Pet food marketing
With so many pet food trends, new brands, and different types of diets out there, it really is a consumer’s world! However, behind all the marketing tactics pet food companies use to promote and sell food, there are actually very few products bearing claims that are backed up by science. Pet parents who learn how to sift through the big price tags and fancy labels to focus on science will ultimately be better off. Read on to learn all about various terms used on pet food labels, advertising, pet store marketing, and much more.
Certain terms used on pet food labels have a legal or AAFCO-determined definition, but most terms do not. It is important for consumers to distinguish which has a true definition, what that definition is, and what it means (and doesn’t mean).
Organic is a widely used term in both pet food and human food. AAFCO defines organic as a product “produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.” To use this term on a pet food label, a pet food company implies 95% of the product by weight is made of organic ingredients.
The definition of organic does not mean that. . .
non-organic products cannot be sustainable, biodiverse, or integrative.
organic producers do not use pesticides or fertilizers.
organic producers do not medicate or vaccinate their animals.
non-organic products contain sewage sludge.
The US Department of Agriculture has strict regulations for organic producers. They have the power to inspect, verify compliance, and audit manufacturers. Organic producers must pay a fee to the USDA for this service, which reflects on the inflated price of the end product.
Organic products are not necessarily more sustainable or better for the environment than conventional products. The USDA also notes that it “does not consider organic foods to be necessarily safer, healthier, or more nutritious than conventionally-produced foods,” because there is no scientific evidence supporting these claims, which may be made by pet food companies.
Some pet food products may have the word organic on the label or as part of their name, but have no USDA seal to back up the claim. Per AAFCO, “if a pet food claims to be organic and it is not in compliance with the NOP [National Organic Program], the product is misbranded under State and Federal feed laws and is subject to regulatory action by feed officials.” This goes for most of the pet food out there that is labeled organic, but unfortunately, the issue is not well-enforced.
Natural is another widely used, positive-sounding term, but it has a very broad definition. Defined by AAFCO, natural means: “a feed or feed 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 in good manufacturing practices.” This definition is not regulated by the FDA.
Physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis, and fermentation are all physical or chemical forms of processing used to make many different types of human and animal food, whether natural or conventional. Most ingredients in pet foods are derived from plants, animals, or minerals, and then processed by the methods listed above; therefore, most ingredients fall under the definition of natural. Therefore, the definition doesn’t exclude much except for synthetic ingredients, like vitamins, minerals, preservatives, colors, and dyes. Caveat: Vitamins in a natural diet can be synthetic, as long as it’s stated on the label. Certain vitamins can be destroyed during cooking and processing, so they must be added back into the diet at the end.
While some pet food companies may claim natural ingredients are healthier and safer than ingredients produced by chemical processes, there is no scientific evidence supporting this claim.
Holistic is a term that is gaining popularity in the pet food world. It has no AAFCO definition, and therefore use of the term is not regulated by the FDA or any other governing body. Holistic is generally understood to mean “taking consideration of the whole body, including physical and mental well-being.” However, there is no way to define it legally, or to determine whether a product meets these criteria. Therefore, the term holistic, when used on a pet food label, essentially means nothing.
High quality / Premium / Gourmet
These are all common terms seen on pet food labels, placed there with the goal of being more appealing than other products. However, none of these phrases has an AAFCO definition, and they are not regulated by the FDA. These terms tell the consumer absolutely nothing about the quality of the diet or its ingredients; to determine quality of a pet food manufacturer, see How to pick a pet food, part 1.
However, seeing these terms does affect the consumer’s perception of a product – whether it be pet food or any other item. Consumers are more likely to believe a product is of higher quality when it is stamped with these types of phrases, even if it is the exact same as the one sitting next to it on the shelf.
So many products available today are labeled “high protein,” but this term has no AAFCO definition and is not regulated by the FDA. All pet foods must meet minimum protein and amino acid requirements as outlined by AAFCO (see Nutrient requirements for more information).
The term is based around the idea that dogs and cats benefit from very high levels of protein in their diets. This, however, is simply not true; there is a minimum necessary protein and amino acid requirement needed for life, and higher amounts do not help the animal in any way. Usually, domestic dogs and cats do not need high levels of protein, and what they do not use they will waste in their urine or store as fat. Additionally, high-protein diets are not sustainable: protein is the most expensive nutrient to supply in the diet, and wasting it is like throwing money away.
One final note on protein: it is contraindicated (not advised) for certain health conditions, such as kidney disease. Therefore, feeding a pet who has kidney disease a high-protein diet can actually worsen their condition.
Free from by-products and meat meal
These phrases are based on the misguided and incorrect idea that by-products and meat meal are low-quality ingredients. You can learn more about these ingredients in this article: By-products and meat meal.
Technically, by-products can be listed on the label as things like “liver” or “kidney,” but don't explicitly say “beef by-product” – therefore, the diet can be labeled “free from by-products” even though this is technically untrue. This is a way that manufacturers use marketing to play on consumers’ fears of ingredients they do not recognize or understand.
Grain-free / No "fillers"
The term “fillers” has no AAFCO definition and is therefore not regulated by the FDA. Grains is a broad term, and includes traditional grains (the ones often demonized: corn, wheat, soy, rice) as well as others (millet, sorghum, barley, quinoa, etc.).
The phrases “grain-free” and “no fillers” are based around the misguided and incorrect theory that dogs and cats cannot digest or utilize nutrients found in grain ingredients, or that grains are a common cause of allergies. This is another example of fear-based marketing. You can learn more about these ingredients in this article: Grains as “fillers”.
Gluten is simply the protein part of a grain – the most desirable and expensive nutrient found in the plant. Different types of gluten include wheat gluten (the most often vilified), but also corn gluten, rice gluten, and other types of gluten from many different plants.
Gluten-free pet diets are based on a human trend, as well as the incorrect belief that wheat gluten is a common cause of allergies or sensitivities in both humans and pets. There is absolutely no scientific evidence showing avoiding gluten is beneficial for health. Gluten intolerance has only ever been documented in a single inbred family of Irish Setter dogs in Europe, and possibly in Border Terriers. Gluten intolerance has never been documented in other breeds of dogs, nor has it been documented in cats.
Per AAFCO, “the presence of human-grade on a label implies a product or ingredients may meet the legally-recognized edible standard.” “Edible” foods must pass inspections by USDA, and “must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations.” Adherence to these standards is very expensive for pet food manufacturers, which then reflects on the increased price of the end product.
Many pet foods labeled human-grade are actually not so; they are misbranded, which is prohibited, and the manufacturer can be subjected to legal action. However, like with many other labeling issues, this one is not highly regulated.
This is a great example of ingredients not being the same as nutrients: once an ingredient is cooked, processed, and mixed into the diet, it provides nutrients to the pet. The pet’s body doesn’t care where the nutrients came from, as long as it can digest and use the nutrients.
AAFCO states: “Whether a product is or is not advertised as human-grade has no impact on product safety.” This means that human-grade pet foods are not inherently safer than conventional pet foods. There is also no evidence suggesting human-grade pet diets are healthier or of higher quality than conventional pet diets.
GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. GM crops are plants that have been genetically altered to grow larger or faster, with less pesticides, less space, or less water. Some GM crops in developing countries have been created to combat human nutrient deficiencies (e.g., golden rice and Vitamin A deficiency). Genetically modified crops help farmers use less farmland and resources so they can get the maximum benefit from farming. Since farmers are able to grow more crops with less resources, this translates to the consumer in the decreased price of the final product. Contrary to popular belief, there are only 10 GM crops legally available in the USA today; not everything is a GMO!
The label non-GMO is used to play on consumer fears of genetically modified crops. However, there is no scientific evidence showing eating GMOs is harmful to human or animal health.
Ancestral / Biologically appropriate / Prey-based
None of these terms has an AAFCO definition; therefore, they are unregulated. These terms are based on the idea that dogs and cats should be fed like their wild ancestors. These diets are marketed with one or more of the following: high protein, high fat, low carbs, grain-free, preservative free, natural, organic, non-GMO, etc.
Needless to say, Fluffy the Miniature Poodle is not a wolf, and Tinkerbell the Persian cat is not a tiger. So many changes came with domestication: namely, diet changes and digestive tract adaptations. Just as humans evolved, dogs and cats did as well. Today, dogs and cats have very different nutrient requirements than their cousins in the wild. There is also no scientific evidence that diets bearing these labels are better than traditional diets.
Photos of meats, fruits, vegetables, or other enticing morsels are strictly for your (the pet owner’s) benefit. These photos don’t legally have to match what’s on the ingredients list, and they are not regulated by the FDA.
Anyone can endorse anything. Many celebrities slap their seal of approval on countless items, which influences consumers to buy these products. Celebrities are paid a generous amount to model makeup products or drive fancy cars on camera, and the same goes for pet food.
Celebrities who are not veterinary professionals do not have formal animal health or veterinary training; therefore, what they say about animal or veterinary products holds no merit.
Celebrities with their own pet food lines do not have any formal veterinary nutrition education. They do not formulate, cook, or oversee the manufacturing of their food – nor should they be, because they are unqualified. It doesn’t matter how good of a chef they are on television; they are not an animal nutrition expert and are completely unqualified to be giving animal nutrition advice.
Some veterinarians may also partake in the making or marketing of pet food. However, unless they have a PhD in animal nutrition or are a board-certified veterinary nutritionist (DACVN, ECVCN), they are not qualified to be making or formulating pet food.
These veterinarians may claim to have extensive training in nutrition, but may consistently give advice that contradicts the WSAVA nutritional guidelines or the AVMA’s stance on various nutrition topics. As a pet owner, you may find it difficult to determine if a veterinarian fits this description. If possible, try to find out about the pet food companies the veterinarian endorses, listen to the kind of nutrition or medical advice they give, and compare these to the WSAVA nutrition recommendations and the AVMA’s policies.
Commercials / Advertisements
Television commercials and online advertisements are not accurate representations of quality, honesty, or trustworthiness of a pet food company. Learning how to make objective decisions about your pet’s health and nutrition will be much more beneficial than being swayed by advertisements; use How to pick a pet food, part 1 to make the decision on what feed your pet.
Unfortunately, websites are not well-regulated by the FDA due to the sheer abundance of information out there on the internet, as well as the fact that it is ever-changing.
In most cases, pet food companies’ websites are an extension of their marketing. Sometimes, unreliable pet food companies will include health claims, veterinary advice, or even misinformation. Technically, this is illegal, but again, it is very difficult for the FDA to regulate online content. Therefore, it is good practice to take everything you see online with a grain of salt.
Reliable pet food companies who have a strong research component may have a separate website for their research to which they refer you (usually ending in .org); in these cases, the information has been scientifically fact-checked and can be trusted.
Pet shops represent a huge aspect of marketing for pet food companies. This includes ads, posters, signs, brochures, or handouts you find in the store. Pet food manufacturers even give pet stores “education” lectures and/or materials; however, unless this is provided by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, it is not reliable! To learn more, visit How to find reliable nutrition information.
A big price tag does not always mean high quality! It may simply mean that the company spends more on marketing, their ingredients are more expensive, or both.
Pet food companies who are backed by science are often a bit pricier than basic conventional diets. This is because they use the money to pay board-certified veterinary nutritionists, perform quality research, and advance nutrition science.
Consumers are more likely to believe expensive products are of higher quality, even if there is no evidence that this is true. In this way, pet food companies can increase their prices for the sole reason of attracting those consumers who can afford it.
USDA: “Organic Regulations”
Tufts University: “Organic pet foods: optimal health or overhyped?”
Our World in Data: “Is organic really better for the environment than conventional agriculture?”
FDA: “Other label claims”
Tufts University: “Should you buy premium pet food?”
The Institute of Canine Biology: “A key genetic innovation in dogs: diet”
Pet Food Industry: “Biologically appropriate pet foods not based in science”
Tufts University: “Grain-free diets: big on marketing, small on truth”
Tufts University: “Human Grade: Should pets eat the same food that we do?”
National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine: “FAQs about GE crops”
Purdue University: “What are GMOs?”
American Veterinary Medical Association: “Nutrition Matters”