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Fancy, ‘human-grade’ dog foods are all the rage. Are they healthier?

healthy food eating french bulldog with vegan or vegetarian carrot in mouth, isolated on white background (damedeeso via Getty Images)

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Clarification: This article has been revised to provide additional context about how Carly Fox, senior veterinarian at Schwarzman Animal Medical Center NYC, estimated the carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of fresh dog food brands such as the Farmer’s Dog. It has also been updated to add that the chief executive of the Farmer’s Dog disputes Fox’s estimate and to add a quote from him.

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My dog’s food does not look delicious. By human standards, it barely even looks like food - dry, brown triangles mixed with softer dry, brown chunks, a bowl of Unlucky Charms. The package tells me the contents are lamb and rice, but it looks curiously similar to my other dog’s food, which is labeled “salmon.” Because I love my dogs very much, and because I’m a chronic overthinker, scooping kibble into their bowls every day tends to leave me feeling guilty. Do they like their sad dog cereal? Is it even good for them?

In recent years, an industry has grown around these anxieties. Consumers can now choose from an ever-increasing amount of high-end dog food brands that advertise “real” food, which often resembles the food we feed ourselves: chunks of carrots, cubes of chicken, leaves from green vegetables. You can choose from flash-frozen raw food, dehydrated meat and whole grains, and supplemented vegetarian diets. Several brands will ship “customized” diets right to your home, borrowing the concept from human meal delivery services. The food is typically labeled “human-grade,” often refrigerated, advertised as not including “fillers,” and almost always at a higher price point than the more common midrange brands.

Going by looks, the food seems much better than the kibble my dogs eat by every conceivable metric - fresher, more nutritious, tastier. Though typically more difficult to obtain, store and afford, it looks like the kind of food you’d feel good about feeding your best canine friends; like it could make them healthier and happier. But does it?

“The most important thing for the health of the pet is that the food is providing all of the necessary nutrients, all of the vitamins, all the minerals, the right amount of protein and fat, and so on, that they need to be healthy,” says Jonathan Stockman, assistant professor at Long Island University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. These metrics are set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and are met by most commercial dog food available in the United States. “That is not really something that is provided in any better way through these more humanlike diets,” Stockman says.

Carly Fox, senior veterinarian at Schwarzman Animal Medical Center NYC, agrees. “The nutritional content of high-end dog food brands does not differ significantly from typical grocery store brands,” she tells me via email.

If you’re buying a quality grocery store brand, Fox isn’t even particularly concerned about fillers. “Most ‘fillers’ in dog food are different types of carbohydrates (i.e. grains, potatoes, legumes, etc.),” she says. They provide fiber, antioxidants and essential fatty acids, and they tend to make up a large percentage of dogs’ caloric intake. Based on previously reported nutrition information, Fox estimates that a brand like the Farmer’s Dog, a company that ships portioned fresh food to your door, has a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of about 1:1. But she notes that carbohydrate content in pet food is hard to measure; it isn’t required to be listed on packaging and there could be variability within the brand’s recipes. She estimates the same ratio is found in most mid-range brands, such as Blue Buffalo. (A value brand, such as Kibbles ’n Bits, fares a bit worse, in her assessment, with a ratio closer to 2:1.)

Jonathan Regev, co-founder and chief executive of the Farmer’s Dog, says the company’s ratio of carbs to protein, on average, is better than 1:1, but he declined to provide a different ratio. Regardless, he says that’s not the most important benefit of the company’s foods, writing in an email: “Our uncompromising standards in both the quality and unique production of our food - especially our avoidance of the extreme processing that is the unfortunate default throughout the pet food industry - is why veterinarians and customers are increasingly moving away from kibble and canned products.”

A “human-grade” designation on dog foods might not mean what you think it does. According to AAFCO, human-grade ingredients are “stored, handled, processed, and transported in a manner that is consistent and compliant” with human food, meaning the factory or kitchen is licensed to produce food for both humans and animals. “Although the standards for human foods are different in some ways than for pet foods,” Fox says, “this does not translate to improved health benefits, or mean that the ingredients are actually better for your pet.”

The “made in the U.S.A.” label holds a bit more weight. Although it doesn’t necessarily say anything about a food’s quality, ingredients sourced from the United States are at least “generally safe,” says John Loftus, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “There have been several issues with ingredients from China,” he says, so he recommends avoiding pet foods sourced from there. Loftus says jerky treats, in particular, should be made in the United States.

One area where high-end foods fare better, according to Loftus, is digestibility. This refers to how well nutrients from a food can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Loftus says those traditional grocery store brands have come a long way in terms of their digestibility, with many of them landing somewhere around 90 percent. The fresh diets, though, are “probably a little bit higher.”

Fresh diets can help, too, if your dog is a picky eater who finds human food more palatable. “Palatability may be enough of a reason to justify the increased expense,” Fox says. Guardians may also opt to cook their dog’s food at home, a route Loftus suggests they take only with the guidance of a veterinary nutritionist (or recipes backed by one). “Making sure that they have all the vitamins and minerals they need is really important,” he says.

The bottom line seems to be that you are not doing your dog a major disservice by feeding her typical grocery store kibble. But if you, like me, still want some guidance on how to make sure your dog’s food is healthy and nutritious, Fox says there are a few things you should look out for. First, make sure the food meets AAFCO’s standards for your dog’s age, and that it has ideally gone through feeding trials. The manufacturer should be well-known and contactable for any questions, and the company should employ veterinary nutritionists (and participate in published, peer-reviewed research). You should also keep an eye on your dog’s health - monitor their weight, their stool, their skin and coat, and tell your veterinarian if anything seems off. They can help you adjust their diet or guide you toward a new kind of food, if necessary.

Truthfully, it’s not like my dogs have ever displayed negative feelings about their food. When it’s time to eat, they jump and spin with excitement, and they always ask for a little more. Their health is good and steady. It seems that right now the only thing about their “sad dog cereal” that needs to change is my own perception of it. Let’s call it “normal dog cereal,” maybe, or “dog cereal that’s actually fine!”

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Kelly Conaboy is a writer in New York who covers dogs, culture and dog culture.

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