Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler
I'm fed up with "natural" equating "so much healthier to eat than processed crap." We see the claim "natural!!!" in so many manufactured food products, pet and human, and we tend to respond with "That's so much healthier!" without even thinking about what it really means. Some kibble is marketed as "natural dog and cat food," or "natural & holistic dry dog food" although I haven't a clue what holistic means in terms of food. It implies a healthy, non-chemical, non-processed, sun-kissed glow that will caress your pet into improved health. One ingredient in one of these brands is "sun-cured alfalfa meal" - is that holistic? Where does hype meet reality?
Natural food makes me think of a fresh salad, full of delicious, crisp vegetables that burst with nutrition. Clearly salad is more natural than Hamburger Helper.
In terms of commercial food in the United States, pet or human, "natural" means nothing because unlike organic foods, it's not regulated. It's just marketing hype that means nada, zip, zero.
That's why I'm tired of seeing claims such as "Only natural ingredients!" "Natural!" and "Natural and organic hair color!"
Hair dye? That's how ridiculous this trend has become. How is it possible for any processed hair color, traditionally full of carcinogenic chemicals that stink, to be natural? Just because they list the stuff that not's included doesn't mean it doesn't have any chemicals. Oh, it has "100% Organic Flower Essences." Good thing it's 100% or they couldn't say it was organic. Unless you're tossing smushed raspberries on your head as though it were salad dressing, I don't agree that it's natural.
But they say it is, so it must not only be good for me, but healthier than the chemically-laden processed stuff, right? That's what the package says. Natural is best.
Not so fast.
Processed mold is penicillin, yes? The natural version started out as moldy bread. Would you like some holistic jam with your moldy toast?
What does natural mean in terms of the food and our pets and we eat? Wikipedia says, "In some countries, the term “natural” is defined and enforced. In others, such as the United States, it has no meaning."
Yeah, you read that right: "It has no meaning."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says "Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs."
At least pet food usually contains meat or eggs.
The Food and Drug Administration, the folks in charge of food labeling in the U.S., say that "From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."
And there we have it: no added color, artificial ingredients, or synthetic substances. Product of the earth. I don't like added color or weird chemicals in my pet's food either. But let's get real - kibble and is not a product of the earth, but a processed food that is mixed together and squashed through an extruder for a shape whether it has organic spinach or cardboard in the ingredient list. Just because canned food isn't extruded doesn't make it more natural.
Except that it does have meaning in the magical world of marketing, where blinking lime green neon lights shaped like arrows point at "natural" on the label. For years I worked in marketing, where the truth sometimes has little to do with anything (an old boss of mine used to joke, "We can lie. We're in marketing!"). Face it: "Natural" pet food claims shine with the sincere purity of artificial flowers on an Easter bonnet.
In her blog post, "The Myth of the Natural Diet," board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lisa Weeth says:
"The idea that any food that has been “subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation” is more “natural” than another similarly manufactured product has always struck me as a bit farcical. Personally, I want pet owners and veterinarians to give up on the idea of “natural” diets for dogs and cats."
Consumers seem to forget that everything that comes from nature isn't always as safe and friendly as a tiny puppy. Sometimes it's more like a tiny puppy with rabies.
Frankly, Mother Nature is a witch. She throws some pretty funky tantrums, too, that involve lightening, floods, fires, blizzards, and waves taller than hotels. Mother Nature is not the natural woman Carole King sings about. Why don't we extol her flaws as well as her virtues?
Feces are natural, as are snake venom, hemlock, E. coli, toxic algae, black widow spider spit, Salmonella, mold, poison ivy, delicious death cap mushrooms, fire ants, ricin, deadly puffer fish, vomit, cherry seeds, green potatoes, belladonna, cane toad tadpoles, and aflatoxins made by the fungus Aspergillus.
I don't think the quality of pet food sold as "natural" is bad - not at all - but is it better than non-natural kibble? Organic food has to meet some requirements before it can be labeled as organic, but any one can say on a label that their food is "natural" even if it's the most convoluted, overly processed, genuine imitation food made on this planet. At least Hamburger Helper has the guts not to pretend (although they now state they do use "real cheese.")
Do your research about what food is best for your pet: Read the ingredient list, not the marketing hype. Talk to your veterinarian about what the label indicates and what is best for your pet.
Meanwhile, I'm left wondering if smushed blueberries will leave my hair a natural purple or a natural blue. There's only one way to find out.
April 7, 2015
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.