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Pet Food marketing - all hype and no substance?

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If you have just bought a bag of pet food because the bag or label shouted out at you that this food contained added spirulina, glucosamine, chondroitin ,Omega-3 and Omega-6, prebiotics, probiotics, Cranberry Powder, Dried Kelp, Dried Bacillus Licheniformis Fermentation Extract, Dried Bacillus Subtilis Fermentation Extract, CPA Complex™, Mannan-oligo-saccharides, Green Tea, selenium yeast, eye of toad and tongue of newt (I made the last two up!) or anything else that doesn't sound like 'food' then you need to read on, because you are in danger of falling into the GREAT MARKETING TRAP.

Well, firstly lets look at the arguement purely from a human perspective, and here I would urge you to get hold of (or get your library to stock) a copy of 'In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating by Michael Pollan, a respected US author and journalist

In the book, Pollan argues strongly for a more sensible approach to nutrition than that being imposed upon us by government, nutritionists and the food industry. Why? Pollan says 'Because most of what we're consuming today is not food, and how we're consuming it is not really eating. Instead of food, we're consuming "edible foodlike substances" -- no longer the products of nature but of food science. Many of them come packaged with health claims that should be our first clue they are anything but healthy. In the so-called Western diet, food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion.'

The result is what Michael Pollan calls the American paradox: The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.

OK, now let's look at what's been happening on the pet scene in the last few years. Quite honestly, what the pet food industry has been doing is mirroring the human food industry. As health food magazines promote the latest nutrichemical fad and foods become low fat, low salt, low fibre, low taste and low everything else, what has increased has been the ingredient label, as whole foods have been replaced by an increasing list of substances.

Look at current pet food labels. As an example, and just an example (I'm not saying this is wrong, just typical of this whole marketing thing) look at the ingredients in a bag of Nutro Holistic Food (Holistic, in my definition means 'natural')

Dried Chicken Meat, Whole Brown Rice, Ground Rice, Dried Lamb Meat, Sunflower Oil (min. 4.5%), Poultry Fat (min. 4%), Dried Salmon Meat, Flaxseed, Oatmeal, Dried Alfalfa, Dried Beet Pulp, Dried Tomato, Cranberry Powder, Menhaden Fish Oil (min. 0.5%), Potassium Chloride, Dried Kelp, Dried Tomato, Cranberry Powder, Flaxseed?Dried Bacillus Licheniformis fermentation Extract, Dried Bacillus Subtilis Fermentation Extract.

These are not traditional pet food ingredients. The question has to be asked... Are they actually necessary if the food is good enough quality to offer complete nutrition without them? Royal Canin now have a bewildering range of foods for lifestages and breeds, indoor and outdoor cats as well as a range of foods for health problems. Are these necessary or just marketing managers pandering to our perceived needs - if scientists tell me I need Omega 3 in my diet I must feed the cat some as well?!

What about the cat I grew up with as a child who lived to a ripe old age with no particular health problems. That was achieved on a simple food without all this added chemistry set! What about my Father-in-law's farm dogs, brought up on table scraps, washings out from the dairy and a handfull of fish meal - they worked hard, looked fit and never needed a single visit to the vet. Breed specific diets?

If they are no more expensive than your normal food then fine, but please ask the question otherwise - Is this more marketing hype than necessity? As to lifestage foods, well there is certainly some sense in this, but maybe not quite as much as some manufacturers would like us to believe. Puppies need a higher level of some nutrients than adults, as do very working active dogs, pregnant and lactating bitches, but not so crucial maybe are the so-called senior recipes. As you and I get older we adjust our diet by eating less as our level of activity goes down. The same should be true for our pets - as they get older they need less to eat so we need to adjust the amount we feed. This can be done by either reducing quantity or changing to a lighter diet, lower in protein and fat - there are several adult light diets that fit the bill.

Let's hear it for a sensible approach to the nutrition of our pets. Three cheers to companies like Burns Pet Nutrition who refuse to go down the route of adding novel chemicals and nutrichemicals to their food just for the sake of it. I want to feed my pets food not chemicals. If the ingredients are not good enough and complete by themselves then why not get that right first before supplementing the diet with unnecessary things.

Remember margarine - it was the healthiest thing since sliced bread, until all of a sudden it wasn't - who's to say Omega 3 won't be next!



By John Birch
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Biography: A food technologist with a decade of experience in retailing and marketing pet food

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