In the Belly of the Beast: Learning What Really Goes into Commercial Pet Food

This week Hue and I have been spending long days learning about the commercial production of pet food at Kansas State University. It's been very enlightening. Many of us complain about the quality of ingredients used to make pet food, but how many of us take the time to learn why products are made the way they are and why ingredients are used?

Do commercial pet foods really contain waste products? Yes, many ingredients are waste products from the human food industry. But some of those ingredients are incredibly healthy for our pets. Organ meats, such as heart, liver, spleen, kidney, lung, and pancreas, as well as tongue and other less palatable body parts contain incredible arrays of vitamins and minerals that are beneficial for our pets. On an ingredient label, these healthy organs are lumped in with all other parts of the animal and are called "by-products". While I heartily agree that some companies source very poor quality meats and organs (otherwise known as 4-D), many companies are using high quality ingredients. Meats and organs from grass-fed, free-range animals are making their way into the pet food market and into the bowls for our pets. However, organic meats are still priced high enough that most pet food manufacturers cannot afford to include them in their formulations.

What about meat meals? One of the most difficult ingredients to identify (and one of the most common in many pet foods) is meat meals, even if they are named meats such as beef, poultry, chicken, etc. These "meals" are rendered products, meaning the pet food manufacturer receiving the meal only sees a final powdered product, not the initial ingredients used to make the meal. It's up to the manufacturer to know and trust their supplier.

How can you differentiate good from bad? Most pet owners are savvy enough to look for meat as the first ingredient in pet food, but I don't think it's truly understood how deceiving this is. When whole meat is listed, it's actually about 70% water weight. In doing formulation calculations, it's easy to see how little meat can actually be in a product and still have meat listed as the first ingredient. There is actually more meat in a "meal" because there is less moisture content. Instead of looking for ONE meat at the beginning of the ingredient list, pet owners need to look for multiple meat sources. Beware ingredient splitting: peas three ways or corn three ways (peas, pea protein, pea starch, ground corn, corn meal, corn gluten, etc.). Those starches add up fast.

After learning how the dry kibble process works, it's easy to understand why so much starch is needed in the formulations. The recipe of ingredients is mixed and cooked with water and steam and forced through the extruder at high heat and pressure through a cutting die that shapes the kibble. When the piece of kibble pops through the die it expands, trapping air inside the piece of food. This allows fats to penetrate when they are sprayed on after cooking to enhance palatability. Why do you think pets so eagerly jump for kibble? It's made to taste good. 

I wasn't a fan of dry pet food before seeing the process in action and I still don't believe it is the correct food choice for our pets. But the process is very interesting and 95% of pet owners still feed dry pet food worldwide. So the process can't be dismissed, and it's important to understand the why's and how's of making pet food on a commercial scale.