Understanding the ingredients used in pet foods is the first step to making an informed decision about which food to choose. We don’t believe that any pet food companies should hide what goes into their foods, so here’s a guide to what goes into pet foods – good and bad.
Beef is a meat protein that is not ideal for pets as it is harder to digest and utilise than other meats such as chicken and lamb, and it can also cause dietary intolerances and allergies.
Dried brewer's yeast is a residue left over from the brewing industry, and it is an excellent source of B-complex vitamins and amino acids.
Cellulose is a form of fibre derived from plants. It can help to stimulate the production of saliva, thus assisting the passage of hair balls.
Fresh chicken is highly palatable, highly digestible and is an excellent protein source for cats and dogs. It has an extremely high biological value meaning that it is easily broken down into its constituent amino acids (the building blocks of protein) necessary for a variety of structural and metabolic functions within the body. Most fresh chicken used in pet foods is chicken viscera - so organ meat and intestines - which is highly nutritious and is exactly what dogs would eat in the wild. Using up the leftovers from chicken destined for human consumption makes this a very efficient food source for pets.
Like fresh chicken, chicken meal is an excellent protein source. It comprises the clean parts of the carcass ground up into a calcium-rich flour. Good quality chicken meal does not include heads, feet or feathers.
Chicken Fat / Oil
Chicken oil has a high and consistent level of the essential fatty acids that are necessary for a healthy skin and coat, and is considered to be one of the highest quality fat sources available.
Chondroitin Sulphate blocks destructive enzymes that break down cartilage in the joint. There is always a low level of these destructive enzymes in the joint, but when injury or abnormal wear occurs the enzymes multiply. Chondroitin is a safe and natural ingredient, and any excess that is not required by the body is simply excreted in the urine.
Corn (or maize as it is also known) is a starch carbohydrate. Ground corn is used as an energy source.
Cranberry extract may aid in maintaining urinary tract health. It contains a sugar substance (D-mannose), which has the special ability of being able to prevent harmful bacteria from sticking to the mucosal walls. Cranberry also contains arbutin, which is effective against certain bacteria and fungi, including Candida. By limiting these harmful bacteria, conditions such as cystitis and bladder stones are less likely to affect your pet.
Derivatives of vegetable origin
Is a vague term used to describe by-products of vegetable origin. This can include anything that has been derived from a vegetable, from charcoal to compost! Seeing this ingredient in a pet food should set alarm bells ringing as it can be used to hide all manner of unspecified ingredients.
EC permitted additives
This term covers over 4000 chemical additives that can be added to pet food without individually naming them. The list includes colours such as tartrazine and sunset yellow which have been proven to cause hyperactivity in children, and preservatives such as BHA which have been shown to have the potential to cause cancer in animals. Avoid like the plague!
Dried whole egg powder is a versatile ingredient. The yolk is a good fat source, whilst egg whites contain the purest form of protein found in whole foods. Eggs are also a valuable source of vitamins and minerals.
Fresh fish such as salmon is a highly nutritious and palatable protein source for cats and dogs. It usually consists of the leftovers from human-grade fish, such as viscera, which is minced into a fine paste before being added into pet food. It contains fish oils, which is high in the health promoting omega-3 very long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA and DHA, often simply referred to as 'omega-3s'.
Fish meal is the dried fish ingredient used in many pet foods, and is a natural balanced feed ingredient that is high in protein, energy and minerals, vitamins and micro nutrients. It contains 6 - 10% fish oil, which is high in the health promoting omega-3 very long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA and DHA, often simply referred to as 'omega-3s'.
Fish oil is included in recipes for energy, as a source of essential fatty acids and for the transport of the fat-soluble vitamins. Fish oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. In the human health context, omega-3 prevents or reduces the chances of developing coronary heart disease. It also reduces high blood pressure, kidney disorders, inflammatory bowel disorders and autoimmune disease. The fish oil fatty acids are essential to the growth and development of unborn and newly born babies and toddlers. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and babies should include oily fish or fish oil in their diets. These health benefits are now becoming recognised in the nutrition of our canine and feline companions.
Glucosamine provides the building blocks to synthesise new joint cartilage and together with chondroitin and MSM promotes joint mobility and longevity, and has been shown to aid conditions such as hip dysplasia and arthritis. Glucosamine is a safe and natural ingredient, and any excess that is not required by the body is simply excreted in the urine.
Grape Seed Extract
Grape seed extract is derived from red wine grapes. It is a source of oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), which are a category of bioflavenoids. These are water soluble plant pigments that may support health by strengthening the blood capillaries and other connective tissue. Grape seed extract is an extremely powerful antioxidant, and is possibly the only antioxidant with the capacity to cross into the brain, thus improving mental alertness. (Whilst grapes in a large volume may be toxic to dogs, grape seed extract is included in pet foods at a safe level and will not have any harmful side effects.)
Green Tea Extract
Green tea extract is derived from the plant Camellia sinesis. Unlike black tea, green tea is not fermented, allowing the active constituents to remain unaltered in the herb. It is a powerful antioxidant that supports the cardiovascular system, and traditional Chinese medicine has recommended green tea to aid digestion, enhance immunity and improve energy levels.
Lamb meal is rich in calcium, and is produced from meat trimmings and the clean parts of the carcass cooked, dried and ground into a fine flour. It does not include the wool, blood, head, hooves and specified risk material such as the spinal cord.
L-Carnitine is produced in small quantities in the body by the liver and testes. It is naturally present in meat, yeasts, egg and milk and increases fat metabolism in the skeletal and cardiac muscle, and may improve endurance and stamina. It is also may be of benefit to the overweight or less active dog since it helps to increase the conversion of fat to energy and helps maintain lean body mass.
Linseed is also known as flax. This plant is a good source of dietary fibre, Omega-3 fatty acids and lignans (which have antioxidant properties). Linseed oil contains linoleic acid and alpha linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is a polyunsaturated fatty acid used in the biosynthesis of prostaglandins and cell membranes.
Meat and animal derivatives
This loose term covers any meat or animal by-product, without specifying what it is - or even what species it comes from. This term can be used to hide unhealthy or undesirable ingredients, and to enable the manufacturer to change the protein source with every batch without changing the label. In short, if you see this term, steer well clear as you have no idea what you are getting!
The methyl-sulphonyl-methane (MSM) is an all natural, ultra-pure MSM derived from pine bark. MSM is a naturally occurring form of organic sulphur. Its beneficial properties include the relief of pain and inflammation. It is also thought that MSM may improve mental alertness and relieve stress.
These natural short-chain proteins (derived from yeast) are able to enhance metabolic function and have particular benefits to the digestive and immune systems. Nucleotides allow optimum levels of nutrients to be absorbed by the body, as well as facilitating a more rapid cell replication in response to an outside challenge.
Oats are a good source of energy and protein, as well as being rich in fat, minerals and vitamins E and B.
Potato is a healthy carbohydrate source.
Rice is a very digestible energy source and is often used as the main source of carbohydrate in pet foods.
Natural pet foods are often stabilised naturally using mixed tocopherols (Vitamin E) and rosemary. Rosemary is a natural antioxidant and is used to prevent the oxidisation of the fat components of the diets.
Seaweed, or kelp, is a useful source of natural particularly minerals including sodium, potassium, calcium and iodine.
Soya protein is hard to digest and utilise and not a good quality ingredient for pet foods. It has also been associated with dietary intolerances and allergies.
Sugar Beet Pulp
Beet pulp is a by product of sugar production, and is a good source of both soluble and insoluble fibre. The soluble fibre is a good food source for the friendly bacteria in the large intestine. It also slows the rate of food passage through the gut ensuring a preferential transit time of food, leading to maximum digestion and absorption of nutrients. The insoluble fibre increases peristalsis, helps an animal to feel satisfactorily full and provides a crunchy texture to the kibbles to aid oral hygiene. Fibre is important for maintaining normal gastrointestinal transit time and motility and cats and dogs with stomach upsets can be found eating grass or other vegetation, possibly in the attempt to soothe their gut with increased fibre. A quality fibre source in the correct proportion may help to reduce the incidence of conditions such as diabetes mellitus and obesity. It may also help to prevent constipation and diarrhoea.
Taurine is an essential nutrient for cats, and is often added to good quality cat foods.
Natural pet foods are often preserved naturally using tocopherols (Vitamin E). All dry pet foods require an antioxidant in order to prevent the fat components in the diet from becoming rancid on exposure to air.
This is a good source of carbohydrate and protein, but it is one of the main ingredients known to cause dietary intolerances and allergies, so should be avoided when feeding pets with these problems.
Yucca has antioxidant properties, and may also help to reduce faecal and body odour.