Update, January 2020: We originally wrote this at the start of a long journey to find a better dog food. After many dog years, this search became a company called Sundays.
“Why do we feed our dogs that food?” I asked my girlfriend Tory, a practicing veterinarian, as we cleaned up after our sick dog, Stevie, at 3 am. “It seems good enough,” she replied. “And I got it for free in vet school.”
I adopted Stevie four years ago from a shelter in downtown Manhattan. I named her after Steve Jobs, because she has a black turtleneck of fur. I hadn’t thought deeply about her dog food until that night, even though I’m typically one of those obsessive consumer-types. I once consulted my favorite product reviews site, TheSweetHome to find the Best Spatula. But why hadn’t I given my dog’s food the same thought?
I’m typically one of those obsessive consumer-types. I once consulted my favorite product reviews site, TheSweetHome to find the Best Spatula. But why hadn’t I given my dog’s food the same thought?
We began to investigate: I armed with the analytical skepticism of a software engineer, and Tory with her years of training and clinical experience as a vet. The first thing we learned was how truly strange and confusing the dog food industry is. There are over 3,000 different dog food brands available in the United States, yet roughly 80% of them are owned and manufactured by just four companies . The largest of which, Mars, the privately held candy giant and maker of M&M’s, not only sells the most pet food — through brands like Royal Canin and Iams, but also owns over 1,800 animal hospitals, employing more than 10% of all companion animal vets . After Mars, there’s Nestle — a $240 billion behemoth, the 10th largest corporation in the world by market cap, which makes Purina and dozens of other brands, J.M. Smuckers — of jam fame, which produces Milk-Bone and Natural Balance, and Colgate-Palmolive — which owns Hill’s Science Diet. Two more multi-billion dollar companies, Diamond Pet Foods and Blue Buffalo, together represent roughly the next 10% of the market.
When Food Companies Fund Nutrition Research
Nutrition research is complicated for both dogs and humans, because most of it is funded by the food and beverage industry. Coca-Cola lobbyists, for instance, popularized the widespread idea that “all calories are the same” (e.g. that drinking 500 calories of Coke will have the same physiological effect as eating 500 calories of Kale) [3,4]. Independent scientists have started to debunk this idea and ones like it, but it’s taken a long time due to the corporate funding dollars pushing against them. A consensus is finally emerging, however, that added sugar is bad, processed foods are unhealthy, and vitamin supplements — as opposed to those found in whole foods — are poorly absorbed. In other words, don’t eat junk food . Dog food, as it turns out, is mostly junk food.
A consensus is finally emerging that added sugar is bad, processed foods are unhealthy, and vitamin supplements are poorly absorbed. In other words, don’t eat junk food. Dog food, as it turns out, is mostly junk food.
The field of dog nutrition is similar to its human counterpart, only worse, because the eaters can’t speak up for themselves. The big pet food corporations fund nearly all research on pet food and employ the vast majority of board-certified veterinary nutritionists; there are less than 200 such vets in the US, and over 80% work for one of the big four firms. Big Pet also publishes the vet school textbooks on nutrition and even pays for some of the lectures in which they’re taught. While much of their research is well-intentioned and genuinely pushes the field forward, at times the lines between science and marketing can become blurred. The academic literature tends to revolve around the status quo, which consists mostly of extruded dry dog food, also known as kibble, and it’s messier offshoot, canned “wet” food. Taken together, kibble and canned food represent about 95% of what dogs eat.
Extrusion and canning are food processing techniques that heat ingredients to extremely high temperatures to make the finished product non-perishable. To be sold in a store, retailers dictate that dry dog food needs to be shelf-stable for at least 18 to 24 months and canned food for 3 to 5 years. The problem is, of course, that it’s hard to make healthy foods that last that long.
A vet bluntly described kibble as “cardboard with vitamins sprinkled on top,” and that description is fairly accurate.
Another vet I spoke with bluntly described kibble as “cardboard with vitamins sprinkled on top,” and that description is fairly accurate. The food processing techniques used are so harsh that it denatures many of the nutrients found in the original ingredients, so that all sorts of additives and vitamin supplements need to be added back into the food . We wrote code to analyze over 1,200 popular kibble formulas currently available in the US and found that, on average, they contained a whopping 49 ingredients, including 30 separate supplemental vitamins and minerals. With mounting evidence that vitamin supplements are not readily absorbed by the body (humans and dogs alike mostly pee them out), it was disconcerting to learn that kibble is essentially mush with added vitamins [7,8].
The Marketing Myth of Premium Natural
But I fed my dog a premium, “natural” kibble, with nature pastels and frolicking wolves on the packaging. Isn’t that better? No, it’s not, I learned. Not at all. The so-called “Wholesome Natural” or “Super Premium” dog food segment emerged in the wake of a 2007 recall scandal that shook the industry. A Chinese ingredient provider used by all the major firms had been inserting a chemical called Melamine to artificially inflate protein values. This Melamine, however, was toxic to animals and killed thousands of dogs . A new industry of alternative, independent kibble brands popped up, offering supposedly healthier ingredients. They marketed ideas borrowed from human diet fads (like gluten-free) and commanded higher prices. Dog parents were convinced. In the last 10 years, the average price of dog food has more than doubled. But is premium “natural” kibble any healthier?
In the last 10 years, the average price of dog food has more than doubled. But is premium “natural” kibble any healthier?
The answer is a resounding no. These more expensive kibbles are essentially the same old kibble, but wrapped in deceptive “natural” marketing and produced with lower safety standards than used by the big companies. Most of these smaller brands, for instance, don’t manufacture their own food; they partner with multiple contract manufacturers who make it for them, each with their own quality control process. As we’ll examine, the main differences touted by these foods (“grain-free”, “natural”, “no byproducts”) might sound nice, but have no scientific evidence to support them. They’re largely made-up selling points.
Vets and the big corps alike argued strongly and persuasively against this wave of pricier “natural” foods. They published peer-reviewed research to debunk them. Much of the premium natural branding revolves around the myth of mimicking the “ancestral” diet that wolves eat. The most common example is “grain-free” formulas, peddled because of allegedly undiagnosed grain allergies in dogs and the fact that wolves don’t eat them. The reality is that less than 1% of dogs have an actual grain allergy [10,11]. Furthermore, a study published in the prestigious journal Nature showed that dogs have specific enzymes to digest grains — which wolves, interestingly, lack . As it turns out, dogs have been co-evolving alongside human eaters for at least 15,000 years (which is 15,000 generations for dogs!), and at this point your Chihuahua or your Labrador have starkly different digestive systems than their distant, lupine cousins . We don’t agree with Big Pet’s assertion that kibble is healthy, but we are convinced by their evidence that premium natural kibble isn’t any healthier.
Is “Grain-Free” dog food really healthier? The reality is that less than 1% of dogs have an actual grain allergy, and a recent study showed that dogs have specific enzymes to digest grains, which wolves lack.
The Buffalo in the Room
Blue Buffalo is the category leader in premium “natural” pet food. They IPO’d in 2015 and now boast a valuation of over $5 billion. The company’s founder, Bill Bishop, also made his first fortune selling unhealthy foods with slick natural marketing: he started the sugared beverage company SoBe, which he sold to Pepsi in October of 2000. Blue Buffalo popularized trends such as “grain-free”, but sell what essentially amounts to the same old junk food kibble.
In one bizarre and telling episode, Blue Buffalo pursued a marketing campaign against animal “by-products” — the usable leftovers from human food production, which includes organ meats like liver. The twist is that organ meats are actually highly nutritious for dogs and a cost-effective source of nutrients at that since they’re less popular among human eaters. Their competitor, Nestle Purina pulled some Blue Buffalo bags off the shelf and had them independently tested by a lab and discovered that, in a strange turn of events, the supposedly “by-product-free” food contained plenty of by-products. Purina financed a class-action lawsuit for false advertising, which Blue Buffalo settled in late 2016 for $32 million .
To recap: Blue Buffalo marketed a misleading health claim (“by-products are bad!”), but then used the by-products they argued against in their own food, and were eventually caught doing it. Yikes.
To recap: Blue Buffalo marketed a misleading health claim (“by-products are bad!”), but then used the ingredient they argued against in their own food, and were eventually caught doing it [14b]. Yikes. The big corps are currently in court, as well. There’s an ongoing class-action lawsuit against Hill’s, Purina, Mars and others, that alleges their “prescription diets” are just a marketing ruse that require unnecessary vet visits and command higher prices, even though they don’t contain any actual medicine . While there’s certainly some evidence that certain prescriptive diets are effective, the accusations raise larger questions about the complex relationships between researchers, manufacturers, and retailers.
The marketing myths behind premium dog food proved so powerful that eventually even the big corporations couldn’t ignore them and began to follow suit. In the past few years, most of them have started or acquired their own bogus natural brands, only to go to extreme lengths to hide their ownership, afraid that consumers would be repelled if they knew of their true corporate identities.
Taste of the Wild, one of the best-selling premium natural brands, has risen to popularity with grain-free recipes and wolf-adorned bags, but it’s actually made with unremarkable ingredients by Diamond Pet Foods — the 5th largest manufacturer, who makes Costco’s discount Kirkland food among others, and has arguably the worst recall and safety record among the major firms. Organix, the most popular Organic dog food brand (even though, misleadingly, it freely mixes Organic ingredients with low-quality conventional ones, which, if you ask me, kind of defeats the purpose) appears to be owned by a quaint family business called Castor & Pollux. That company, however, was purchased by a Texas-based manufacturer called Merrick, which, in turn, was purchased by Purina, which, as previously mentioned, is owned by Nestle. Far from being mom-and-pop, Organix is manufactured by an international mega-corporation through four layers of subsidiaries.
Then what should dogs eat?
If kibble is bad and “premium natural” kibble is no better, then what should dogs eat? To answer the human version of this question, best-selling food author Michael Pollan famously instructed, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The dog equivalent is probably similar, but perhaps with the addendum of “mostly plants and meats.” In the directive to “eat food,” Pollan means to consume whole, uncomplicated ingredients as opposed to junk. There is an early but growing movement in the dog food world away from heavily-processed extruded dry foods and canned wet foods towards healthier alternatives.
While kibble is low quality, it has at least one thing really going for it: it’s extremely easy. You just pour it in a bowl and you’re done. No prep or clean-up required. Virtually every other method of feeding your dog, including canned and alternative foods, are a huge hassle by comparison. Since canned foods are wet, bowls need to be thoroughly cleaned after every meal. Frozen foods need to be thawed and freeze-dried raw foods need to be rehydrated, inconveniences that can take hours, plus also leave you with messy wet bowls to clean.
Even if you can look past the inconvenience, the expense of refrigerated shipping really adds up: perishable “human grade” foods can cost a whopping 10X more than premium kibble, and some use ingredients that are scarcely better.
Where does that leave us?
So where should you turn? How do you pick a dog food? It’s further complicated, because, in addition to everything else, you’re not the end user, your dog is. We believe that the vast majority of dog parents and vets alike genuinely just want what’s best for their dogs, but it can be hard to figure out what that is. You have to rely on various third parties who all have their own angle. Veterinarians, who are still your most trusted source of information, can be influenced and sometimes even employed by big food companies; big box pet stores have commissioned salesmen; the attendants of neighborhood pet stores are often uninformed hourly employees who themselves are pitched by sales reps from the food companies; and then there’s the Internet.
We believe that the vast majority of dog parents and vets alike genuinely just want what’s best for their dogs, but it can be hard to figure out what that is.
As the recent election cycle reminded us all too well, not everything you read on the Internet is true. And it’s especially the case with dog food. Informational sites and forums tend to regurgitate the various myths propagated by food companies, and often further twist them. The most popular dog food review site, for instance, is edited by a human dentist — without any background in animal medicine — and tends to echo many of the unsubstantiated marketing trends put forth by premium natural brands. And it gets worse from there.
It shouldn’t be so hard to be a great dog parent. Just to feed your dog you shouldn’t have to wade through 3,000 different brands, countless BS marketing myths, and pseudoscience from sketchy websites and companies alike.
It shouldn’t be so hard to be a great dog parent. Just to feed your dog you shouldn’t have to wade through 3,000 different brands, countless BS marketing myths, and pseudoscience from sketchy websites and companies alike. The more Tory and I learned, the more frustrated we became. After months of researching dog food, we didn’t find anything we really liked. We bought and tried about 30 different formulas in all. We wished there was a healthier option based on simple whole ingredients, like some of the raw or home-cooked recipes, but with the convenience and safety of pouring kibble into a bowl.
Who we are
Dr. Tory Hooker, VMD is a practicing small animal veterinarian. She has a BS in Animal Science with Distinction in Research from Cornell, a veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and completed a rotating internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City.
Michael Waxman is a software engineer and designer. He previously started the dating app Grouper, which was funded by Y Combinator. He dropped out of and later graduated from Yale University. Michael grew up in Ohio with seven dogs.
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[14b] Blue Buffalo’s response was that third party suppliers and manufacturers inserted the byproducts into the food without their knowledge. Regardless of how much truth there is to this, at the very least it still raises some alarming questions about their quality control practices and ingredient accuracy.
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