Archive for May, 2008

29th May 2008

What are the Advantages of Organic Pet Foods?

Among all commercially available brands of pet foods, those that are certified organic are probably the most nutritious and health-promoting choices. Why do I say that?

Certified organic ingredients contain much lower amounts of pesticide residues than conventionally produced, non-organic ingredient. They have significantly higher nutrient levels (e.g., antioxidants, minerals, vitamins). And, of course, the actual production of certified organic ingredients is significantly less toxic and far less damaging to the environment).

Organic certification assures that the production or manufacturing facility operates without use of toxins, such as conventional cleaning and sterilizing agents. This supports the safety of ingredients and final food products, as well as the health of animals and the environment. In conventional, non-organic certified, manufacturing sites, food and ingredient storage areas are often fumigated and treated with other highly toxic pest control measures. Moreover, toxic sanitizing chemicals are commonly used in the food preparation and storage areas of such facilities (and this also applies to factories where human foods are produced). In contrast to such less-than-healthy production environments, it is a real joy for me to work in my company’s certified organic facility, which is both toxin-free and clean as a whistle!

Organic certification includes an annual inspection of the manufacturing facility, as well as inspections of all ingredients used and records kept during the previous year. All records must be readily available (and scrupulously maintained) for inspection for a total of five years from the time of initial inspection. The inspection for organic certification assures that ingredients are indeed organic, as claimed by the manufacturer (records must include a current organic certificate for each ingredient used), and that each ingredient’s organic status is maintained as such (e.g., no addition of toxins; no synthetic ingredients which are used in the manufacture of conventional, or non-certified organic, pet foods; no ingredients which are known to be unhealthy, such as artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives). Furthermore, the use of ill-defined and untraceable ingredients, such as ‘byproducts,’ ‘animal protein,’ ‘vegetable oil,’ ‘chicken meal,’ is unthinkable for certified organic products because none of these can be sourced to their initial origin (not to mention the fact that these particular ingredients, by their very nature, are pretty unhealthy to begin with).\r\n\r\nOrganic certification also assures that no genetically modified organism (GMO)-based ingredients are included in the organic product you’re purchasing. Most importantly, the omission of GMOs avoids certain potential health issues and detrimental environmental practices associated with these ingredients.

Organic certification alone is no guarantee that the pet food you’re purchasing is actually healthy for your pet. Why do I say that?

It’s certainly possible to use certified organic ingredients that are unhealthy for animals. For example, refined organic flour is, like its conventional counterpart, simply unhealthy, especially if consumed on a regular basis. Refining of ingredients including flour can lead to a marked loss of nutrients, and is known to contribute to many major diseases in the industrialized world, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, certain allergies, immune suppression, and certain forms of cancer. The very same health problems that human populations face as a result of poor food choices are now beginning to take hold among our pets. This isn’t surprising, given that we”ve adopted many of the same practices used in human food processing for the production of cheap and readily available pet foods.

Even if we add fiber or other supplements to our animals’ foods, the reality is that these isolated nutrients can never substitute for what has been lost through the separation of components from natural, whole foods; this applies to vitamins and minerals, as well. Moreover, simply adding supplemental vitamins and minerals out of context to foods (many of which may already contain the same nutrients to begin with) can actually have negative effects on the health of both humans and animals.

Pet food products that are both certified organic and contain whole food ingredients aren’t necessarily nutritious or healthy. Why do I say that?

Even if you chose the right ingredients, you can damage their nutritional properties if you over-process them with heat. Heat destroys all enzymes, denatures most proteins, and can even alter the molecular structure of fiber, rendering hard, or even impossible, for the body to digest or absorb. Heat also destroys many vitamins and antioxidants. Even if you supplement foods with minerals or vitamins after heating (i.e., through pressurized spraying after baking or cooking), isolated nutrients will never function as well, or in the same way, as naturally occurring food-based nutrients.

So, the most gentle preparation method would involve preparing foods fresh (i.e., on a par with ‘home-made’ foods), dehydrating products at appropriately low temperatures to guarantee the integrity of constituent ingredients, or flash-freezing.

Canning is one of the least desirable food preparation methods also because there is little understanding of the potentially negative health effects of certain canning materials that are known to leach out over time.

What to look for on the label and/or packaging of a good, commercially available, certified organic food product: I recommend paying more for good quality, certified organic, pet foods. They are more expensive than conventional, non-certified organic pet foods for a reason: certified organic ingredients are considerably more expensive than their conventional and less healthy counterparts. This is money well spent, as you’ll be supporting your animal’s health and reducing almost-certain future expenses for veterinary care (how many friends do you know with overweight, or even diabetic, cats?). Investing in high-quality organic pet foods and avoiding poor diet and its physical and behavioral consequences will make for a happier and ultimately, more satisfying pet-guardian relationship.

Certified organic foods contain at least 95% organic ingredients; the remaining content must be both GMO-free and free of a number of unhealthy additives or ingredients. The certified organic status of a given product or ingredient is indicated by the USDA Organic seal, as well as the name of a USDA-accredited organic certifying agency, such as Quality Assurance International (QAI) or Oregon Tilth (OTCO). Products that contain more than 70% (but less than 95%) organic ingredients cannot bear the USDA organic seal, but must nevertheless display the name of the USDA-accredited organic certifying agency. In this case, you”ll see the phrase, “made with such-and-such organic ingredient,” on the package. These clear labeling protocols are meant to protect the consumer from any misleading use of the term ‘organic’ by some, less-than-scrupulous, companies. Such protocols also allow the consumer to determine what percentage of ingredients is actually certified organic or conventional.

Organic claims without the USDA organic seal or the name of an organic certifying agency may, or may not, contain the organic ingredients that are claimed by the manufacturer. In any event, in such instances, it really comes down to plain and simple trust, since no third-party certifier is verifying the organic claims of a company whose products do not bear a USDA organic seal or the name of a certifying agency. It would be nice to think that governmental regulations and laws could keep up with, and effectively discourage, the deceptive practices—marketing and otherwise— of companies determined to make a buck by praying on ill-informed consumers. Unfortunately, the reality is much more complicated.

What else should the educated consumer and pet guardian look for?

Never buy a food—even if it’s unrefined, certified organic, raw, frozen, or gently dehydrated—if its ingredients don’t make sense to you. For example, I’ve come across herbivore foods that contain animal proteins and/or fat. Now, why would you feed your herbivorous pet meat or animal fat? Also, ask yourself: does it make sense to feed grains, as major staples—to cats or dogs—animals that evolved to exploit animal protein and fat or omnivorous resources, respectively? The manufacture of grain-based foods for dogs and—especially—cats makes no sense to me, as a zoologist, a pet guardian, and, most of all, an animal lover. Despite the common knowledge that grain, gluten, rice, corn, and soy are allergens for dogs, many pet food manufacturers continue to include these ingredients in their dog food products. The reason for this is that these particular ingredients are inexpensive, plain and simple. To knowingly add something that can cause allergic responses in many dogs is just beyond the scope of my understanding.

‘Balanced’ foods or ‘complete diets?’

Whether the nutrient levels that are required to call foods ‘balanced’ or ‘complete,’ are ideal for animal health has become a major point of contention among experts. First, there are issues concerning how these levels are determined in the first place (What breed of dog or cat is used? In what kinds of condition were the experimental animals kept? What were the ages of the animals studied? How long were these studies conducted? What data are collected?). In many cases, the required nutrient levels for balanced, or complete, foods are achieved by adding mostly synthetic mineral vitamin mixes to food. As I said earlier, the addition of synthetic nutrients is unlikely to be supportive of animal health.

Although some nutrients may really prevent certain deficiencies (especially in cases where animals don’t receive a fresh diet that provides a variety of natural food-based nutrients), others might actually do some harm. Personally, I prefer to stay away from synthetic supplements, and would recommend that other pet owners add appropriate high quality, naturally occurring, supplements to their pet’s foods at home (there are some commercially available ones). Of course, the best solution would be to provide foods that contain high-quality, naturally occurring nutrients in the first place; this can often be achieved by simply providing a diverse variety of high-quality foods.

Human-grade ingredients

I would never buy a product that contains something other than human-grade ingredients for my animals. Quite simply, even if something that contains ‘animal feed-grade’ ingredients is certified organic, it wouldn’t be good enough for my animals because the distinction ‘animal feed-grade’ implies a lower-grade quality of ingredient. For example, I don’t understand how an egg could possibly be classified as either ‘human-grade’ or ‘feed-grade’ quality; an egg is either produced under humane, healthy, and environmentally sustainable circumstances, or it isn’t!

Out-sourcing of production

It’s important to determine if a given pet food manufacturer produces products in it’s own facility, or if they’ve contracted another company to manufacture their products. Generally speaking, quality control is often better when products are manufactured in-house. If production is outsourced—even in the same town, state, or country—the pet food manufacturer cannot have complete control over quality assurance, and in any case cannot determine the state of the manufacturing facility at all times.

Such outsourcing might also ignore the status of employees at a third-party manufacturer, who may or may not be well-treated by their employer. This is not to say that outsourcing can’t yield a good product manufactured with the highest quality and ethical standards; it simply indicates that third-party manufacturing warrants much greater scrutiny, both by the consumer and the first-party manufacturer.

Size of the pet food company
I”m generally more partial to smaller companies, as I believe such companies are better able to check their equipment, food storage areas, and manufacturing areas. Unlike such trappings of large-scale manufacturing as silos, huge open storage containers, and enormous mixers, a smaller operation has few, if any, such quality assurance ‘blind spots.’ By their nature, smaller manufacturing companies tend to have better quality control than large multinational corporations. The common practices of small food manufacturers—smaller batches, lower risk, and careful sourcing of ingredients that can be readily inspected by employees—all likely make for better quality products.

Beware of unregulated terminology
‘Natural’ is a term that is not regulated; nor is the term ‘holistic.’ But, as the Green Seal organization recently indicated to me, the USDA organic label is certainly the best and most credible certification for pet and human food products. It’s also a good indicator of the ‘green’ status of a food.

Unfortunately, all unregulated terms can be used—and abused—to their legal limit. Moreover, very misleading marketing and advertising can be used to boost sales at the expense of unwary consumers and their pets. Such practices are, of course, unfair— first, to the consumer who is paying extra for a product she thinks is organic; second, to the true manufacturers of certified organic products who often work hard and responsibly to create quality foods; and finally, to the pets we all love.

Return to Top

Posted by Posted by Heidi Junger, PhD under Filed under Organic Pet Food Standards Comments Comments Off

03rd May 2008

Possible Reasons for Recent Pet Food Recalls. Read on . . .

Two key factors may explain the most recent, and unfortunate, pet food recall:

The use of low quality ingredients with inadequate quality assurance, and the over-processing of these ingredients, which renders the final food products hard to digest and minimally nutritious; and
The industry-wide practice of enormous batch production, which can lead to the inadvertent incorporation of contaminants, such as fungus or bacteria, into a huge run of widely disseminated end-products.
Let’s examine these two points in greater detail:

First, what is the problem with some of the ingredients used in a variety of the best known and most widely marketed brands of pet food. The ingredients in most mass-marketed pet food products are often of extremely low quality (think: how else could several pounds of pet food cost only a few dollars?). To understand this, you need to acquaint yourself with the ingredient lists, or “labeling language,” employed by large manufacturers. Once you’ve become familiar with industry jargon, you might actually be surprised that more food-related pathologies or fatalities haven’t been reported.

Many conventional pet foods contain ingredients which should not enter the ingredient supply chain to begin with. These may include a variety of slaughterhouse wastes, toxic products from spoiled foodstuffs, drug residues, heavy-metal contaminants, nutritionally useless fillers, added sugars, pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives.

Most pet foods and food treats are composed of highly refined ingredients which may have undergone additional [over] processing. During manufacture, these ingredients may have been “cooked to death”; that is, high temperatures may have destroyed all enzymes, many vitamins, and a number of other nutrients that would otherwise be intact-and bioavailable-in the raw material. Feeding pets low-quality, conventional diets-particularly over the long-term-actually increases the need for nutrients to help the body both digest this food and eliminate the toxins contained in it. In older animals or animals with pre-existing diseases, these low quality foods may actually push the animals’ systems over the edge, leading to exacerbation of existing pathologies or even precipitating new ones. In addition, if a batch of food is contaminated-say, for example, by aflatoxin or another, perhaps indeterminate, contaminant-an already weakened animal might succumb due to a precipitous and often irreversible systemic breakdown (i.e., organ failure). Considering that the kidneys, along with the liver, are among the most important detoxification and elimination centers in the body, it isn’t surprising that these organs are the first to go when animals are exposed to contaminated food.

Most mass-produced animal foods (including pet foods and feeds for lifestock and laboratory animals) are manufactured to be competitively-priced, consistent in formulation, and to meet the minimum appropriate nutritional standards required by law to allow use of the terms “balanced” or “complete” in any description of a diet based on the foods. Unfortunately, the ingredients most commonly used are often the cheapest available in a fluctuating marketplace. For example, in the case of protein, corn or wheat gluten may be chosen instead of fish. As sources for carbohydrates, sugar, propylene glycol, high fructose corn syrup, or even waste products from human food manufacturing may be chosen over whole grain products. To supply needed fats, material rejected for human consumption is often used; this may include so-called “rendered” fats or even rancid fats (such degradation can often make fats toxic). Finally, as sources for fiber, everything from cellulose (including, in some cases, newspapers!) to peanut hulls to hair can be used instead of more nutritional-and costlier-forms of fiber, as they naturally occur, in vegetables, fruits or whole grains.

After reading the chemical nutrient analysis of a given food product, it’s not likely that you would learn much about the quality of the product or the kind of raw materials used to produce it. To really educate yourself, you need to read, and be able to understand, the ingredient list, which typically displays, in descending order, the quantity of each ingredient included in the product as a percentage of the total dry weight. So, for example, when the first ingredient listed is corn meal, this means that, by percentage of total dry weight, the amount of corn meal in this product is greater than that of any other listed ingredient.

The quality of a food product can be determined by the manner in which the ingredients are described on the label. For example, if an ingredient is listed in the same terms that you would use to describe that ingredient if it were on a typical shopping list, it is likely that this ingredient is on the “up-and-up.” However, if an ingredient is described in terms that a consumer would never use in a typical shopping list, you would do well to research the dubious term until you are satisfied that you know what is being described. More often than not, though, you’ll find that more obscure-sounding terms refer to ingredients that you wouldn’t want your animal to eat.

Here are some examples of ill-defined terminology:
“Chicken meat” – This is clear and easy; it is, of course, meat from chickens, which is often ground into so-called “chicken meat meal.” But be aware: unless the chicken is defined as “organic,” you’ll have no way of knowing if the chicken meal contains hormones or antibiotics. In any case, organic or not, “chicken meat” obviously refers to “real” food.

Now, if you read “poultry meal” or “poultry by-product meal,” this is an entirely different story. This ingredient, as described, cannot even be sourced back to a single animal species. As one ingredient supplier characterizes it on their website, “Poultry Meal/Chicken Meal/Feed Grade Poultry Meal are by-products from the poultry rendering industry. Poultry Meal and Chicken Meal are core components in many of today’s popular pet foods. These products are typically 65% Protein and 12-18% ash, depending on the pet food manufacturer’s specifications. Feed Grade poultry meal is a vital component in aquaculture feeding and other mixed feed rations. Feed Grade Poultry meal is typically a 60% protein product.”

What may be characterized as an “animal by-product?” Nobody, save perhaps the manufacturer, can give you a precise answer to this question. Animal by-products may include animal carcasses and parts of animal carcasses, manure and gut contents, ova, embryos and semen which are not intended for breeding purposes, blood, whole hides or skins, hooves and horns, shells, feathers, wool, hair and fur, and even catering wastes. Moreover, anything listed as “animal by-products” might even include high-risk components, such as materials suspected of being infected with transmissible diseases, the remains of animals used in experimental research, carcasses of zoo animals or pets, materials from diseased livestock, or even animals that have died on farms before slaughter.

“Soybean oil” – This label is easy to understand and describes something that you might even buy to use in preparing your own meals.

“Animal fat” – This is another one of those odd, collective ingredient, terms, similar to “by-products,” i.e., nobody (perhaps not even the food manufacturer) can trace the origin of this raw material. One animal food ingredient supplier summarizes what it is they produce and sell as “animal fat”: “Tallow, lard, chicken fat and other animal fats are the rendered by products of meat production. By rendering slaughter house waste into animal fat, the final fat product is more resistant to spoiling and has various industrial uses.”

The same company cited above describes the process of producing “Fish oil” and “Fish meal,”-both of which are also difficult-to-define terms-in the following way: “Fish oil is produced by a continuous and carefully controlled process where fish are cooked, pressed and fed to a separation stage where water, fish solids and the oil itself part company. The most efficient way to remove the oil from the fish carcass is to use both a decanter and a disc stack separator in stages. The water phase from the separators is fed to the evaporators where it is gently concentrated and added to the remaining press cake that will eventually be dried to form fish meal.”

Other, similarly ill-defined ingredients listed in categories, rather than specific, definable terms, are:

“Meals” (such as “pork meal” or “bone meal”), “animal digest,” “poultry by-product,” “digest,” “vegetable oil, ” “hydrolyzed animal and vegetable fat,” and “egg product.”

Aside from these extremely dubious ingredients, there are a variety of low quality ingredients which are by-products of human food production. Here are just a few examples:

“Wheat Middlings.” These are a by-product of the flour milling industry. Other by-products routinely added to pet foods and animal feeds are soybean hulls, gluten (the proteins found in certain grains), or predominantly “refined” ingredients, in which grains and seeds have been stripped of their most nutritious and health-supportive components.

Some of the health risks associated with ill-defined ingredients, or ingredient categories, are self-explanatory. The health risks associated with “food fragments,” though, are less obvious. But these risks become readily apparent once you do a little homework. For example, wheat gluten is associated with food allergies and the immune disorder celiac disease in humans. In people with a gluten sensitivity, gluten inhibits nutrient uptake and this coincides with additional disorders, including gastrointestinal symptoms, diabetes type I, infertility, anemia, and even rheumatoid arthritis.

The most obvious danger associated with the consumption of food fragments such as gluten is that neither our bodies, nor those of our pets, are designed to deal with isolated nutrients such as these. Animals may eat grains to varying, species-specific, degrees (e.g., dogs to a much lesser extent than rodents), but they never eat just the gluten or just the hulls. Most importantly, animals don’t naturally eat refined grains; quite simply, they didn’t evolve to do so. Here’s a simple rule of thumb that the educated pet owner and consumer alike can follow: Don’t feed your pet anything containing ingredients that appear to be out of their natural contexts. Here’s a frightening example of just this sort of “out-of-context” use of ingredients in the pet food industry: A number of respected, widely used, rabbit food products contain animal-derived ingredients. Now, as a matter simple common sense, you and I know that rabbits don’t routinely eat animal products (Monty Python and the Holy Grail aside). Nevertheless, as an inexpensive means of supplying protein, animal materials are commonly added to food products meant for herbivorous rabbits; doesn’t make much sense, does it.

As I see it, these are among the most serious problems with the majority of mass-produced pet foods available today. Cheap, by-product ingredients, collected from human food production, are combined to achieve the nutritional standards required for so-called “balanced,” or “complete,” foods, and food fragments are used as cheap substitutes for more expensive-and more “natural”-food ingredient sources (e.g., gluten as an inexpensive stand-in for costlier animal or plant proteins). To provide a source of fiber, isolated raw materials are too often added as substitutes for the fiber that was removed when refining the grains that have been included as a principal ingredient (pretty counterintuitive, eh?). Moreover, to achieve the required nutrient levels, isolated, and mostly synthetically produced, vitamins and minerals are used to replace natural food-based nutrients lost during refinement or through over-cooking. Increasingly, the bioavailability, usefulness, and benefits (other than cheap cost) of these isolates are becoming questionable.

To add insult to injury, in order to give pet foods a stable shelf life, preservatives are routinely added. Among these, the worst for your animal’s health are BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BTA (butylated hydroxyanisole), both of which have been associated with liver, kidney, and reproductive abnormalities, immune suppression, metabolic and behavioral disorders, increased fetal and neonatal mortality, decreased body weights of neonates, and, it is suspected, carcinogenic properties. Another common preservative, Ethoxyquin, has been linked to pre-cancerous lesions of the kidneys and liver, bladder dysfunction, and reproductive problems.

As I mentioned earlier, the particular combination of mostly unappealing and unhealthy ingredients is often processed in ways which destroy most of the few remaining natural nutrients contained in the raw ingredients. Extruding, baking, canning, and other commonly used high-heat processes degrade all enzymes and most vitamins, denature proteins (amino acids), and alter fibers, all of which renders the food even more alien to your pets’ bodies than any single ingredient alone. The end result is a nutritionally sparse blob of chemicals with very few bioavailable nutrients and some terribly out-of-context ingredients, all of which place a tremendous burden your pet’s system. The longer your animal eats this diet, the more his/her body will be challenged (producing and using most of its enzymes in the effort to digest and metabolize this food), and the more susceptible he/she will be to disease.

Finally, there are problems inherent in the mass-production of pet foods, most notably those associated with the sheer size of some high-volume production lines. Let’s get some perspective on scale here. I’m not talking about bags or barrels of ingredients, mind you; I’m talking about tanks and silos. Quality assurance in a mostly automated, large-scale, production facility is much more of a challenge than in facilities where more time and smaller scale allow people to oversee every step of the manufacturing process, from initial receipt and inspection of the raw ingredients to storage of the finished product. It’s simply a matter of scale – the bigger an operation, the harder it is to attend to every little detail. Under such conditions, it’s easy to see how a bad ingredient batch can contaminate tons of food. Considering the variability of some of the ingredients (remember my description of “animal by-products” or “rendered animal fats?”), it is entirely conceivable that some cases of contamination may never be traceable back to the original culprit.

Some time ago, Leopold Kohr, one of my great countrymen (and the brother of our family physician) famously said, “Small is Beautiful,” a phrase that, though too often forgotten or ignored, never loses its elemental truth.

Disclaimer: Although I am a trained biologist, I am not a veterinarian, and all conclusions are my own, and are drawn both from my research on manufactured foods and my personal experience with whole foods in the context of my family and home life.

Return to Top

Posted by Posted by Heidi Junger, PhD under Filed under Pet Food Recalls Comments Comments Off

03rd May 2008

Myth – Rats cannot digest alfalfa

How often have you heard from a friend or read on someone’s blog that alfalfa is not digestible by rats and other nonruminant omnivorous rodents? This notion pops up quite often in the pet blogosphere. So, to put the myth to rest, I summarize, below, some of the well-established facts about the nutritional value of alfalfa grass for animals, particularly omnivore rodents, in the hopes rehabilitating the reputation of this venerable and valuable herb.

Historically, alfalfa is one of the earliest cultivated plants; the name is actually derived from the Arabic word “al-fac-facah,” which means “father of all foods.” The scientific term for alfalfa is “Medicago sativa.” It is a perennial legume that grows in the foothills and mountains of North America, the Mediterranean region, and Western Asia. For a variety of reasons, alfalfa is one of the most nutritious foods known. The whole plant contains many important nutrients, including saponins, sterols, carotene, phytoestrogens (e.g., coumestrol), flavonoids, alkaloids, acids, vitamins (including A, B-6, D, E, K, and U), amino acids, sugars, proteins, minerals (e.g., calcium, chlorine, copper, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulphur), as well as trace elements. The abundance of these nutrients, as well as chlorophyll and vital digestive enzymes, makes alfalfa an important nutritional supplement. The plant has antihemolytic, antitumoral, and antibiotic properties. In traditional medical practices across cultures, it is used to alleviate arthritis, as a tonic, an appetizer, and a diuretic to relieve urinary and bowel problems.

The oft-floated argument that alfalfa is not digestible by rats and other nonruminants is often combined with the false statement that alfalfa is the equivalent, in both composition and nutritional value, of cellulose. This is simply wrong. Alfalfa is much more than indigestible fiber, which, by the way, is itself important for good health. Alfalfa contains a high amount of digestible protein and fiber, numerous essential minerals, amino acids, and vitamins, and is used in many rodent diets as a source of both protein and fiber (e.g., in many of Harlan Teklad’s rodent diets). What follows should explain why this is the case.

Alfalfa contains about 26% protein and 24% fiber (1). These percentages vary with season in which the plant is harvested, as well as by different parts of the plant used; accordingly, in stem and leaf, protein and fiber percentages range from 16-36% and 12-35%, respectively.

A number of controlled nutritional studies have used rats and other omnivore rodents as models; these have shown that alfalfa is a beneficial food for these animals. Below, I summarize some of these studies to reinforce the point that alfalfa is not only digestible, but also very supportive of omnivorous rodent health (I don’t include studies done with herbivore rodents, in which alfalfa showed similar health benefits).

Fiber, cellulose fractions, and protein in alfalfa hay were found to be relatively well digestible by rats (2). Fiber was digested by rats with an average digestion coefficient of 20%, which is approximately 50% less than the coefficient established in sheep (45%). However, the hemicellulose contained in the alfalfa was digested with an average digestion coefficient of 47%, which is precisely that found in sheep (47%). Cellulose was digested by rats with a coefficient of 21% (compared to 50% in sheep), and crude protein was digested at a coefficient of 52% as compared to 69% in sheep. So, as nonruminants go, rats don’t do too badly in digesting this legume.

Alfalfa and alfalfa fiber fractions (3), as well as alfalfa protein (4) are digested by rats and tend to support animal growth. In fact, rats digest protein contained in alfalfa more efficiently than that found in roasted nuts or corn (5).

In isolation from alfalfa fiber, saponins in alfalfa meal reduce cholesterol absorption (6, 7). The ability of alfalfa to reduce liver cholesterol accumulation was enhanced by removal of cholesterol by saponins. In this study, an interaction of alfalfa components with bile acid was suggested as a possible mechanism for alfalfa’s saponin-independent hypocholesteronic effects (8).

Alfalfa also reduced radioactive cesium absorption and retention in both gut and other organs examined in suckling rats (9). In addition, alfalfa was shown to decrease the body’s burden of several other heavy metals (cadmium, strontium and mercury)

Dietary alfalfa reduces mycotoxin toxicity, manifested in rats in such conditions as retarded growth and food refusal (11, 12, 13).

Dietary alfalfa leaf meal (powder) counteracts growth retardation, “unthrifty appearance” of the fur, and a 50% increase in death rate associated with so-called purified diets containing levels of 5% of the food colors tartrazine (FD&C Yellow No. 5) and sunset yellow FCF (FD&C Yellow No.6) (14). Many pet food manufacturers use these food coloring agents to make their products appear more attractive to the human eye. Although one would hope that food manufacturers would use significantly less than 5% of these substances, chronic use of these colored foods might well lead to health problems similar to those described in this particular study.

Dietary alfalfa meal counteracts the toxic effects (severe diarrhea, “unthrifty appearance”, alopecia, and decreased survival rates) caused by non-ionic surfactants in immature rats. Wheat grass and other grass powders were also effective in the same study. These protective effects were only partially due to the cellulose contained in alfalfa, and were not observed when dried alfalfa grass juice was fed to the subject animals. (15). The same beneficial effects of alfalfa feeding were found in a study involving immature mice (16).

Dietary alfalfa meal prolonged the survival of hyperthyroid rats (17) and protected rodents (rats and mice) from mineral oil-induced toxicity (18). This particular study is of great interest because other petroleum-based substances used in the manufacture of pet foods may well have negative effects similar to those of mineral oil. Although propylene glycol is not considered to be safe for use in any foods, whether human-grade or otherwise (e.g., for cats), some pet food manufacturers use this oil in their formulations for “pocket pets,” particularly rodents.

Alfalfa powder improved growth and survival rates of hamsters on highly purified diets (i.e., diets composed of isolated nutrients, not “natural” diets) (19).

It has been found that dehydrated alfalfa is more nutritive and contains more vitamins, minerals, and amino acids than sun-cured alfalfa. It was shown that lower drying temperatures increased the digestibility and bioavailabilty of the protein for rats (20). This is of particular interest if one considers that most foods are produced using high heat (e.g., heat extrusion for creating pellets, attractive shapes, or high temperature baking). Always remember Onesta Organics products are created without using high heat, so the nutrients in alfalfa and the other ingredients we use remain intact.

I hope that my blog about alfalfa will help rehabilitate its reputation in your eyes. More importantly, though, I hope I have effectively demonstrated the great value of this under-appreciated herb for your pet rodent’s nutrition. Thanks so much for reading! To you and your pet: good nutrition, good health, and a great life!

1. Popovic et al, CIHEAM Resources
2. Keys et al. J Anim Sci 1969, 29/1, 11
3. Meyer, J Nutr 1954, 54/2, 237
4. Cheeke et al., J Anim Sci 1977, 44/5, 772
5. Takyi et al., J Sci Food Agricult 2006, 59/1, 109
6. Malinow et al., Am J Clin Nutr 1977, 30/12, 2061
7. Malinow et al., Am J Clin Nutr 1979, 32/9, 1810
8. Story et al., Am J Clin Nutr 1984, 38/6, 917
9. Kargacin et al., Arch Toxicol 1987, 59/5, 371
10. Kostial et al., Toxicol Lett 1984, 23/2, 163
11. Smith, Can J Physiol Pharmacol 1980, 58/11, 1251
12. Carson and Smith, J Nutr 1983, 113/2 304
13. Smith and Carson, Adv Exp Med Biol 1984, 177, 153
14. Ershoff, J Nutr 1977, 107/5, 822
15. Ershoff, J Nutr 1960, 70, 484
16. Ershoff and Hernandez, J Nutr 1959, 6, 172
17. Ershoff et al., J Nutr 1950, 67/3, 381
18. Ershoff and Hernandez, J Nutr 1958, 65/4, 575
19. Ershoff, J Nutr 1956, 59/4, 579
20. Cheeke et al., J Anim Sci 1977, 44/5, 772

Return to Top

Posted by Posted by Heidi Junger, PhD under Filed under General - Pet Food Comments 1 Comment »

03rd May 2008

Our ingredient choices

The USDA certified organic, human-grade, unrefined whole food ingredients we use in our healthy, safe, and natural pet food products provide higher levels of nutrients (i.e., fibers, minerals, proteins, vitamins) than those found in so-called “refined” ingredients. Our use of unrefined whole food ingredients also minimizes and helps prevent diseases and minimizes health risks associated with refining processes that strip foods of their naturally occurring nutrients. Diseases associated with eating refined foods are often the same for humans and their pets, and may include obesity, [pre-diabetic] metabolic syndrome, food allergies, diabetes, heart disease (cardiovascular disease), arthritis, and cancer.

We believe that attempts to add nutrients after the fact by “fortifying” or “enriching” foods are, at best, misguided. Such supplementation is a pale substitute for the potent, naturally occurring nutrients in unrefined whole foods. The synergy between naturally occurring food nutrients is essential for their proper functioning. Unlike naturally occurring nutrients, isolated nutrients are increasingly being implicated in a number of negative health effects. We incorporate a variety of natural functional food ingredients in each of our pet food products to allow your animal’s body the chance to pick and choose the nutrients it may require at different times.

Each Onesta Organics pet food product includes at least one “green super food.” Kelp, micro-algae (such as spirulina), or grasses like barley grass, alfalfa grass, and wheat grass provide large varieties and high levels of proteins, amino acids, enzymes, chlorophyll, minerals, trace minerals, vitamins, phytols, phytosterols, and other phytonutrients. All these nutrients are delivered together in their natural context, ensuring high bioavailability and potency. We often use powdered plant matter to enhance absorption, digestibility, and bioavailability. Additional whole food ingredients we use in our formulations-including fresh banana, carrot, and cinnamon-also contain a wide spectrum of nutrients that have been shown to prevent a number of different diseases.\r\n\r\nAll our pet food products are minimally processed (dehydrated raw), which ensures that the nutrients are available in a form that animals would eat in nature and that their bodies will recognize. Over-processing (such as baking, extruding, and canning) of food ingredients often destroys all enzymes and many vitamins, denatures proteins (i.e., amino acids), and even modifies fibers, reducing their functionality. We use mostly finely powdered ingredients (e.g., alfalfa grass powder) to enhance absorption and digestibility of nutrients. In our Onesta Organics pet food products, we soak the grains and seeds we use, allowing them to sprout. This additional step has been shown to increase available nutrient levels significantly. During this process, we also clean our grains and seeds, a step that is also generally omitted in conventional pet food manufacturing.

Return to Top

Posted by Posted by Heidi Junger, PhD under Filed under Onesta Organics Pet Foods Comments Comments Off