You get what you pay for
During the Menu Foods/wet foods/wheat gluten incident, we quickly lost patience when hearing owners who said, “We thought we were paying for the best foods available for our pets, and now this!” If an ingredient is needed to make other ingredients resemble meat, when meat could (and should) be used instead, you’re not dealing with a top-quality food.
One of our most dearly held principles of dog food selection is that whole food ingredients are more desirable than food “fragments.” This means wheat, yes; wheat gluten, wheat mill run, wheat bran, no! Chicken meal, yes; chicken by-product meal, no! This is for two main reasons.
First, unprocessed foods enjoy less exposure to potentially harmful agents in the course of processing, storage, and transport. Second, fresh and minimally processed foods are more nutritious than ingredients that are several operations (and perhaps many months and many miles) from harvest. Processing reduces the vitamin content of many foods, and can destroy any unique nutrient properties they may contain, such as antioxidants, flavonoids, and enzymes.
In some cases, the fractions used in low-cost pet food are truly “fillers,” and comprised of the part of a raw food that human food manufacturers have little use for; peanut hulls and cereal fines come to mind here. In other cases, pet food formulators utilize certain fractions to provide just the right amount of a needed nutrient or attribute. Tomato pomace and beet pulp are examples of truly functional fragments.
We’re also sticklers for the use of whole meats from named species of animals (i.e., chicken rather than poultry; beef rather than “meat”) and meals made from whole meats from named species (chicken meal rather than poultry meal). All animal proteins (even by-products, which tend to be of lower quality than muscle meats) have more to offer dogs (and especially cats) than plant-derived proteins, especially wheat gluten and corn gluten (a case can be made for a certain amount of rice gluten).
We can’t think of any pet food recall in the past 10 years that was due to a problem with the meat (or meat by-products, to be fair) in the food. If one arises, however, we’ll bet the farm that the animal proteins in question will be low-cost by-products, rather than high-priced muscle meats.
In our opinion, the presence of an inexpensive fraction or by-product high on the list of a pet food’s ingredients should warn you that the maker of the food has cut a corner. If the food contains several fractions or inexpensive ingredients, its maker is definitely utilizing “least-cost formulation,” as in, “What’s the cheapest way to make a food and still meet these nutrient levels?” The more fractions and other inexpensive ingredients a food contains, and the lower a product’s price, the less confidence you should have in its quality.
Of course, pet foods that meet all of our selection criteria tend to be far more expensive than grocery store brands. You can’t buy filet mignon at a hamburger price, and you can’t expect top-quality ingredients to go into a product that retails for pennies per pound.