Updated: Dec 14, 2021
If you have a pet, you have probably been told that our pets should be eating “complete and balanced” food at every meal. This tagline has been at the core of most commercial pet food claims and a key standard for defining the quality of the food you feed your pet. “Complete and balanced” means that the food contains all the required nutrients at recommended levels and that the nutrients are appropriate proportions to each other. It is a big deal to know that you are providing your best friend the right amount of nutrients for optimal health. So, does the claim of ”complete and balanced” really mean the food is healthy? Where do the criteria for this claim come from?
Pet food nutrient guidelines come from the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO is a board of experts that analyze the latest research on pet food and create guidelines that help pet food manufacturers find the right balance of nutrients when creating commercially produced pet food. The AAFCO Canine and Feline Nutrition Expert Subcommittees translate nutrition data and research from the National Research Council (NRC) into usable guidelines for pet food manufacturers.
AAFCO does provide a baseline for us to follow to ensure we are not creating nutritional deficiency BUT it does have a few limitations:
The AAFCO nutrient profiles that have been established are only the MINIMUM requirements, not the requirements for optimum levels of nutrients. These are two very different things. The minimum is what is necessary to survive and avoid nutritional deficiency – which, when you think about your own health, just sounds ridiculous! Though it does help to know what the minimums are, it’s also important to remember that we don’t just want to provide our pets with the minimum. We want the best so they can thrive!
AAFCO guidelines don’t take into consideration the quality or digestibility of the ingredients used when producing commercial pet food. For example: Broccoli, peanut hulls and chicken feathers are all recognized fiber sources according to AAFCO. Which one would you feed your pet? A no brainer, right? AAFCO also recognizes other ingredients that most of us wouldn’t consider to be food including dried pig excrement and discarded restaurant grease. These ingredients probably seem ridiculous but they are accepted as food sources by AAFCO.
Contrary to popular belief, AAFCO is NOT A REGULATORY BODY but rather a panel of experts that provide the latest nutritional guidelines and recognized ingredients. They don’t test pet foods to confirm compliance and they don’t approve foods as some might believe. It is left up the manufacturer to make accurate claims. A recent independent study found that nutrition analyses on pet food labels may not reflect what is actually in the bag. This 2017 study of a variety of commercial canned and dry pet foods revealed that independent nutrient analyses did not match the analysis claims on the packaging and that foods with fish as the main protein source contained high levels of heavy metals such as arsenic. (https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2017/08/04/172544). It is important to realize that pet food label claims can be false and that AAFCO does not enforce any of their standards. If you'd like to learn more about this, check out Know You Pet Food.
AAFCO standards do not provide guidelines for processing vs. unprocessed material. Processing has a huge impact on the value of ingredients. Producing commercial dry food typically involves cooking ingredients using extremely high heat for long periods of time, sometimes for upwards of 24 hours. The cooking process degrades and denatures many naturally-occurring nutrients including fats, vitamins, and minerals. Exposing food to high temperatures drastically changes the nutritional outcome. Going a little further with this idea, AAFCO does not make the distinction between nutrients found in food vs. synthetically added nutrients.
Example: Stewing meat at 130-160 degrees Fahrenheit decreases the level of most nutrients by 10% to 70%. Most commercial dry diets are cooked at temperatures well in excess of this at 240-295 Fahrenheit! (http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5019e/y5019e0g.htm)
For example, here are the nutrition profiles for raw chicken breast with skin vs. stewed chicken breast with skin (listed on dry matter basis, with original data from the USDA Nutrition Database):
*Stewed at 130-160 degrees Fahrenheit
As you can see, the B vitamins, D vitamins, potassium and fats are significantly degraded during the cooking process. This means that the many of the nutrients do not come from the animal protein as intended and pet food manufacturers are required to add synthetic supplementation back into the food after it has been processed to ensure that destroyed nutrients are replaced. Unfortunately, synthetic vitamins and minerals are not molecularly equal to naturally occurring ones and may also not be nutritionally equal:
We also must consider that there are some nutrients that are not yet recognized by AAFCO as essential and so they are not listed or tested for. These nutrients include live enzymes, certain amino acids, phytonutrients and certain micro minerals including cobalt. It also only recognized 3 types of polyunsaturated fats as essential even though there are many more that have been discovered and surely play their own roles in health. Just because we haven’t studied it enough does not make it unessential. Why mess with nature?
AAFCO guidelines don’t take into consideration that a variety of raw foods provide a wide range of nutrients to cover all the requirements. In other words, a balance over time completes the picture rather than a balanced profile at every single meal, in every single kibble. Just think of your own diet to compare. We eat a wide range of foods to complete the picture. If we just ate bananas every day, we’d have some major problems!
This leads us to Part 2 on how to balance and complete the raw diet! Stay tuned for it next week!