Commercial Hype or Superior Nutrition?
By now, I would venture that almost every dog person on the planet has seen the 2023 Superbowl commercial “Forever“, produced by The Farmer’s Dog pet food company. (For the three people who have not yet seen it, here you go. Tip: Have a tissue box handy).
This commercial was significant for two reasons. First, the fact that a dog food commercial achieved the highest rating of all of the year’s Superbowl commercials, is in itself quite a feat. Still, not that surprising to anyone who has viewed the commercial.
The second reason has to do with the primary type of dog food that The Farmer’s Dog sells. These are called “fresh-cooked foods.” These products are relative newcomers to the pet food market and are produced by only a small number of companies.
What does Fresh-Cooked Mean?
The term “fresh-cooked”, also called “gently cooked” encompasses a new group of commercial pet foods that are processed differently from the traditional extruded (dry) and canned (wet) foods. Fresh-cooked foods contain varying types of meats, vegetables, starches and fruits. One company also has a vegetarian option available. These foods are cooked at temperatures and durations sufficient to kill food pathogens and destroy compounds that contribute to food spoilage, but are not (presumably) processed at temperatures that are high enough to destroy nutrients and damage protein.
Are They Popular?
Although fresh-cooked dog foods still comprise a small segment of the total pet food market, their popularity has been growing (as demonstrated by the presence of a Superbowl Sunday commercial). Fresh-cooked products are sold either in refrigerated cases in pet stores and supermarkets (FreshPet currently dominates this market), or through direct-to-consumer channels that deliver the food as a frozen product directly to the pet owner’s door.
What Does the Science Say?
So, what do we know about the nutritional value and safety of these foods? Well a fair amount, considering how recently they have appeared on the pet food market. A recent review paper, authored by Brittany White of Simmons Pet Foods, provides a complete assessment of these foods (1). I will summarize here, but for those of you who wish to dive into the weeds on this topic, I highly recommend reading the entire paper.
Are There Benefits of Fresh-Cooked Foods?
Yes, there appear to be several; some have hard data and others are still considered to be potential (i.e. anecdotally reported) attributes:
- Owner Perception: Because some (but not all) of these foods are produced using human-grade ingredients, owner perception of the food’s appearance and odor is generally very positive. Minimally processed foods often have visually identifiable ingredients – chunks of chicken, vegetables, fruits and grains. This may be contrasted to the uniform appearance and ( for some owners), unappealing odor of more highly processed foods.
- Dog Perception: The feeding studies that are currently available consistently report that the fresh-cooked foods are highly acceptable to dogs. It is speculated that factors associated with food texture, odor and taste may all contribute. What has not been demonstrated to date however, is a clear preference by dogs for fresh-cooked foods over other more highly processed products such as kibble or canned food.
- Nutritional Value: There are several published studies of the digestibility and nutrient value of fresh-cooked foods. I have reviewed these in earlier Science Dog essays (see “Human-Grade“, ” New Scoop“, “More” and “Skin Health“). Collectively, these studies have found that fresh-cooked foods are highly digestible and outperform extruded foods when compared directly in feeding trials.
- Nutrient Losses (Thiamine): It is known that the high heat and pressure associated with both extrusion and canning (retorting) leads to losses of essential vitamins. One of the most vulnerable vitamins is thiamine (B1). Estimates of thiamine loss during extrusion/canning can be a s high as 90 percent, with average accepted values to be around 70 percent. The lower heat treatment and shorter processing times used with fresh-cooked products result in a reduced loss and higher retention of thiamine. The author’s company reported thiamine retention following cooking of ~ 85 percent (i.e. ~ 15 percent loss) when using fresh-cooked processing methods. Although more data are needed, this suggests that nutrient retention in fresh-cooked products are higher than what is typically observed in extruded and retorted products.
Disadvantages of Fresh-Cooked Foods
So, what are some disadvantages of fresh-cooked foods? There are a few:
- Lack of Convenience: Many fresh-cooked foods are sold only as direct-to-consumer and must be shipped in a frozen state. Locating a product, purchasing it, having it shipped, and storing it properly can be time-consuming and may be considered too inconvenient by some owners.
- Short Shelf-Life: Unlike extruded and retorted pet foods which have shelf-lives of a year or more, fresh-cooked foods must be refrigerated or frozen and have a refrigerated shelf-life of only several days after opening.
- Cost: Fresh-cooked foods are more expensive than other food categories – a lot more. The author provides a chart that compares the cost of feeding extruded kibble, canned food, fresh-cooked retail (i.e. FreshPet) and fresh-cooked mail-order dog foods. Although the retail fresh-cooked product cost is similar to that of a premium canned food, direct-to-consumer fresh-cooked foods are about 7-fold higher than feeding kibble and twice the cost of feeding a canned food. For example, the cost/day to feed a 20 lb. dog a kibble diet is estimated at less than a dollar. This can be compared with over seven dollars a day if a 20 lb. dog is fed exclusively a fresh-cooked food.
- Environmental Footprint: Because most of these foods include meat and are frozen and shipped (in some cases, long distances), they are not generally considered to be sustainable and come with a hefty environmental footprint. For some consumers, this is an important consideration and can be a deal-breaker.
Take Away for Dog Folks
Fresh-cooked dog foods are a new option for owners who are interested in providing less highly-processed foods to their dogs. The information that we have suggests that these foods are very acceptable to dogs and to owners, are digestible and of high nutritional value, and may not be subject to the nutrient loss and nutritional damage associated with traditional highly-processed dog foods. Conversely, these foods are expensive to feed, can be inconvenient, and probably have a hefty environmental impact.
Up on My Box (Opinion Time): Readers who have been following this blog (and students who take The Science Dog Courses) know that I, like many nutritionists today, strongly advocate for feeding several foods (preferably different brands and food types), rotating/mixing foods, and selecting products that are as high in quality as possible given an owner’s ability and means.
Therefore, if you are convinced that fresh-cooked products are of superior quality (as the science so far seems to demonstrate) and can handle the cost and other inconveniences, this may be a food type to consider adding to the foods that you select for your dog. Research and select one or more of these products to include as a portion of your dog’s diet. Rotate or mix them with other products that you already like and feed, and then evaluate.
If you find the food (or foods) live up to the Farmer’s Dog’s Superbowl Commercial story AND to the science, make your feeding decisions accordingly.
Cited Paper: White, B. Insights-driven development of humanized foods for pets. Meat and Muscle Biology 2022; 6:1439; 1-12.
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