When it comes to dog and cat food, there are more brands and formulas to choose from than ever before. Pet foods that are labeled as "complete and balanced nutrition" provide the right combination of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals for optimum health. So what's the difference between natural, organic and holistic pet foods?
In the pet food industry, it is the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods. However, AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way, rather, it is the pet food company's responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.
When a pet food is labeled as "natural," it means that it should consist only of selective natural ingredients that have not gone through chemical processing–except for necessary vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients. Natural foods should contain recognizable whole food ingredients with no additives, preservatives, artificial colors or flavors. Natural foods can still contain fillers, including grains, glutens and soy, as well as by-products that have been minimally processed. However, foods that are labeled as "all-natural" contain no artificial ingredients, synthetic chemicals or animal by-products.
Natural dog and cat foods are available in a variety of specialized solutions to target your pet's individual needs. Choose from many options: organic, holistic, grain-free or gluten-free, raw, fresh (refrigerated), limited ingredient diets or sensitive stomach, life stage, skin and coat, hairball control, weight management, indoor and more.
Pet foods that are labeled as "organic" must meet strict federal regulations in order to be USDA-certified. "Organic" has been legally defined for human foods by the USDA and refers to the way the ingredients are grown, harvested and processed.
Pet food companies can currently use the term "organic" if they follow the same rules that are applied to human foods. Grains, fruits and vegetables are grown with techniques that ensure no synthetic chemicals are introduced into the soil or the groundwater and that livestock are raised on a healthy diet without the use of growth hormones. Organic foods should be free of pesticides, added growth hormones, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, by-products and bio-engineering.
Dog and cat food packaging may display the official USDA organic seal using the following guidelines:
If the content is 100% organic, it may display the seal and the "100% organic" claim.
If at least 95% of the content is organic by weight (excluding salt and water), it may display the seal.
If at least 70% of the content is organic, the package may state that it is "made with organic ingredients" and it can list up to three of those ingredients on the front of the package, but it cannot display the seal.
If less than 70% of the content is organic, the package can list the organic ingredients on the information panel, but it cannot use the word organic and it cannot display the seal.
Holistic foods typically claim to contain additional ingredients that give your pet's health system an extra boost. The belief is that an imbalance can cause a range of problems throughout the body's systems. By targeting the whole body, holistic foods aim to promote balance between individual systems to allow for increased maximum potential for overall health and well-being. Essentially, this means that the content of these foods aim to meet the needs of your pet's physical, mental and emotional health, not just certain systems or particular aspects of nutritional needs.
There is no legal definition for holistic that has been generally accepted by the pet food industry, and there are no regulations for labeling dog or cat food as "holistic." Any pet food brand can use the term when marketing their product.
Read the Labels
When choosing the best formula of dog or cat food for your pet, consult with your veterinarian, who can inform you of any specific needs your pet may have. Next, read the package labels so that you know what's in your pet's food.
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