Ingredients: Where Pet Food Starts

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What Is this Ingredient and Why Is It in my Pet’s Food?

Many veterinarians and consumers alike want to know what an ingredient “really is” and why it is in the pet food. A product development scientist considers the following factors for each ingredient: nutrient levels; functionality; palatability; digestibility; availability; and cost. Every ingredient has to be safe and result in a safe finished product. Every ingredient in a pet food is included for a purpose. The ingredient has to deliver the right nutrition with the right functionality (eg, chicken for protein, moisture for water balance and processing), be palatable, be digestible, be available year round, and still allow for the product to be profitable. The claim that pet food contains “fillers” is erroneous. There is no room in a pet food formula for any ingredient that is added just to fill space. As noted above, every ingredient provides some dietary benefit or has a function in the food. A pet food can be a single ingredient treat or a highly complex, 60-plus ingredient complete product. A product development scientist knows the various attributes of the ingredients and works to combine them to meet the finished product specifications. Each type of product: wet (cans, pouches, trays), dry (kibble, biscuits), or soft moist (kibble, burger); and every processing method: retorting, baking, or extrusion, need different ingredients and have differing effects on the ingredients. Consider the most common of pet foods: a dry dog food. The product is typically made via the process of extrusion. Extrusion is a rapid cooking process that uses a combination of heat, pressure, and steam to quickly cook the ingredients, sterilize the product, and form a structure from the ingredients via expansion (like bread rising), creating a final product ready to be dried and coated. By law, the label of each product must include an ingredient list that shows the ingredients in descending order of inclusion by weight. A typical ingredient list for a dry dog food is given in Table 2A. The ingredients must supply the nutrients required to meet the guaranteed nutrient analysis and provide the proper nutrition for the intended use of the product, which in this case is all life stages of the dog. This example contains 42 ingredients. In selecting ingredients, the product development scientist first seeks readily available ingredients that supply the different nutrient categories: protein, carbohydrates and fiber, fat, vitamins, and minerals. There are many ingredient options available. The scientist, in collaboration with the nutritionist, must balance the nutrients and be sure that they are all supplied in the proper amounts for the intended use of the product. The scientist must make sure that the product will be stable for its shelf life. When specialty ingredients are used, such as inulin or beneficial bacteria, or when nutritional modifications are needed to manage pets with diseases, the product development considerations become even more complicated.

Sources of Vitamins and Minerals
A commonly asked question is: what are all those chemicalsounding names? In most cases, they are the vitamin and mineral sources. The AAFCO Nutrient Profiles contain 23 and 25 essential vitamins and minerals for dogs and cats, respectively. Usually they are provided to the product via a prepared “packet” called a premix. This is the multivitamin/mineral of the complete food. While vitamins and minerals are added in very small amounts, they account for close to half of the ingredients in a pet food and are the longest part of the ingredient statement. Removing the vitamins and minerals from the original 42 ingredients listed in the ingredient statement in Table 2A, the list now contains 16 ingredients as shown in Table 2B. There are only two or three “chemicalsounding” names remaining in the list. Two of those are essential amino acids: lysine and methionine.