Healthy Pet Food: Truth or Marketing Terms?

Healthy Pet Food: Truth or Marketing Terms?

As pet parents, we understand the desire to feed your furry friends the best food possible. We also understand that it can be hard to navigate the sea of marketing terms like ‘premium,’ ‘healthy,’ and ‘natural’ and make an educated decision. So when it comes to healthy pet food, how do you distinguish between the truth and marketing hype? Let’s examine some of the biggest buzzwords currently in the pet food industry and what they really mean:


The following terms are good in theory, but have no real definition and therefore cannot be verified. We suggest taking these with a grain of salt.01_Jedes_Josera-Krümel_ist_kostbar...
  • Premium- It may sound inviting, but there is no official definition for pet food companies to abide by. In fact, according to Dog Food Advisor, “Products labeled as premium…are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any other complete and balanced products.”
  • Healthy- We all want to feed our pets a healthy food, right? We would certainly hope that a manufacturer isn’t creating an unhealthy pet food, but the real issue here is that everyone has a different definition of healthy- similar to that of human health. As we’ve said before, the ultimate goal is to meet the nutritional needs of your individual pet.
  • All natural and holistic- This one can be tricky, and Mercola Healthy Pets explains why: “Definitions for 'holistic' and 'natural' pet foods have not been established by AAFCO, so interpretation of what those words mean in terms of formula ingredients is left up to the manufacturer of the product.”

If the word is being thrown around without any evidence to back it up, it would be wise to ignore it. But, if a food maker:

  1. Provides its definition of the word and...
  2. Demonstrates how their product lives up to that name (ex: natural = free of artificial preservative)...

...then the claim may be legitimate.


Do Your Research

The terms in this category may have merit, but require verification. We recommend you do some digging on the pet food manufacturer’s website for some solid evidence to back up these claims.
  • Organic- AAFCO explains that “‘organic’ refers to the processing of a product, not the quality of the product.” This means that ingredients must be handled and processed in a way that complies with the USDA’s National Organic Program, and includes regulations on ingredient sourcing, ingredient handling, manufacturing, and labeling.

Check the ingredient listing on the bag for a better idea of just how organic a product is. If most or all of the ingredients are listed as organic, then the "Organic" label is well deserved. If only one or a few ingredients are organic, the product may not be worth its premium price.

Primal Raw Food Ingredients An ingredient deck we love: organic ingredients, and lots of 'em! Primal's Turkey Nuggets for Cats
  • Wild Caught- When looking at a fish-based pet food, many companies will boast ‘wild caught’ fish, which have been shown to be more nutritious due to higher activity and varied diets than their farm raised counterparts.

However, surveys like this one from ocean conservationist group Oceana have shown that up to 43% of fish listed as 'wild-caught' in grocery stores and restaurants is mislabeled.

So, check your pet food maker's website for more detailed information about where and how they source their fish.

The Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions outlines 'sustainable' options for fishing--both farmed and wild--which is generally higher priority than 'wild caught.'

  • sojos.boarSustainably Sourced- In our opinion, in order for a pet food to be sustainably sourced, business practices and product sourcing must not be detrimental to the environment or fellow man. But, without an official third-party definition, there is room for interpretation. (Here’s a list of some of our favorite sustainably sourced pet foods!)
  • Limited Ingredient- Generally speaking, limited ingredient diets (L.I.D.) refer to foods that have very few ingredients, specifically a single source of protein and a single carbohydrate. But because there is no official definition, it is open to interpretation by each pet food manufacturer.

To be certain, investigate the ingredient deck for any foods your pet may be sensitive to.

  • Grain-free- Grains can be defined as “seeds from grasses that contain high amounts of carbohydrates, small amounts of protein and other nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals.” So, grain-free foods will not include things such as wheat, rice, and oats. Many companies want you to believe that grain-free foods are superior to those with grains, which is not always the case. You can find more information on grains in pet food here and here.
Some foods use ''low glycemic" carb sources, like chickpeas, to curb blood sugar spikes.
  • Low Glycemic- “The glycemic index is a scientific measure of how easily a particular food can be converted to blood glucose (sugar). Dog foods with a low glycemic index exhibit less of a tendency to raise a dog’s blood glucose level than others.”

Oftentimes, simple carbohydrates like white rice or corn are the culprit behind raised blood sugar levels, so low glycemic foods are low carb or "slow carb" with complex carbs like lentils or garbanzo beans. While some pet foods are certified through the Glycemic Research Institute, not all will have this certification.

  • Biologically Appropriate- Dogs and cats are carnivores, which means their diet should largely consist of meat proteins. When you see this phrase, the pet food maker is saying that the food is appropriate for the species and closely mimics the diets of their ancestors- wolves and big cats.

Words to Trust

Team Tomlinson’s feels confident when recommending pet foods that boast the following claims, as they are well defined and can be verified by an independent third party organization.
  • Certified HumaneCertified Humane- Humane Farm Animal Care is the non-profit organization behind the Certified Humane label. If a product is Certified Humane Raised and Handled, you can be sure that “the food products have come from facilities that meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment.” This includes strict standards about diet, care, housing facilities, to name a few.
  • Free Range- Usually referring to poultry, although can also apply to cattle and livestock, this term can be defined as “a management system in which adult birds are kept in houses with daily access to an uncovered outdoor area, weather permitting. The minimum outdoor space requirement is 2 square feet… per bird.” These standards are part of the Certified Humane program.
  • Human Grade- It is not uncommon for pet food to be made from foods not fit for human consumption. The opposite is true for human grade, which AAFCO defines as “human edible.” Note that while many pet foods use human grade ingredients, the food in its entirety may not be human grad4878207722_546dd34a08_oe after the manufacturing process.
  • Raw- Raw pet food is simply that: raw food that hasn’t been dehydrated or cooked in any way. True raw food is easy to spot, as it will be found in the freezer section of your local pet food store.
  Please keep in mind that terms not listed as ‘words to trust’ are not inherently bad, and a pet food company that uses these words to describe their products isn’t necessarily dishonest. We are simply arming you with the tools to properly educate yourself before making a decision. Your pet will thank you for it!   Sources: Mercola Healthy Pets, Dog Food Advisor, AAFCO, PetMD, Certified Humane, Glycemic Research Institute, Huffington Post
Previous article Tips + Etiquette: Off-Leash Dog Parks in Central Texas
Next article A Comparison: Flea & Tick Medicines