Human-grade dog food found to be highly digestible

One goal of research was to help determine feeding guidelines for specialized pet food diets.

December 24, 2019

3 Min Read
U Illinois human grade dog food.jpg
A University of Illinois study finds that dog foods formulated with human-grade ingredients are highly digestible.Credit: JustFoodForDogs

Pet owners are increasingly treating their pets like family members, and in response, some pet food companies are developing diets that more closely resemble human food, incorporating human-grade meat and vegetable ingredients that pass U.S. Department of Agriculture quality inspections, according to the University of Illinois.

Until now, little research had been done on these foods, but a new study from the University of Illinois found that these diets are not only highly palatable, but they are more digestible than originally estimated.

Kelly Swanson, the Kraft Heinz Co. endowed professor in human nutrition in the University of Illinois department of animal sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences, is a co-author on the study published in Translational Animal Science.

"Of course, you assume that since human-grade ingredients are high quality, the foods should be highly digestible, but until unbiased researchers actually conduct the testing, these companies are getting questioned by consumers and veterinarians," Swanson said. "Are the foods safe? Are they complete and balanced? Basically, are they good?"

The researchers tested six commercial dog foods from JustFoodForDogs, a company that claims to exclusively use USDA-certified ingredients in its diets, the university said. The products, similar to a handful of other niche companies and subsidiaries, are formulated using minimally processed, human-edible ingredients -- such as rice, carrots, broccoli, chicken, lamb and others -- in a kind of casserole. Each diet is also supplemented with human-quality vitamins and minerals to ensure that they qualify as complete and balanced for pets, the announcement noted.

The researchers determined the chemical composition of the six diets as well as their nutrient and amino acid digestibility and energy content. In order to avoid the confounding effects of gut microbial activity, they fed each diet in the university's precision-fed cecectomized rooster assay.

Ultimately, all of the diets were highly digestible, Swanson said.

One of the goals was to help determine feeding guidelines for specialized diets like these. Since the diets are more similar to human foods than traditional kibble, Swanson said there are risks in using formulas derived from traditional pet foods.

"Typical pet foods are generally less digestible than human foods. That's why feeding guidelines are different from the USDA nutrition guidelines for humans, but if you apply the traditional dog food guidelines for metabolizable energy to human-grade dog foods, you risk overfeeding, because these foods are so nutrient dense," Swanson said.

Amino acid digestibility was also very high — greater than 85% for most of the indispensable amino acids — indicating high protein quality, he added, explaining that this can translate to low stool volume, which is welcome news for most dog owners.

Although the study included a single product line, Swanson said he believes the outcomes are likely to translate to similar pet diets using human-grade ingredients.

"Individual foods have to be tested, but our results should apply to other products if they're truly using human-grade ingredients. There might be some small differences, but ultimately, they should still be highly digestible," he said.

Swanson noted that any dog food labeled "complete and balanced" should meet the dietary requirements for the animal, and foods that use premium ingredients may improve coat quality or stool volume above and beyond the basic requirements.

Swanson is currently testing the diets, along with similar diets from other companies, in dogs.

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