Complete and Balanced: Standards or Marketing Buzzwords in Dog Food?

what does a complete and balanced raw diet mean

In simple terms, processed foods don’t always have the necessary nutrient levels to prevent illness. When food items like meat, grains, or veggies undergo any form of cooking or heat treatment, they lose some of their essential nutrients. This isn’t news to those in the pet food business. Likewise, the pharmaceutical world recognizes the need for specific vitamin and mineral levels to stave off diseases.

Yet, there’s a flip side. Overloading on artificial vitamins and minerals can be dangerous, even leading to severe illnesses, a fact acknowledged by these industries. Many consumers trust that if a pet food meets standards set by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) – the overseer of the pet food sector – then it’s both safe and nutritious.

Does ‘Complete and Balanced’ On the Label Mean Safe?

When you browse the pet food section at your local supermarket, you’ll often spot the “complete and balanced” label on many dog food products. Most dog owners might interpret this as the food meeting every nutritional requirement their furry friend might have. But what’s the real story behind this label?

To wear the “complete” badge, a dog food must have all the essential nutrients as determined by the AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials). These guidelines, first drafted in 1956 and officially set in 1985, are dynamic and might undergo revisions—whether that’s tomorrow, next year, or further down the line.

On the other hand, “balanced” signifies that the dog food contains nutrients in proportions endorsed by the AAFCO. And just like with the “complete” tag, these standards could shift in the foreseeable future.

However, a challenge arises since AAFCO’s recommendations stem from the NRC guidelines. These guidelines had their inception in 1953 and saw updates in the subsequent years until 2006. But here’s the catch: they haven’t been revisited for over fifteen years. This means the latest advancements in canine health aren’t reflected in the current nutrient recommendations.

AAFCO’s guidelines lean more towards livestock feed standards, often labeling kibble as ‘feed’ rather than ‘food’. And while the packaging may showcase appetizing steaks and veggies, it doesn’t guarantee the content matches the cover.

Here’s a fun fact: AAFCO’s “25 percent rule” means that for an ingredient like “venison” to feature on the packaging, the food only needs to contain 25% of actual venison. The remaining 75%? Well, it could be filled with just about anything else. So, that tantalizing steak image might not be as representative as you’d think!

Learning About Synthetic Minerals 

To fulfill AAFCO’s nutritional standards, many pet food brands resort to adding artificial vitamins and minerals to their processed offerings. Why? These standards were designed keeping in mind processed or heat-extruded pet foods, which lose nutrients due to their high-heat treatment.

Picture cells as having docking points where natural substances can latch on to regulate cell activities. Introduce imitation vitamins or minerals, and you risk these docking points getting jammed.

This could be the reason why, when these docking points are free and ready for nutrients, initially introducing synthetic vitamins, minerals, or even hormone treatments seems effective.

But there’s a snag. When these cell docking points get blocked with these pseudo-nutrients, they can’t operate as they should. So, whether it’s you or your pet, starting a new artificial supplement or a different kind of food might feel great at first. However, don’t be surprised if those old issues sneak back in after a while.

Vitamins C and E Should Come From Natural Sources

Whole food-based vitamin C is a rich tapestry of over eight diverse components, while its synthetic counterpart is just ascorbic acid. And take vitamin E: it’s got two avatars – d-alpha and dl-alpha. Mother Nature gives us one; labs whip up the other.

The story goes deeper with synthetic alpha-tocopherol. Apart from just being chemically distinct, it’s different in how our bodies absorb, metabolize, and respond to it. So, why are they added to kibble? To make up for the lost nutrients. But there’s a twist. These artificial additives, mixed with a restricted ingredient range and processing, can mess with the cell’s nutrition game, leading to a sort of cellular malnourishment.

Here’s a heads-up: are you overdosing your dog on synthetic vitamins? It can be a bad idea. Remember, more isn’t always better.

If there’s a nutritional void to plug, turn to whole foods. They’re not only superior but also easier for the body to use compared to lab-made supplements.

The Feeding Trial for AAFCO Approval

For a pet food product to proudly sport the “complete and balanced” label, it either has to clear a feeding test or meet a standard vitamin and mineral benchmark. The most budget-friendly way to hit this mark? Spike a processed diet with a pre-set mix of artificial vitamins and minerals.

Sure, manufacturers could go the extra mile by loading up on nutrient-rich ingredients that still provide ample nourishment even after processing. But here’s the hitch: this approach demands expensive testing or feeding experiments to guarantee the food’s up to par.

Hence, the majority leans towards tossing in the usual vitamin-mineral cocktail. And you’ll find this mix in all sorts of forms: canned, kibbled, freeze-dried, or even in commercial raw frozen foods.

Watch Out for These Pet Food Marketing Terms

How to Pass Pet Food Standards

To earn that “complete and balanced” label, a pet food has to jump through some hoops. First up: the feeding test. If six out of eight dogs can sail through 26 weeks, without shedding more than 15% of their body weight or their blood values dipping too low, they’re in the clear. Here’s what else they’ve gotta nail:

  • Trials? They’ve got to be in-house.
  • Got “growth food”? It’s a 10-week test.
  • Two dogs can bow out, and, get this, they don’t have to tell us why.
  • A few things they measure in the blood: hemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphates (kidney stuff), and albumin (liver jazz). And these need to be within a specific range.
  • If you’re a research buff or have skimmed a study or two, you’ll see these numbers and scratch your head. Just six dogs? Tiny sample sizes like this can be super misleading. Let’s say, in a group of 200 dogs, two got sick. You’d think, “Hmm, maybe just a weird coincidence.” But if two out of just six get sick? Alarm bells! And yet, six is all they need.

Oh, and here’s the zinger: two of those dogs can just…vanish from the study. So, if a couple of pooches aren’t feeling too hot, they can be conveniently sidestepped, and we’re none the wiser. Zero transparency.

Why might a dog get the boot? Skin issues, teeth trouble, bloat, some quirky gland problems…the list goes on.

Now, here’s the kicker: pet food brands can do this dance over and over again. If their trial turns up something nasty, they can just hit the redo button and only show us the shiny results.

Monitoring only four blood indicators? That’s eyebrow-raising. Even if these values teeter on the edge, they still get the green light. But where does that leave our furry friends? Not in the best of health. And they don’t even check if our pets are getting their daily dose of essential vitamins like zinc, calcium, magnesium… you get the drift.

Lastly, once they ace this test, they’re golden. No more checks unless things get seriously bad. So, that label? Maybe not as reassuring as we thought.

Do “Complete and Balanced” Diets Work For Our Dogs?

Do “complete and balanced” diets get the job done? Absolutely. All over the world, our four-legged friends munch on dry food and seem to be doing okay. It’s sort of like how the human food sector whipped up infant formulas touted as “complete and balanced”. Dogs have their equivalent in both crunchy kibble and canned food.

So, technically, you could have your pup chow down on processed food their whole life. These meals are crafted to ensure your dog stays on this side of the grass.
But here’s the real deal: does it truly fuel their best health?

Think about it: if these diets were the bee’s knees, would our vets still be seeing cases of allergies, kidney woes, UTIs, weight issues, and the big C? And hey, if there was a “complete and balanced” magic meal-in-a-bag for us humans, wouldn’t we all be on that diet by now?

Protein Differences in Raw, Cooked, and Kibble

What About Dog Owners Who Want to Make Their Own?

There’s this rising wave among fresh food enthusiasts who proudly declare their recipes as “complete and balanced” or compliant with “NRC” guidelines.

Now, while AAFCO and NRC might be seen as two peas in a pod, they’re truly distinct in their missions. The National Research Council (NRC) sets dietary standards for dogs, focusing on metrics like 1000/kcal and metabolic weight, which many kibble producers follow. Contrary to popular belief, NRC doesn’t conduct hands-on trials and research like AAFCO. Instead, they release insightful reports detailing a dog’s nutritional needs.

But here’s the catch: tagging something as “complete and balanced” usually hints at a highly-processed dog food recipe, often made with lesser quality ingredients than what you’d find in a home-cooked or raw dish.

It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples situation. A raw diet is a world apart from the industrially-processed kibble. Think of it like comparing a freshly-sliced steak to that freezer-burned TV dinner.

AAFCO’s “complete and balanced” framework predominantly revolves around processed foods. This means the dog food has undergone a battery of treatments – from high-heat cooking to chemical alterations – making its nutritional profile different from fresh food. In human terms, it’s like setting a bowl of sugary cereal against a wholesome breakfast of fresh eggs and fruits.

When AAFCO stamps a food “complete and balanced”, there’s this silent implication that every bit of that kibble is bioavailable, or, in simpler terms, wholly digestible by our dogs. But, considering dogs are opportunistic carnivores, many nutrients vital to them are conspicuously absent in kibble. Take phytates, for instance: they’re abundant in kibble and can mess with the absorption of minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium.

Essentially, you’d have to overcompensate with these minerals to ensure your dog gets enough. Survival needs and optimal health requirements can be miles apart.

AAFCO’s trials might not paint the full picture, and the true digestibility, or bioavailability, of kibble might not be as impressive as touted.

AAFCO and NRC Standards Are ONLY For Kibble 

Comparing cooked food to raw food is like comparing apples to oranges. Cooking processes can break down proteins and collagen, deplete vital nutrients, and generally reduce the food’s digestibility and bioavailability, though grains and vegetables might be exceptions.
This degradation is a key reason why, when producing processed dog food, manufacturers have to reintroduce synthetic vitamins and minerals. Often, these additions are in excess to ensure they fit within the approved value range.

Notably, the long-term impacts of these supplemented values aren’t tracked beyond the six-month duration of AAFCO feeding trials.

While adhering to NRC or AAFCO guidelines isn’t inherently bad, it’s essential to remember that these guidelines are shaped around kibble.

Commercial pet food companies often play this card, asking, “Is your raw diet in line with AAFCO or NRC recommendations?” The truth is, a raw diet designed for your dog’s unique needs may not always align with these general guidelines. It’s about crafting a tailored diet for your pet, rather than squeezing them into a generic formula.

Until the day comes when researchers delve deep, using ample sample sizes to study both raw-fed and commercial dog food diets, the ideal minimum standards for both remain nebulous. Yet, there’s existing research that showcases the superior bioavailability and nutritional content of whole foods compared to their processed counterparts.

How to Explain Raw Feeding To Your Vet

There’s a prevalent lack of clarity surrounding home-made diets, and many veterinarians may not be well-versed in the nutritional intricacies of raw foods. Their education in vet schools primarily focuses on the guidelines set by commercial pet food companies. Recommending a raw diet without sufficient knowledge can put them at risk of malpractice, which could jeopardize their license. Hence, they often lean towards suggesting foods labeled as ‘complete and balanced.’

For those interested in raw food nutrition, consulting a holistic veterinarian with specialized knowledge in the area is advisable. When visiting, it’s beneficial to provide a detailed sample of the diet you intend to offer your dog, inclusive of ingredients and their proportions, for a thorough assessment.

To learn more about these topics, check out these sources:

Mineral and Trace Element Absorption from Dry Dog Food by Dogs, Determined Using Stable Isotopes | The Journal of Nutrition | Oxford Academic
Dr. Karen Becker and Rodney Habib, The Forever Dog
Shawn Buckley and Oscar Chavez, Big Kibble
Dr. Conor Brady, Feeding Dogs
Complete and Balanced Dog Diets | Darwin’s Natural Pet Products
Why Labels Say For Intermittent or Supplemental Feeding – Raw Dog Food and Company
Deconstructing the Regulatory Facade: Why Confused Consumers Feed their Pets Ring Dings and Krispy Kremes
(PDF) Evaluation of the chemical composition of dry dogfoods commercialized in Chile used for growing dogs
Challenges in developing nutrient guidelines for companion animals
Feeding Dogs: The Science Behind The Dry Versus Raw Debate: Brady, Dr Conor: 9781916234000: Books
Ruined by Excess, Perfected by Lack: The Paradox of Pet Nutrition: Patton, R.: 9781904761723: Books

Published by Amber L. Drake

Dr. Amber L. Drake is a celebrated author and a distinguished cancer specialist, renowned for her comprehensive research in canine cancer prevention and nutrition. She is widely recognized for her commitment to helping dogs lead long and joyful lives, as well as for her contributions to veterinary medicine education. As the CEO of Canine Companions Co., the Founder of the Drake Dog Cancer Foundation and Academy, and the Co-Founder of Preferable Pups, she has become a respected and influential figure in the canine community, earning the admiration and respect of dog enthusiasts around the globe.

Leave a Reply