by Ward Johnson, President of Sojos
Take a stroll through your local pet store these days and you’ll be overwhelmed by the selection of dog foods available. From kibble and canned, to frozen and raw – pet food companies continue to innovate, while many consumers feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of variety. While most shelf space is still stocked with kibble, there are new categories of pet food that have found their way into the mainstream and are proving that they’re here to stay. But first, let’s take a stroll through the past.
Also known as dry food or pellets, kibble has dominated the pet food market since the advent of processed pet food in the early to mid 1900’s. Kibble was originally created to provide food-processing companies with an opportunity to market by-products and waste materials as a profitable source of income. While not the healthiest way to feed a pet, kibble is the most convenient type of commercial dog food available because it requires very little effort to feed. Simply open the bag and pour it into a bowl. Kibble requires no preparation, it remains edible for a long period of time and it doesn’t need to be refrigerated.
The major disadvantage of kibble is that it is chemically preserved and it is cooked, which destroys the naturally-occurring nutrients and enzymes in the ingredients. In addition to artificial flavors, colors, and additives, nutrients must be added back to cooked kibble synthetically as a final production process. This is why you’ll see upwards of 20 or more synthetic vitamins and minerals on the ingredient label of your average bag of kibble.
As a rule of thumb, the closer to raw that a pet food is, the fewer vitamins and minerals you’ll typically see on the ingredient label. This is because raw foods already contain active nutrients, and thus don’t need as many additional vitamins and minerals added to the formula in order to be considered “complete”. The fact that raw diets provide optimal nutrition for dogs and cats is not a new concept. The issue has traditionally been one of convenience.
In the mid-1980’s, a niche category of pet food was introduced to provide an alternative for people to provide their pets with raw food. Just-add-meat diets are shelf-stable pre-mixes that typically consist of human-grade grains, nuts, herbs, fruits and greens that pet parents combine with their own source of raw meat. Just-add-meat pet foods are flexible, economical, and offer consumers the ability to feed completely fresh and raw pet food. However these diets require the customer to source their own meat in the form of frozen patties from the pet store or fresh cuts from the grocery store or butcher. This, along with the increased preparation time required has acted as a barrier for some consumers who value convenience over nutritional value.
Raw Frozen Diets
Raw frozen diets have been gaining popularity since the 1990’s. They typically consist of raw muscle and organ meat and bones, along with added nutrients to provide a complete and balanced meal for pets. Cold is nowhere near as destructive to nutrients than heat, and thus freezing results in almost no degradation of naturally-occurring nutrients and enzymes. This typically results in shorter, more simply ingredient lists. While frozen raw diets provide excellent nutrition, storage issues and thawing times can make consumers more resistant to feed them. They can be difficult and expensive for pet stores to stock because of the required freezer capacity. And frozen diets typically contain a high water content, which can cause them to be more expensive than other foods. Primal, Bravo, and Nature’s Variety are examples of some of the more popular frozen raw diets on the market today.
Raw shelf-stable is the latest category of pet food to gain widespread appeal in pet stores. Raw shelf-stable foods offer the unique combination of raw food with the convenience of kibble.
Raw shelf-stable foods typically consist dehydrated meat, combined with a blend of dried fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, and vitamins. These foods can be 100% freeze-dried, dehydrated, or a combination of the two.
Dehydration is an excellent water removal process for everything but meat – which necessitates higher than ideal temperatures and results in nutrient and enzyme loss. When meat is referred to as “dehydrated” this means that it has been cooked or heat pasteurized prior to the dehydration process. Meats are brought up to at least 165 F to destroy food-bourn pathogens such as salmonella and e-coli, and then are subsequently dehydrated using hot air. Though the temperatures used on dehydrated meat are lower than those used to process kibble, by definition when any food is brought up to a temperature above 118 F — the temperature at which enzymes and nutrients break down — it has, in essence, been cooked. This is why you will typically see more added vitamins and minerals on the ingredient labels of foods that contain cooked dehydrated meat, similar to kibble.
Freeze-drying, on the other hand, is an ideal process for removing water from meat because it maintains the taste, smell, and most importantly the nutrients and enzymes – removing only the water. Freeze-drying involves a slow, gradual combination of high pressure and cold temperatures to remove moisture without any cooking. Frozen meat is put inside the freeze dryer where pumps create a vacuum combined with extremely cold temperatures. Very low levels of heat are then applied, causing the ice within the meat to turn directly into water vapor. As a result, the product changes directly from frozen to dry without ever being thawed or cooked. The downside to freeze-drying is that the process takes a long time (typically 24 to 36 hours) and tends to be very expensive.
An ideal shelf-stable raw pet food uses a combination of freeze-dried raw meat, blended with traditionally dehydrated raw ingredients (ie. fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, etc.) to create an ultra-healthy food without breaking the bank. With these foods, more natural nutrition is present, resulting in shorter ingredient lists with very few added vitamins and minerals.
Whether a consumer chooses a food made with freeze-dried meat or cooked/dehydrated meat comes down to personal preference and what they feel is best for their pets. One thing that’s certain is that innovative products like frozen raw, just-add-meat diets, and raw, shelf-stable foods that blend convenience with natural nutrition are giving kibble a run for its money.