When it comes to choosing the right food for your dog, the choices are endless. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different brands, and even different types of foods within those brands. Researching ingredients and sources can be confusing and time-consuming, so you might find yourself focusing on the basic bullet points. The same way people are looking for whole, natural ingredients in their own diets, they're looking for natural ingredients in their dogs' food. But what is a “natural” dog food? With more than one ingredient going into the bag or can, it’s hard to determine how natural it actually could be. Are all the ingredients natural? Are only the main ingredients natural? And what standards must these foods meet to be considered natural?
Thankfully, there are some guidelines that pet food companies must follow in order to label their products natural. For most English-speaking people, natural generally refers to something that comes directly from nature, without any added chemicals or processing by humans. However, as with many words, the meaning can vary a bit from person to person. When it comes to pet food companies, however, natural means something slightly different from what most people think it means.
In 2001, the Pet Food Committee of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) received approval to provide companies with suggested guidelines when they use the term "natural." The first thing to understand is that these are suggested guidelines, not requirements. However, the majority of states have adopted the AAFCO Model Bill and Model Regulations, and in those states the labels must meet the AAFCO definition of natural. According to AAFCO, natural is defined as:
“A feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.”
While AAFCO develops these guidelines, it is not the enforcer of them. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for enforcement, but since the FDA has not defined "natural" in relation to pet food labeling, it requires only that the labeling not be misleading. For the consumer who is researching pet foods, this can be quite confusing. Since most ingredients in pet foods are derived from “plant, animal or mined sources,” these will all be considered as natural ingredients. Any ingredients that are synthetically derived do not meet the requirement to be labeled natural. These include chelated minerals, mineral amino acid complexes, vitamin supplements, propylene glycol, calcium ascorbate, and other preservatives, such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), as well as artificial flavors and colors.
In other words, if a dog food is to be labeled as natural, it must not have any ingredients that were man-made. Although AAFCO does allow foods to be listed as natural pet foods when they contain synthetic vitamin, mineral, and trace nutrients, these are the only synthesized ingredients allowed in the product. Natural foods are generally going to be free of by-products, preservatives, and other unnecessary chemicals. The quality of the natural ingredients used is another discussion, but this explanation may lessen your confusion over natural dog foods and their ingredients.