Sometimes what’s needed for a happy and productive life comes through simplicity and nature. Eating healthy use to be straightforward when we had fewer options, enjoying fresh foods from our gardens and what the land provided. Today, food can be complicated with marketing pulling you this way and that, tempting you with thousands of food choices that taste great but provide little nutritional value, or even harmful amounts of a nutrient e.g., salt or trans fats. How do we know what to eat and how much while staying healthy?
Many Americans don’t think much about their own nutrition in scientific or medical terms. Are you getting the right amounts of zinc, calcium, vitamin C and B12, for example? Are you fanatical about getting the right amounts daily? Probably not. Most people can’t tell you how much calcium you’re suppose to have each day, or even how much protein/day is appropriate.
Fortunately, we have a government agency that’s figures it out for us. It’s the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), charged with overseeing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), founded by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 (fun fact). The USDA is responsible for regulating farming, ranching, and forestry industries, as well as regulating aspects of (human) food quality & safety and nutrition labeling.
The USDA created the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) values for macro and micro nutrients (remember the food pyramid?). These values and ratios have developed over years of scientific and medical research. The RDA is a guideline to obtain adequate or optimum nutrients to achieve health. It’s also designed to avoid excessive intakes of food components linked to chronic diseases. Without certain nutrients in our diets, in the correct amounts, cancers can more easily develop, we can be stricken with nutrient deficiency diseases like scurvy or rickets, or we can be poisoned resulting in death by consuming too much of certain vitamins and minerals.
In spite of having vast amounts of nutrition research to leverage, we often base our diet choices by how we feel or the latest diet trend. Our measures of diet success include gaining/losing weight, retaining water, what’s our energy level, do we have some kind of food sensitivity, simply hungry and grabbing the most convenient food, et cetera. Symptoms of declining health can cause us to look at our diet driving us to eat more fresh whole foods and/or cutting out highly processed items. For the most part, our decision of what to eat is not based on what’s recommended by the experts, unless your cardiologist is sounding a red alert, but how our bodies are performing relative to our needs.
You may think there’s a corollary for our animals from the FDA. Specifically an organization that looks out for our pets. It’s possible you’ve heard of AAFCO, the American Association of Feed Control Officials, a non-government committee. AAFCO is the golden standard when it comes to pet food, or so you’ve been led to believe [REF] NOTE: The FDA defines Feed as what animals eat, unfit for humans, and Food to be what humans eat.
The FDA chose to fulfill Congress’ mandate of pet feed regulation through cooperative agreements, outsourcing to AAFCO, mainly because it doesn’t have sufficient resources to regulate and enforce food safety with human and animal products. It is important for pet owners to recognize that the FDA has made a choice: to focus its attention on human foods, leaving the animal feed to someone else.
Because AAFCO is an independent advisory committee, AAFCO has no enforcement authority and does not perform any analytical testing on pet food. A pet food manufacturer is only required to comply with the pet food regulations of the state in which it manufactures or sells its products, not AAFCO. Some states have adopted some or all of the AAFCO guidelines as a requirement for foods sold in that state.
AAFCO members include officials from the FDA and the cooperative states. But AAFCO also consists of members from the pet food manufacturing industry. Remembering that this is a $29 billion industry, the incentives for how foods are constructed or what general regulations need to be created are not best served by allowing industry employees to influence or help write the regulations. As one frustrated veterinarian put it: “talk about the fox guarding the henhouse.”. If you follow the money, one AAFCO committee receives 35% of its funding from a federal fund, and 65% from non-federal sources [REF 2], [REF].
AAFCO sets regulations for pet foods including labeling requirements, ingredient definitions and nutritional requirements. But AAFCO does not determine permissible sources of protein or other essential nutrients, only that an ingredient is allowed in the food, like protein or zinc.
Many pet foods are made with the lowest quality ingredients allowed by AAFCO’s guidelines. What’s permissible to use in your pet’s food are feathers, heads, feet, entrails, hair, hoofs, horns, hide trimmings, manure, stomach contents, lungs, ligaments, insects, tumors, injection sites, meat that comes from animals that were dead, dying, diseased or disabled before they reached the packing plant, from animals that are fed hormones, antibiotics, drugs, and even barbiturates used to euthanize animals. Over time your defenseless pup or kitten ingests a significant amount of cumulative antibiotics, euthanization drugs, and other toxins. It doesn’t take a veterinarian to conclude that the presence of such “extras” can’t be good for your pet. Then there are the ever increasing amounts of grain and plant protein content in pet foods because those are very cheap ingredients compared to animal protein sources — it’s dangerous for numerous reasons, e.g., taurine doesn’t exist in plant proteins, only animal proteins. [REF 3]. Is no wonder why dog cancer rates have skyrocketed, and cats have more chronic diseases than ever.
There is no proof that our pets are able to digest these ingredients after the harsh rendering and cooking processes used to make the mass produced pet foods. If you’ve ever wondered why you can buy a 10lb bag of ‘high quality’ kibble for less than 10lbs of organic chicken in your grocery store, it’s because quality ingredients aren’t used.
What AAFCO and the powers behind them are trying to do is cobble together a meal for your pet that is as healthy as a raw, natural diet with the cheapest scraps possible. A Frankenstein food. A mishmash of what’s cheaper to feed to animals than throw away, held together by regulations not focused on health or preventing chronic conditions but nutritional minimums.
Unlike the USDA’s RDA, AAFCO focuses on minimum nutrient values, not maximums or optimums. (There are cases where recalls have occurred because of toxic levels of a nutrient, the most recent was vitamin D, only after thousands of dogs died, is one of a few nutrients that now has a maximum value [REF 4].) AAFCO recommendations may sustain life, but they certainly don’t nourish animals in the way nature intended. There’s a difference between an adequate nutrition and one that enables an animal to thrive.
A biologically appropriate diet, say, the kind ferrel cats thrive on, doesn’t need to be complicated or undergo exhaustive analysis to know it works. It’s the effectiveness of Mother Nature’s simplicity. That diet is also raw (humans are the only animals that cook their food). Ideally you want a natural diet dogs and cats, carnivores, thrive on without the dangers of living a wild/ferrel life. Zoo keepers don’t feed lions or wolves kibble or canned food, but a raw, natural diet.
There are probably non-ideal raw formulations on the market or being made at home. Are they toxic or deadly? It’s doubtful. Most raw diets aren’t packed with synthetic vitamins, minerals, and chemicals — it’s not needed because there’s so much natural nutrition in the meat and organs. Little to no help is needed. But is the AAFCO standard a reliable measure to judge a good or bad raw product, or any pet food? [REF].
What should you do without a dependable standard? Find a food for your pet that you trust — don’t just base your decision on beautiful and misleading packaging — a good tell is when you see more effort put into marketing or advertising than the product.
Use the same measure as you do for your own diet. What physical changes do you see in the first week or two? Are they positive, like more energy, fur improves, breath gets better, poop is normal, etc. What is the source of their ingredients, domestic and human grade? Is processing minimal? If all this is there, you may have found a food for your pet. Obsessing over comparing AAFCO nutritional values may not get you the result you want when searching out a raw food, but looking at qualitative measures can be of more useful in this situation.
When you eat a diet full of fresh, whole, unprocessed foods, you feel better and can reap positive changes that impact overall health. The same can happen with the pets under your guardianship when you feed them right. Heavily advertised fast and convenient food isn’t always best. We know that with our own food, so apply the same skepticism and how you measure your diet to selecting food for your pet.
REF 1: Douglas Knueven DVM, The Five Supplements Every Dog Needs , Clean Run Magazine, Vol. 11 #12
REF 3:https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/10018997/Patrick06.html Section IV A 2
REF 4: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-alerts-pet-owners-and-veterinarians-about-potentially-toxic-levels-vitamin-d-33-varietieshills#:~:text=After%20receiving%20a%20pet%20owner,toxic%20levels%20of%20vitamin%20D.