Pet Connections

What’s so Natural about “Natural”?

Holistic therapies are said to be natural because they work with the body’s natural mechanisms. For example, chiropractic adjustments gently realign the spine so the animal’s nervous and musculoskeletal systems can return to normal function. Herbs can modulate organ and tissue metabolism back to their healthy state. When acupuncture needles are placed in specific spots on the body, they send signals to the brain to release innate healing chemicals. Because natural therapies such as these work with the body, we see fewer side effects and more robust wellness than is seen with conventional veterinary care. So natural is good, right?

It does seem that the farther we stray away from Mother Nature, the more trouble we get ourselves and our pets into. For example, the unnaturally sedentary lifestyle of Americans not only negatively affects their health, it also leads to canine obesity and behavior problems. Feeding cats dry food goes against their nature to eat high-moisture, low-carb prey animals and contributes to obesity, diabetes, urinary crystals, and kidney disease. Yes, natural is better.

Unfortunately, the word “natural,” especially when applied to all things related to pet diet and health, has become a bit of a buzzword. We have natural pet foods with natural ingredients like natural flavors. There are also natural supplements, natural shampoos, and even natural pet magazines. It leads one to wonder what it really means to be natural.

The word natural can be defined as something relating to or derived from nature. This word is often thought of as the opposite of “synthetic.” Something is synthetic if it has been removed from nature and chemically manipulated by man. So, we consider grain which is grown in Mother Nature’s soil to be natural while plastic is synthetic. Of course, who eats corn on the cob without first cooking it or subjecting it to some other, more extreme processing? Since we’ve changed the corn from its natural state, is it still natural? And what of plastic? It is made from petroleum products which come from dead dinosaurs. What could be more natural than that? 

So there seems to be a spectrum of naturalness. While we would all agree that an ear of corn is natural and a plastic cup is synthetic, where do we draw the line between the two? Is corn always natural no matter how it has been processed? The naturalness of corn ranges from an ear of corn, to ground corn, to corn flakes, to high fructose corn syrup, to “corn plastic” used in biodegradable packaging. I would suggest that somewhere in that progression, the corn has ceased to be natural.

The same thing can be said for natural pet foods. Sure, grain, potatoes, or any source of starch could be considered as natural ingredients. They may even be organic. But, after the high-heat processing and extrusion, their naturalness has been corrupted. Even more importantly, it is extremely unnatural for dogs or cats to eat large amounts of starch in any form. As far as I’m concerned, calling any processed kibble “natural” is extremely misleading.

The natural ingredients in natural pet foods often include natural flavors. Chemicals used as natural flavors are derived from more natural sources than are artificial flavors. However, the processing of the raw materials into the flavor chemicals results in unnatural end products that resemble MSG in character. If the natural flavors are so natural, why doesn’t the label just come right out and say exactly what they are? In my view, natural flavors are not natural at all.

Some natural pet foods are proud that there are no preservatives in their ingredient lists. Unfortunately, that can be another deceptive ploy. If a pet food manufacturer buys a raw material like fat, and then adds a preservative like ethoxyquin, then ethoxyquin must be listed as an ingredient. On the other hand, if the company buys fat that is already preserved with ethoxyquin, then the ingredient list does not need to include that chemical. Just one more way that even the ingredient lists on pet food labels can be misleading.

Pet foods are usually not as natural as the packaging would have us believe. Processed kibble and canned foods are certainly not what pets evolved eating and are by their very nature unnatural. I think that balanced, raw pet foods are the best choice when feeding pets and that natural, holistic medical care and lifestyle are ideal.

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