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Dog Food and Canine Nutrition with Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim

N&N: That is certainly one way to look at it. The National Renderers Association estimates that 25 percent of rendered products left over from processing cattle, pigs and chickens for human food goes into pet foods in the form of meat- and bone meal or poultry by-product meal. Brewers rice is composed of broken and cracked rice grains that are not sold on the human market. Soybean meal is what is left after soy (“vegetable”) oil is extracted from soybeans. The animal feed industry—including the pet food industry—uses the materials that remain after production of many human foods, among them sugar, alcohol, beer, and flour as well as cattle, pigs and chickens. Many of these materials contribute nutrients—vitamins, minerals, protein—or energy that dogs can use.

B: In your writing, you warn against a “nutrient-by-nutrient approach to food” because it “takes the nutrient out of the context of the food.” What do you mean by that?

N&N: Whenever we see advertisements for specific vitamins, we know that marketing departments must be hard at work. Dogs, like humans, require more than 40 separate nutrients to grow, reproduce and stay healthy. They, like us, need every one of them. No pill can provide them all, so it’s best to get them from food. Most foods contain a great many nutrients, but in different proportions. So the best way to get all the nutrients is to mix and match food intake—eat a variety of foods from different groups (as we were taught in the third grade). Commercial dog food takes care of having to worry about the mixing and matching by putting a bunch of different ingredients in one can or pellet. But the nutrition principles are the same.

B: What do you see as the biggest trend in nutrition and eating?

N&N: We see two trends: one good, one not so good. The good one is heading toward better quality products—natural, organic, whole, unprocessed and locally grown. The not-so-good one is heading toward eating more food, more often, in more places, and taking in far more calories than are used up in activity. It’s pretty obvious that both trends apply to dogs as well as people.

B: The “Slow Food” movement and other eating-local movements seem, to some, to apply only to the upper echelon of consumers—do you think it is possible to feed all consumers and their pets good, fresh, nutritious foods without using industrial food products? Does food have to be mass-produced and/or processed to be affordable? Convenience and affordability—what other factors dictate food choices?

N&N: You’ve asked lots of questions here. Let’s start with the one about elitism. We view what’s happening with food these days as coming close to being a social movement based on classic democratic principles—of the people, by the people, for the people. Social movements have to start somewhere and some of the most important ones—women’s suffrage, civil rights and environmentalism leap to mind—started with the elite. Today, organics are the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. The laws of supply and demand suggest that as the supply of organics increases, prices will fall. This is already happening.

The issues of mass production and affordability are complicated and depend on federal farm policies, among other arcane matters. Those who grow corn get billions in federal subsidies, and corn was really cheap until we started growing it for fuel. That’s why corn appears as an ingredient in so many pet foods. That’s also why so many people want farm policy changed. The Farm Bill [known in Congress as the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007] was up for renewal in 2007. At the time of this writing, it did not look as though Congress would be brave enough to make significant changes in it, so advocates are already gearing up for the next round in 2012.

As for what dictates food choice: Price and convenience matter a lot, but so does perception. That’s where advertising comes in. We will have a lot to say in our book about the way pet foods are marketed. For human foods, environmental factors—portion size, proximity and peer pressure, for example—strongly influence caloric intake. But as a pet owner, you have complete control over your dog’s food environment.

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