In recent years, there has been an explosion in nutrition research. Old assumptions about nutrient profiles and dietary needs are being challenged everywhere, from the human food pyramid to the one that dry dog food brands and cat food brands apply to our pets. We’re living in a time of experimentation and exploring different ideas about food culture, but no matter which specific diets people embrace, there is consensus about which direction we should be moving in: closer to nature. Less processed food is healthier and more nutritious than anything that comes out of a machine.
This is perhaps never more true than for kibble. A promising trend has arisen of more and more pet owners stepping away from traditional dry kibble and embracing fresh, natural pet food brands. People are paying more attention to cat and dog health and nutrition, and demand for natural food has driven a pop in new companies creating fresh and even raw meals for our animals.
But what is it about kibble that’s so bad? It never does any good to embrace a trend, especially one that has to do with health, without appreciating the underlying reasons behind it. If you understand how nutrition works and how different foods are made, then you’ll be able to make careful, informed decisions about what’s truly best – for you and for your pet. Anything less is nothing but a hopeful gamble, chasing advertisements or advice because they sound good rather than because you know for yourself that they’ll work.
So let’s peek behind the curtain to find out what’s in traditional dry kibble and what it does to your pet.
From Fresh Ingredients To Brown Mush
The process that turns meat, vegetables, and fruits into hard, grainy, dark brown pellets is exactly as bad as it sounds.
Kibble is produced when perfectly good food is cooked at extreme pressure and high temperatures. The ingredients, which start out raw, are first mixed together the point of forming a dough-like consistency. This dough is sent into a machine called an expander, which subjects it to hot water or pressurized steam.
The pressurized dough is then extruded (doesn’t that sound appetizing?) through specially shaped holes to be chopped up into the various pellet shapes we all know. After that, it’s dehydrated into hard form and sprayed with vitamins, minerals, fats, and oils (many of which are synthetic) to replace essential nutrients which should naturally occur in the ingredients used, but which were boiled to death in the cooking process. Yum yum.
From Nutrients to Cancer Agents
While nutrients in the ingredients are killed off in the manufacturing process, a few chemical hazards are produced in their place. You might think that high temperatures would kill off anything harmful. In fact, not only do some things survive the cooking process, but the high pressures and temperatures used produce certain chemicals.
- Acrylamides are a carcinogen that form whenever carbohydrate-rich food is cooked at high temperatures with a low moisture content. The extrusion process that kibble undergoes is an ideal production ground.
- Aflatoxins are a type of mold toxin that enter food through contaminated grains, are stable enough to survive pressure cooking, and can thrive if food is not properly stored. Even once the kibble is ready for use, anytime it’s exposed to air and any level of moisture or humidity, mold spores can reach it. Since a bag of kibble can last for weeks, there’s a lot of exposure risk.
- Preservatives are part of the spray of synthetic nutrients added back to kibble once it’s done cooking. Without preservatives, the fats and oils would go rancid far sooner than a long shelf life is supposed to allow for. In particular BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BTA (butylated hydroxytoluene) are known carcinogens that also cause organ damage over time, and other similar preservatives are also used on kibble.
- Food coloring is often added to make kibble look prettier than the usual brown lumps – for us humans, that, since the cats and dogs who eat it are largely colorblind.The dyes most commonly used are Red 40, Blue 2, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. Artificial dyes for food have long been studied as allergens and possible carcinogens. Animal studied done on Yellow 6 did, in fact, result in adrenal and kidney tumors in animals.
All of these are terrible enough in their direct effects, but they also all work to drive the body into an inflamed state. Inflammation is the process by which the body tries to combat injury and infection; it’s a natural response to harmful substances. Synthetic compounds and dangerous chemicals all cause swelling and pressure as the body tries to buffer against toxins. This affects overall health, including bloodflow, joints, the functioning of internal organs, hormone balance, the condition of skin and hair, etc. Existing medical problems all worsen under the effects of inflammation, and new medical problems can arise.
But wait! There’s more – something that helps bind all these terrible toxins together.
It Wouldn’t Be Possible Without Carbs
When you see wheat, corn, rice, potatoes, and legumes such as peas and lentils in a kibble ingredients list, those are all rich sources of carbohydrates, and they’re necessary for the kibble production process. Carbs act as binders, which are necessary to make the pressure-cooked dough stick together in pellet form rather than fall apart into powder. They’re also much cheaper than meat, fruit, and vegetables, which is why kibble companies love using them.
And this necessary ingredient takes all the terrible things that we’ve just gone over and amplifies them.
First, though, let’s be clear about exactly what carbohydrates are. Quite simply, carbohydrates are sugars. Anything that is a sugar is a carbohydrate. The only thing sugar is good for is to provide energy. It is not an essential nutrient.
However, carbs generally come along with very nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, and at least for dogs and humans, they can be hard to avoid. Still, the maximum recommended amount for dogs by any veterinarian is only 25% of their diet, with most offering lower recommendations of around 15%. Cats shouldn’t be fed carbs at all since significant amounts are only found in plant products, while felines are carnivorous.
Why is this important? Because kibble companies use a minimum of 30% carbohydrates in their recipes, with most using somewhere around 50% or higher! Now, remember the cancer agent produced by pressure-cooked carbohydrates? And remember what aflatoxin molds grow on in the field?
Along with the toxins mentioned above, here are some more fun effects that carbohydrate-rich kibble has on pets:
- Plaque, tartar, and bad breath. Grains and sugars stick to teeth and create breeding grounds for bacteria, and our cats and dogs don’t brush their teeth everyday like we do.
- Dehydration. Dry kibble absorbs water from your pet in order to digest properly. This puts stress on their kidneys if they don’t replace all that water. This is particularly serious for cats, who have a low thirst drive compared to dogs and humans. Kidney failure is the leading cause of death for domestic cats!
- Some owners add water to kibble to moisten it for meal time, but that can promote mold growth if it sits around for awhile or is already infested, and it makes it easier for the kibble to stick to your pet’s teeth.
- Fat and malnourished. Even complex sugars like starches break down into simple sugars in the body, and without sufficient exercise to combat them, sugars convert into fat for energy storage. Kibble provides plenty of sugar, placing stress on the liver, but without all the essential nutrients that your dog or cat’s body actually needs to rebuild itself and keep working properly.
- Diabetes, and related. Yes, animals can develop conditions such as diabetes, hyperglycemia, hypoglycemia – just about anything we can get, they can get. And they do suffer as much as we do.
- Addiction. Sugar is addictive, in the most literal sense. If your pets exhibit behavioral problems like anxiety and restlessness around mealtime, they beg and whine for food despite having been fed a proper amount consistently (especially if they’re overweight), or they’re lethargic after a few hours of not eating, then barring a medical condition, your pets are showing all the symptoms of an addiction. Feeding them more kibble to calm them down only worsens the problem.
What Are The Alternatives To Kibble
Stay tuned! I’ll be covering an array of options for better pet nutrition in upcoming articles.
Feed Your Pet Right
I believe that anyone who takes an animal into their home makes themself accountable for that animal’s wellbeing and comfort, just like caring for a child. Just like children, our companions can’t take care of themselves – they rely on us to give them what they need, and they have no choice but to accept what we offer. There are so many opportunities today to learn more about nutrition, and so many choices when it comes to fresher, healthier food for your pets. Let’s make it happen.