Picture yourself walking down the pet food aisle at the local pet supply store. As you walk down the aisle your eyes are being pulled in every direction. Each food bag is just begging to get your attention with their clever marketing and bright, shiny colors on the front. Premium! Super Premium! Human Grade! You wonder how you will ever make a decision. Which food are you going to spend your hard-earned money on?
There are plenty of foods with fancy packaging making claims to be better and healthier than the less expensive foods. We can't forget to mention the price. If the food is more expensive it has to be healthier, right? That is a pretty bold assumption to make and is it even the right assumption? To really answer that question, we need to know what actually makes a pet food "premium".
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but you might be surprised to learn that "premium" is often a marketing term that is intended to place a higher value on a product. It is a way for companies and manufacturers to capture the consumer's desire to purchase luxury items or "the best". If you are a pet parent like me, it is a common trap that we fall. We love our pets as if they are family members and want to do what's best for them. Now I am not saying that "premium" foods don't include premium ingredients because some do. Unfortunately there are many that claim to be premium to give the perception that it is higher quality.
So, what about pet food? Obviously our pets are not influenced by the cost of their food, but we as their owners certainly are. To say that the premium pet food market has grown would be a drastic understatement. The premium pet food market has reached multi-billions in annual sales. In practice, numerous times a day, my clients will tell me what they are feeding their pet and most of the time I have never even heard the brand name. Pet owners are paying more and more for their pet food but does that mean the pet's are healthier?
Designating a food as premium is usually the doing of the marketing department for that particular company. There are no standards that need to be met other than to advertise a product to the consumer that justifies the higher price tag. You will likely be able to recognize the foods that fall into this category. Most also market to current trends in the food industry such as: grain free, limited ingredients, meat as the first ingredient, or possibly additional supplements such as probiotics. There is no real evidence that any of this makes one food healthier than the next.
All pet foods must follow the same standards. Each are supposed to contain a minimum of each essential nutrient. In theory we could assume that all commercial pet foods should keep your pet healthy but not all food manufacturers have the same quality control standards. Of course, some pets will do better on one brand vs another. I see this every single day in practice. I have clients tell me "Doc, my dog is on the best food out there. It costs X dollars". As pet owners, we have to refrain from judging how good or bad a food is simply based on the price. It is possible that some of the less expensive options may be better for you pet if the companies that make them have more experience and research that goes into formulating their diets.
A lot of the decisions made around selecting a pet food are often made based on emotion and not scientific evidence. Now here comes some hard truth. "Dr. Google" is not considered scientific evidence or research. Questions regarding food selection are best left to the veterinary professionals. As a veterinarian, I welcome any and all questions regarding nutrition from my clients. If I don't know the answer to a question, I can provide credible resources from Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists.
I have seen studies where many over the counter diets were compared to those provided at the veterinary hospital and the results were quite alarming. A majority of the over the counter foods actually contained ingredients that the manufacturer claimed were not in the food. When making a food selection, first establish your budget. Once you know what kind of food you can afford, search for the best food in that price range. Focus on the company that makes the food, their track record, their quality control, and research that goes into the formulation of the diets. Don't be swayed by price and fancy sounding ingredients.