You try to limit the amount of processed food you eat, but what about your pups? If they’re consuming a diet primarily made up of kibble and dry treats, the foods they consume is likely treated with lots of additives to make it more appetizing. Many traditional dog food companies do this to cater to pups’ cravings: “Dogs have a stronger preference for sweet, fat, and meat flavors,” says Lindsey Bullen, DVM, DACVN, a small animal clinical nutritionist at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas. Find out how brands often play up those flavors with natural and chemical additives—and what that means for your dog’s nutrition:
A main way dog food companies pump up the flavor of their products is by applying palatants to the food. These additives aren’t necessarily unnatural; they are flavored coatings to help replace flavors that are lost during processing and drying the food, says Nancy E. Rawson, MSc, Ph.D., associate director of Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Palatants can come from a variety of sources: animal digests (i.e., chemically or enzymatically broken down animal tissue); certain amino acids (like lysine, cysteine, or glycine); inorganic acids (such as phosphoric or hydrochloric); spices and molasses or sugars. These could be harmful in excessive amounts but generally aren’t unhealthy in the appropriate quantities, says Bullen.
Sometimes companies add fat as a coating to their kibble, to improve the flavor or to help other powdered flavorings like the palatants stick to the food, says Rawson. “Just the addition of fat coating as a palatant does not mean the diet is a high fat diet," says Bullen, “it’s all about proportions and balancing the nutrients.” But the added fat—which often comes in the form of animal fat or corn oil—could pump up the calories. So check the recommended serving size on the food’s label, and consult your vet before assuming added fat is okay for your pup. Most healthy dogs can tolerate it just fine, but those who are overweight, have pancreatitis or a GI disease should avoid it.
Another popular additive to dog food is sweet stuff: Sugar, honey, and molasses are often used to create roasted flavors, explains Rawson. Dogs do need glucose, so some sugar is not necessarily bad for them to consume. But, says Bullen, the amount of sugar depends on the concentration in the food, and it does up the caloric content—so make sure to stick with the recommended serving size. And steer clear of an excess of food with added sweets if your dog is diabetic or has cancer or respiratory disease.
Unidentified animal fat
It’s not uncommon to see the vague phrase “animal fat” on a dog food label. The main reason for this, says Rawson, it that “it gives the brand the flexibility to change sources to use the one that works best or is more available without changing the label.” While the term does not mean the fat source is definitely lower quality than if the label specified chicken or pork fat, for example, it could mean the source is a rendered byproduct coming from an organ of the animal other than muscle.
Salt or other forms of sodium
Dog food brands don’t really load up on sodium as we typically think of it, since salty flavors don’t exactly get canines salivating. But some add sodium nitrite to their products to give them an appealing pink or red color and to prevent the growth of bacteria. It’s the same chemical added to human processed foods like bacon and hot dogs—and research has found a link between sodium nitrite and cancer, suggesting it might be carcinogenic. “Sodium nitrite can be toxic in high doses, but small amounts are okay for use as a preservative,” says Bullen. European countries limit the amount of the chemical in pet foods, but the US does not.