Kibble has a wide range of qualities. There is plenty of nondescript and confusing material on a kibble bag that makes understanding what you're buying difficult. Do you buy "natural" food, "organic" food? Does your pet need grass fed, wild caught, or pasture raised ingredients? What's the difference between Chicken Recipe, Chicken Formula, Chicken Entrée, Chicken Meal Recipe, or With Chicken? And of course, What is truly in this bag???
Now while this article isn't meant to bash any particular brands or convince you any particular brands are better than others, it will go into what to expect and consider when choosing a brand you like. I believe every person, including all us Rangers, will give you a slightly different answer as to what their favorite kibble is and why.
Organic? Perhaps not.
Organic pet food and human food are distinctly different. In pet foods 95% of the ingredients included must be organic, allowing for a small percentage of the ingredients to not be organic at all. Ontop of that the stipulations get a little odd and specific. For instance, organic pet food MUST include organic chicken. Good luck feeding an organic food to your chicken intolerant pet. Not to mention, organic pet food must be produced in organic certfied facilities. The only specification of that is that they can only produce organic food on site, not as to what the quality of upkeep the factory undergoes. As far as we know, the only organic facility operating in the United States is owned by, wait for it, Purina. Choosing a brand that has a plethora of organic ingredients can be a great alternative to using hard to find organic brands, while not being able to classify themselves as certified organic. There are a lot of other factors to consider over certified organic pet foods, such as sourcing and quality of ingredients!
"Natural" as nature intended?
This one is pretty simple. AAFCO (the group that regulates pet food packaging, nutrition, etc) has no specific requirement as to what natural means on pet food packaging. It is simply put, a buzz word and has different connnotations to everyone. There is no quality standard associated with a bag of food labeled "Natural."
Grass-fed, Wild Caught, or Pasture Raised? For my pet?
Absolutely! Not only are these options typically more ethically and environmentally sound than their factory farmed counterparts, they are also more nutritious. For example, there are pretty significant nutritional differences in a grain-fed & finished cow versus a grass-fed & finished such as the levels of omega-6 fatty acids. There are a ton of quality ingredient certifications out there on the market.
- Global Animal Partnership Certified (or GAP)
- Ocean Wise Certified
- Marine Stewardship Council Certified
- Certified Humane Raised & Handled
What do all of those descriptions really mean?
There are general rules in the pet food industry: 100%, 95%, 25%, “with” and “flavor” rules.
The 100% Rule
“All-beef jerky dog treats” must be all-beef meat with the exception of any water added for processing, characterizing agents (substances added to color the product so that it is not mistaken for human food) and trace amounts of preservatives and condiments. Therefore, it is unlikely anything other than a treat product will meet the 100% rule.
The 95% Rule
“Saya’s Favorite Beef Dog Food” and “Natural Equilibrium Potato and Duck Cat Food” are examples of product names that indicate the named ingredients that make up most of the product. Named ingredients must account for at least 70% of the total product by weight, and at least 95% of the product by weight, not counting added water. (Typically, water is added to canned foods to allow for processing. Dry foods also have water added during processing to help mix ingredients, but that water is driven off when the product is dried.)
The remaining 5% of ingredients in the product will be those required for additional nutritional purposes, such as vitamins and minerals, and small amounts of other ingredients necessary for the formulation of the product.
In the "Natural Equilibrium Potato and Duck Cat Food" example above, compliance with the 95% rule would dictate the potato and duck must total up to at least 95% of the ingredients, not counting the water for processing. However, even with the water considered in the calculations, potato and duck combined must make up at least 70% of the product. When more than one ingredient is in the name, no ingredient can be less than 3% the total product by weight. Because potato is listed first in the name, there must be more potato than duck in the recipe. Thus, in this example, a product containing 60 pounds of potato, 20 pounds or duck, 15 pounds of water for processing and 5 pounds of other ingredients per 100-pound batch would meet the requirements of the regulation. Our pets could be eating a bag of potatoes without most of us noticing.
The rules also note that coined or contracted names of ingredients do not exempt them from the above requirements. For example, "Vega's Chik'n Lik'n Cat Food" would still have to meet the 95% rule.
The 25% Rule
“Harry’s Chicken Dinner,” “Beef Entrée for Mature Dogs” and “Lamb and Rice Platter for Puppies” are examples of the 25% rule at work. The named ingredient(s) must comprise at least 10% of the total product by weight and at least 25% of the product by weight not including the added water. Additional descriptors, such as “dinner,” “entrée,” “platter” and so on, appear in the name. If there is more than one ingredient, no named ingredient can be less than 3% the total product by weight.
The “With” Rule
Simply put, including the words “with” or “similar” allows an ingredient to be included in the product name or anywhere else on the label at an inclusion rate of at least 3% of each named ingredient. “Honest Yugi’s Dog Food With Chicken” could contain as little as 3% chicken, while “Bobby’s Super Cat Food with Tuna and Rice” should contain at least 3% tuna and 3% rice.
The Flavor Rule
A product does not need to have the ingredient at all, this can be a completely synthesized flavor. A flavor designation in a product name (or elsewhere on a label) may be used as long as:
- a listed ingredient provides the flavor.
- The flavor descriptor is printed in the same font and as conspicuously as the name of the designated flavor.
Now that's a lot to digest (no pun intended) and none of them are necessarily bad or good, but knowing what you're getting is important.
What is on the back of the bag?
When dissecting a bag of food you really want to focus on what is on the back. I would even go as far to say, ignore the front entirely.
First and foremost, ensuring that the food is "complete and balanced" in the AAFCO statement. This isn't a golden ticket to good food, but it does ensure you are feeding a food that is intended to be fed as a whole meal and not to accompany a whole meal.
Next is What are the first ingredients? Some will look at the first ingredient and stop there, but to truly find a good food you should be looking at least 3 ingredients down if not to 10-15. Much like food intended for human consumption, pet food will list ingredients based on their weight before cooking, including water if it isn't a dehydrated or rendered product.
Here are some pet food labels. What do they have in common? First ingredient is meat in all of these recipes. We have to remember that ingredient panels are oriented by weight of the ingredient before cooking takes place. Once cooking takes place, all the water weight that is in fresh products is gone. This pushes down whole meat ingredients well below the ones following it. Image A for instance has one whole meat and one meat meal. The whole meat would fall down to around the 6th or 7th ingredient. Making the real panel look more like: Lamb meal, garbanzo beans, peas, lentils, pea flower, and then the now baked venison. This food has significantly more legume content than meat once we add it all together. This applies to our other panels here, like D which has a whopping 10 whole meat and egg ingredients before we get to the dehydrated meat ingredients. The dehydrated meat ingredients also continue for 4 ingredients. With this large buffer of both fresh and dehydrated meat ingredients, the fresh ingredients once cooked still remain in the top section of the ingredients panel, reading: Dehydrated chicken, dehydrated turkey, whole dehydrated egg, dehydrated mackerel, and then our now cooked fresh meats. Based on this we can conclude that panel D has significantly more meat than panel A, ~7x for that matter. Take a look at the food you use now and compare!
Meal or Meal-Free?
What are meat meals? Meals are essentially pre-rendered grinds of muscle meat, bone, and sometimes various other parts (organs, beaks, toe nails, etc). Meals have 3 grades. Grade 1 (meat by-product meal, animal by-product meal) consists of meat byproduct meals which are the lowest and typically includes the non-rendered, clean parts, other than the meat derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes and is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brains, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. Grade 2 (poultry by-product meal) is typically Animal by-product meal which is the rendered product from animal tissues, exclusive of any added hair, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents, except in such amounts that may occur unavoidably in good processing practices. Grade 3 (chicken meal) are the ones used in all of our brands, meat meal which is the rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts that may occur unavoidably in good processing practices.
The protein in meals is much more concentrated than fresh chicken after it is processed. This processing does take its toll on the quality of remaining nutrition and the bioavailability of those nutrients. Make sure to avoid foods with listed Grade 1 and Grade 2 ingredients as it is unknown what type and quality of meat are added.
Synthetics or Synthetic-Free?
Synthetics are almost always a necessary part to kibble. These are similar to many of our vitamin and mineral supplements we take, many of which coming from quality human grade facilities. The quality of ingredients and processing that goes into making the food really dictate how much synthetics are needed (if at all). When using low quality ingredients or using large amounts of vegetable matter to achieve appropriate nutrition standards, this will typically require the use of large amounts of supplements. There is just less nutrients available to be absorbed by our pets. Also, once processed the kibble can vary in nutrient quality depending on the intensity of processing. We will go into processing in the next section. The inclusion of quality nutrient rich organs and items like pastured livestock can significantly decrease the need for synthetic supplementation because those items are just higher quality and richer in nutrients. When it comes to the inclusion of carbohydrates, kibble will always have a fair amount of it. Read and repeat. KIBBLE WILL ALWAYS HAVE CARBOHYDRATES IN IT. This is because kibble needs something to stick it together when processed. You will almost always see more supplements in kibble than fresh, raw, or canned food specifically because of this and the processing associated with kibble.
Extruded or Gently Baked?
These are two of the most typical methods to process kibble. Extrusion entails cooking the foods at extremely high temperatures (diminishing the available nutrients and introducing carcinogenic compounds) and passing the mass of yet to be formed kibble into the extruder (think of the play doh sets that made shapes) once again diminishing the nutrient quality in the food. Gently baked approaches food differently, attempting to limit the contact of heat on the food and avoiding the extrusion process all together. These foods will typically be more nutritionally sound, requiring less additional supplementation.
Now for some brand options with these considerations:
Synthetic Free Kibbles: Carna4, Nature’s Logic
Meal Free Kibbles: RAWZ, ZiwiPeak, Carna4, Chippin, Honest Kitchen Clusters, Orijen Original Recipe
Gently Baked or Air Dried Kibbles: ZiwiPeak, Honest Kitchen Clusters, Stella & Chewy’s, Carna4, Chippin, Wisdom
Humane Certified: Open Farm, Wisdom
Sustainable Fisheries Certified: Honest Kitchen Clusters, Open Farm
Some of these brands are not ones which we carry, but are able and happy to special order for any customer interested.
There is no perfect kibble. They will all have some drawbacks, some larger than others. Some that may be a line in the sand for us and our pets, while others are fine enough. That will be different with each pet parent and some of these may work best with some pets than others. There will never be a one size fits all solution, but now you know what to look for to make a more informed choice for your pet!