Shopping for organic pet food

How much does a label matter? This isn’t a new question; in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s heroine famously questions the importance of a name: "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

In other words, a label is just a label and has nothing to do with the essential value of the thing it names. I would advise pet owners to think similarly about the names of certain products that they buy: Labels such as “natural,” “organic” and “low fat” may not only be misleading but even incorrect.

Every pet owner strives to make the best possible choices in order to promote lifelong health and well-being for his favorite fur person. For many owners, this means opting for natural products, organic foods and low-calorie diets. But sometimes those words can be almost meaningless. Savvy consumers should know the definitions of these words when attached to the products they buy.

What Does Natural Mean?

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broadly defines "natural" as free of artificial ingredients. Many medications come from natural sources, but not all natural medications are good for your pet.

For example, vincristine and vinblastine are chemotherapy drugs I frequently prescribe; both are derived from the periwinkle plant. They are good examples of natural products that can do a great deal of good when used properly, as in the case of my patients with cancer.

But plant-based medications can also potentially cause harm. Recently, one of my patients received herbal medications from a specialist in Chinese medicine. Routine blood tests identified a concerning increase in liver enzymes; despite a lengthy evaluation, a cause was not revealed. Discontinuation of the herbs resolved the problem. While trying to figure out her problem, I discovered an entire chapter in one of my hefty internal medicine books on the impact of herbal medications on dog and cat livers.

All foods must meet general food safety requirements, but there are few other regulations in place for a food to be labeled as natural. And keep in mind that in the bigger picture, natural doesn’t always mean safe — think about food recalls of fresh fruits and vegetables contaminated with microbes such as Salmonella and E. coli.

Organic Not Always Optimal

The label “organic” applies both to food products and to the farming process used to grow them. To use the organic label, meats, fruits and vegetables must have been grown and processed using specific techniques certified by the National Organic Program, which is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The term "organic" describes a methodology, but it doesn’t ensure safety. Take, for example, the healthy box of organic raisins available at your local market. Are they organic? Yes. But are they safe? Not if you are a dog.

Grapes, raisins and currants have all been shown to cause acute kidney injury when ingested by dogs. The mechanism is unknown, and both types of these dried fruits, organic and nonorganic, can cause acute kidney injury. Keep all varieties of these otherwise healthy human snacks away from your favorite canine.

The Lowdown on Low Fat

An obesity epidemic affects American pets as well as humans. Fortunately, you can choose low-fat foods for your pet. But you must keep in mind that, just as in human foods, the label “low fat” doesn’t always mean low calories. And that’s not good if you’re watching your pet’s weight.

My friend Dr. Lisa Freeman, who is also a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at Tufts University, co-authored a study that looked at the caloric density in pet foods designed to promote weight loss. She found a wide variation in the caloric density of weight-loss diets for dogs and cats, leading her to conclude that one barrier to effective weight-loss programs in pets is the fact that the calorie content of low-fat diets may be all over the map! In her study, the caloric density of dry dog foods with feeding instructions for weight loss ranged from 217 to 395 calories per cup; cat food with feeding instructions for weight loss varied greatly as well.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials regulates the calorie content of food labeled "light,” “lite” and “reduced” or “low calorie.” These products must have a calorie content below a certain cutoff to have those specific words on their label. Products labeled “low fat,” “weight management,” “weight control” or with other words that imply a low-calorie status without using the specific terms listed above do not have a specified calorie count per cup or can.

For these reasons, check with your pet’s primary care veterinarian before you decide to start your pudgy pet on a diet to make sure you are getting the most bang for your buck.

In the end, Juliet was right: A name doesn’t always mean what you think it does. When it comes to natural, organic and low-fat food options, protect the health and well-being of your dog or cat by knowing what you are buying!