What Are "Natural" Dog Food Flavors? Decoding the Dog Food Label

What Are Natural Dog Food Flavors?
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vet verified Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

"Contains natural flavors" seems all well and good when we see it on a bag of dog food, but does it mean what it sounds like, or are there other implications behind this seemingly innocuous message?

We’ve all seen the words on bags of dog food at the supermarket or pet store: “Contains Only Natural Flavors.” And this sounds great, right? Of course that’s what we want for our pet, natural foods with natural flavors. But are you sure you know what the term really means?

The AAFCO Flavor Rule

To understand what is meant by “natural flavors” when we encounter it on a bag of dog food, we should first get an idea of what is meant by “flavor” itself, as defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which sets content guidelines for pet foods in the United States. According to the AAFCO Flavor Rule, a food can be claimed to have a certain flavor—say chicken or beef—if that flavor is “sufficiently detectable.”

In other words, a dog food manufacturer can call its food “beef flavored” if the dog, when eating it, can detect that beef flavor. The thing is, this flavor can come from any number of sources: from beef itself, from beef meal or by-products, from other animal products such as chicken, or from “artificial flavors” produced in the laboratory. Whatever tastes like beef, even if it’s really not beef, falls under the Flavor Rule.

What’s more, all of these flavor sources can, with exception of the “artificial flavors,” be classified as “natural.”

The FDA and Natural Flavors

Here’s what the FDA has to say about natural flavors:

“With respect to flavors, pet foods often contain ‘digests,’ which are materials treated with heat, enzymes and/or acids to form concentrated natural flavors. Only a small amount of a ‘chicken digest’ is needed to produce a ‘Chicken Flavored Cat Food,’ even though no actual chicken is added to the food.”

What this means is that as long as the flavor comes from some plant, animal, or even mined source, a dog food company can call it natural, as long as it produces the chemical flavor naturally. In many cases, this means that the manufacturer has extracted flavors from animal products or even chemically produced it, concentrated it, and then added it to the dog food.

Reading Between the Lines

As you can see, when a dog food says “Made with Natural Flavors,” you can’t be entirely sure what that’s claiming. You can check the content label, but there you might only find the listing “Natural Flavors,” without any indication of what that means. In fact, many pet food makers use “proprietary” flavorings, flavors they developed themselves, whose ingredients they’re not obligated to detail on the packaging.

To muddy the waters even more, the FDA tells us that “artificial flavors are rarely used in pet foods.” Thus, the declaration of “All Natural” on dog food labels is often redundant since one food is as likely to use “natural flavors” as another, making a large number of the pet foods on the market “All Natural.”

So what can you, the dog owner and consumer, do to make sure that you are feeding your dog only the most natural foods? You can either make your own dog food—a time consuming choice for most folks—or purchase a high quality food from a food manufacturer that you have experience with and trust. In addition, you can always talk to your vet about the specifics of a food you’re buying, or thinking of.

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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.

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