; the most commonly reported food allergies in cats are associated with beef, dairy, fish, and lamb. Cats have retained much of their attributes as carnivores as they have evolved. As a species they can digest carbohydrates, yet high amounts of certain carbs can exceed that ability and lead to diarrhea, flatulence and bloating in cats.
Natural Ingredients (animal based products): Meat includes the clean flesh from striated muscle which may include muscle from tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus. Poultry is clean flesh and skin with or without bone. Such raw animal products are referred in natural foods as real meats and are added in the raw state to pet food. If an ingredient is termed fresh, it has not been subjected to any method of preservation other than refrigeration, including not having been frozen. Proper handling of animal by-products or meals can determine if they result in good quality ingredients or in nutritional degradation or decreased quality or safety of the final product. Meat or poultry by-products contain organs and other parts of the body remaining after raw meat processing. This can include lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, bones, stomach, and intestines w/o their content for meat by-products and head, feet, and viscera without their fecal contents for poultry by-products. Animal meals and by-product meals are derived through a process called rendering; animal meals are being more frequently replaced with raw animal products not processed by rendering.
Natural Ingredients (plant-based products): Several natural pet foods have grains as their carbohydrate source. Usually whole grains, including brown rice, oats, and barley are the primary grain sources in the natural pet foods. With some medical conditions, whole grains may not be beneficial as part of the diet for the pet involved. Phosphorus is frequently restricted in animals with renal or other urinary tract problems. Brown rice which many people favor as part of their diet is higher in phosphorus than white rice. Brown rice would not be indicated in these situations unless part of a complete and balanced diet. Other carbohydrate sources besides grains such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, chickpeas, or lentils can be used in natural pet foods. A number of these also provide a source of plant-based protein. Fruits and vegetable sources (blueberries, cranberries, carrots, tomatoes, and spinach) are also often used in natural pet foods. (VLT)