If you watch enough cooking shows, you will find yourself inspired to try new foods and new cooking techniques in the kitchen. There is also a “rich” array of advertising that comes along with it – and well targeted to those who might be easily swayed by misleading statements that stem from the naturalistic fallacy. One such advertisement is one for pet food where dog owners are complaining their “old brand” had “chicken by-product” as the first ingredient instead of just plain chicken. But is this really bad?
Chicken by-product is chicken with the addition of some “yucky” pieces such as the feet and intestines. It is really meat, bone, and organs not normally consumed by humans. Unlike what Mercola says (I am not giving him more links by putting one here), this by-product does not contain feathers. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulates ingredient names, and defines by-product as to not contain feathers. It is funny how these parts are made to seem “icky” – even though as humans we eat intestines in the form of sausage casings (just not of chickens) and we eat the meat right next the feet when eating chicken drumsticks.
As William Burkholder, D.V.M., Ph.D. of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) points out, “… [the] protein quality of by-products sometimes is better than that from muscle meat.” Because of organs and bone matter found in the by-product, it is often that the entire nutritional profile of by-product better fits a dog’s nutritional needs than would plain, lean chicken. But, because by-product has no specific ratio of meat, bone, and organs required, it is important to check the nutritional analysis to make sure the food is providing adequate nutrition for dogs.
Chicken by-product meal is another possible ingredient. The difference from regular by-product is meal is cooked to remove the water and fat. Certainly this is advantageous because it reduces the weight for shipping and helps prevent spoiling. It doesn’t change the nutrition, but it does usually mean the company using the meal doesn’t necessarily know what specific ratio of parts went into the ingredient.
If the first ingredient on the label is “chicken” as the advertisement states, it doesn’t automatically make the food “better.” Because ingredients are listed in order by weight, it can be misleading:
However, the weight includes the moisture in the ingredient, which makes it tricky to interpret. “A moist ingredient, such as chicken, which may be 70 percent water, may be listed ahead of a dry ingredient, such as soybean meal, which is only 10 percent water—yet the soy actually contributes more solids to the diet,” says Susan Donoghue, V.M.D., owner of Nutrition Support Services, Inc., and past president of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition.
So in reality, having chicken meal or chicken by-product meal could mean the food per serving contains more protein and fat than the “fresh chicken” counterpart.
Although there are some differences between wolves and domestic dogs, they are related closely enough genetically that making some general assumptions and observations make sense. Wolves will eat small mammals and birds, leaving nothing behind. Without a detailed analysis of their blood work and a study of life spans under comparable conditions, a firm, definite conclusion cannot be made. However, this anecdote points us in the right direction and is good cause to believe the published material on by-product.
Human foods also can contain a certain “icky” factor to them. Because it is impossible to process food perfectly, the FDA has tolerances for foods as to their contaminate content. As this recent Washington Times blog points out:
…ground cinnamon may contain 11 rodent hairs per 50 grams, orange juice may contain one maggot per 250 ml, and most spices like oregano and black pepper may contain between one and three milligrams of mammalian feces per pound. Fresh water herring may contain up to 60 parasitic cysts per 100 fish, hops in your beer may contain up to 2,500 aphids per 10 grams, and dried pasta may contain up to 4.5 rodent hairs and 225 insect fragments per 225 grams- that’s one insect part per gram of pasta!
Look! Even humans are eating by-products!
By now it should be obvious where my conclusion is heading after researching this topic. It would seem pet food is more about quality control and the minimum analysis, not so much the difference between whole chicken and by-product. Because the way these ingredients can be mixed, it is difficult to know from just the ingredients if a food is good or bad. It is best to ask your vet, or other pet owners. With approximately 80 million pet dogs in the US alone, finding a pattern to the anecdotes should be pretty easy, and probably “good enough” for picking a pet food in a well-regulated industry.
This Ask A Vet website makes a better conclusion by stating:
What I learned was that it is virtually impossible for me to read a pet food ingredient list and decide whether the ingredients are going to be good nutrition for my pets. A great food may contain a high quality chicken by-product. But, a poor food could contain a low quality chicken by-product. For both of those foods, what is on the label is simply, “chicken by-product”. There is no way that I can read the label to determine which one is better.
As a veterinarian, people ask me every day what the best foods are. I tell them that I see a number of foods that consistently help dogs to have good, healthy looking coats and well formed, regular stools.
Dr. Marie goes on to recommend 3 fairly well-known commercial brands. Her experience is the mix of cost and nutrition in those foods works for most dogs. Don’t buy your dog food just on the ingredient list alone.