Commercial “fresh” pet food goes by many names: gently cooked, human-grade, whole-food, all-natural, preservative-free, and others. It is not well-defined, but it seems to include most non-traditional (non-kibble, non-canned) pet diets. Proponents of commercial “fresh” pet foods use the term fresh to indicate that these diets are fresher and better than traditional diets.
For many pet owners, fresh diets are a “compromise” between kibble and raw diets. Fresh diets are seen as more natural and more appealing than kibble, but come without the risks that raw diets pose. (Visit Raw diets to learn more.) Commercial fresh diets are easier to feed than homemade, and they are safer than do-it-yourself homemade diets. (See Homemade diets for more information.)
Fresh pet diets come in many forms, including diets that look like chopped-and-mixed human food; diets that resemble puffy, pink kibble with dried veggie bits; diets that resemble dried jerky; freeze-dried foods, and others.
Fresh pet foods are often less calorically dense than traditional kibbled diets. This means they have less calories per unit, due to the high moisture content of the food. Diets with low calorie density can be beneficial in facilitating weight management by helping pets feel fuller, due to the need to consume a greater volume of food to get the same number of kilocalories. However, fresh pet foods are not weight loss diets and they are not formulated for weight loss. They can actually cause significant nutrient deficiencies if weight is lost too rapidly.
Fresh diets can be great for picky pets due to a potentially more desirable aroma and texture. Due to their soft texture, fresh pet foods may also be easier to eat than kibbled diets, which can be beneficial for animals who are missing teeth.
One of the major drawbacks of fresh pet food is the cost. Often, these diets are made with human-grade ingredients, which are inherently more expensive than traditionally-sourced pet food ingredients (visit Pet food marketing to learn more about human-grade). Fresh diets may also contain exotic or non-traditional ingredients, which can also increase the price of the final product. Additionally, many fresh diets must be stored in the refrigerator, thus making their packaging, shipping, and storage more expensive.
Due to the high moisture content and the omission of traditional preservatives in many fresh diets, these foods often spoil quickly or need to be stored in a specific way (e.g., freezer, refrigerator). This can be a significant factor for pet owners who wish to keep a larger volume of food on hand, or when they need to travel with their pets.
Fresh pet foods contain a lot of water, as mentioned above, meaning pets need to eat a larger quantity of fresh food to receive a sufficient number of kilocalories. An increased volume fed translates to an increased cost per meal, especially for larger pets. This can also further complicate the storage of these diets due to the need for having so much on hand at once.
Finally, many fresh pet food companies do not employ qualified nutritionists, own their own facilities, conduct feeding trials, or conduct scientific research. Choosing a pet food manufacturer who does these things is extremely important for ensuring your pet receives adequate nutrition. Visit How to pick a pet food, part 1 for more information on this topic.
Often, fresh pet food companies will claim their foods are a very safe option. While it may be true that cooked foods are certainly safer than raw, fresh pet foods come with their own safety risks. They are not cooked to the same high temperatures as kibbled and canned diets; therefore, the cooking process for fresh diets may not destroy all microbes present in the food. Additionally, the need for cold storage of many fresh diets adds the potential for improper storage and premature spoilage of these foods. Of course, no diet is 100% safe, but fresh diets really are no safer than traditional diets.
Proponents of fresh diets often state that these foods are more natural than kibble and canned pet foods. Natural is a widely used, positive-sounding term, but it has a very broad definition: it literally means “derived from plant, animal, or mineral sources.” The AAFCO definition of natural includes more ingredients than it excludes. There is no scientific evidence showing that diets labeled as natural are safer or more healthy than traditional diets.
In regards to a “natural lifestyle,” this is irrelevant because dogs and cats are domesticated. If they were living as nature intended, they would not share our homes, our beds, or our lives. They would certainly not be eating specially-formulated, species-specific commercial diets out of dishes on our kitchen floors.
Processing is any action that alters an ingredient from its original state. For example: skinning and deboning a chicken is processing; grinding wheat is processing; and mixing and cooking ingredients is processing. The term “processed” has a negative connotation, but in reality, all food is processed unless it is eaten in its 100% raw and unchanged state.
The stigma around processed food comes from the assumption that processed human foods like candy, cookies, chips, and doughnuts are bad for us. In reality, these foods are not bad for us because they are processed; they’re bad because they are non-nutritious, high-calorie, full of simple sugars, are highly fatty, and because people don’t control or limit their intake. Commercially prepared complete and balanced pet foods are not equivalent to cookies or candy in any way, shape, or form, regardless of whether the food is kibbled, canned, or fresh. Fresh pet diets simply seem “better” because we can “see the ingredients,” contrary to canned and kibbled diets, which are ground and mixed so well that they appear very homogenous.
To learn more about pet food processing, please visit Kibble.
One of the main arguments for fresh diets is the claim that they are much more digestible than traditional diets, and that this somehow relates to increased health. Digestibility is simply the body’s ability to break down a diet and absorb its components. A diet with poor total digestibility means that a larger portion of the diet is not being absorbed and is therefore being wasted. Most commercial pet foods average around 75% digestibility. (It should be noted that ingredients and diet formulation have a significant impact on digestibility, and diets with a lower digestibility are not inherently bad; they may be purposefully formulated this way.)
Presently, only one study has been conducted with the purpose of comparing the digestibility of kibble to fresh diets, finding that average digestibilities are highly comparable (i.e., no significant difference exists). However, there are currently no studies comparing nutritionally identical kibble and fresh diets; thus, current research cannot definitively conclude that one is more digestible than the other, though we do know that they are comparable.
It is worth noting that the current research into fresh diet digestibility focuses on dogs: no studies have been done for cats, and therefore conclusions are simply extrapolated from canine research. Additionally, these studies are designed and paid for by fresh pet food companies, which is a source of bias when reporting and advertising the results of these studies.
“Better for the immune system”
Another claim made by fresh pet food companies is that fresh diets “support the immune system.” This claim is based on a research poster (not a full study) presented at the AAVN Conference in 2014. The poster shows trends in blood parameters in dogs fed fresh diets for 6 months. Disregarding the numerous study limitations, it is important to note that the data analysis and conclusion does not match the statement “promotes healthy functioning of the immune system.” Blood parameters such as red blood cell and white blood cell numbers are not markers of immune system function. Contrarily, increases in white blood cell count can actually indicate inflammation. Furthermore, while results were statistically significant, they were not clinically significant (i.e., while the numbers may be different on paper, they do not represent a difference in the animal itself).
Demonizing other diets
Unfortunately, much of the marketing done by fresh pet food companies centers around the bashing of traditional diets. If fresh pet food is as great as its proponents claim, the evidence should speak for itself and they should not have to resort to comparison to and criticism of traditional diets. Canned and kibbled pet diets are an excellent choice for many pets, but pet parents who see fresh diet marketing campaigns may question their feeding decisions. Some fresh pet food advertisements may even cause pet owners to feel guilty for feeding kibble or canned food, stating that these diets are inferior to fresh food or even going so far as to claim kibble is harmful to pets’ health.
Very few fresh pet food companies perform scientific research on their products. In fact, there are only two studies currently available, each from a different manufacturer. These companies use their very limited research as a marketing tool to sell their food. The data gleaned from these studies is extrapolated to make claims about these diets, but when the literature is actually reviewed, it is shown that the claims made outside of the paper are simply exaggerated (see above for examples).
Preservatives prevent food from spoiling and extend the shelf-life of products, so they can be packaged, stored, and shipped safely. Preservatives are present in all pet foods. Many fresh pet food companies advertise that their diets are preservative-free (really meaning they are free from artificial preservatives), implying that artificial preservatives are bad for pets. However, all preservatives, whether natural (e.g., vitamin E aka “mixed tocopherols,” vitamin C aka “ascorbic acid”) or artificial (e.g., propylene glycol, BHA, ethoxyquin), are defined by AAFCO and are determined by the FDA to be safe in the amounts in which they exist in pet foods. There is no scientific evidence showing that “preservative-free” pet foods are safer or healthier than pet foods containing traditional preservatives.
Most fresh pet foods are labeled with various terminology such as natural, organic, non-GMO, and human-grade. These buzzwords are intended to make the product more appealing to pet owners. In reality, however, these terms are all used for marketing and actually tell us nothing about the quality of the diet. There is no scientific evidence showing that diets bearing these labels are safer or healthier than traditional diets. To learn more about these terms, please visit Pet food marketing.
It is important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of diet or diet type. Every pet, every home, and every situation is unique, and there are many factors to consider when choosing a diet. Furthermore, there are pros and cons to each type of diet that is available on the market. The multitude of options and the differences between available diets is what makes the pet food industry so unique. The sheer number of foods can be overwhelming, which is why using a systematic approach to choosing a pet food is so important. You can visit How to pick a pet food to learn more.