We’ve often been told that things are better in their natural forms: whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables and unmodified grains and dairy. Chemicals and heavy processing are bad for us, and getting vitamins from synthetic sources can lead to lower absorption rates and loss of nutrition.
However, is there really a valid reasoning behind these statements? Is going natural for all things that enter our pets’ bodies (and our own) really that important? Read on and discover if going natural is really better in the long-term.
Natural is defined by Merriam-Webster as “existing in nature and not caused or made by people; not having any extra substances or chemicals added; and usual or expected,” while the definition of synthetic is “made by or combining different substances; not natural." While this doesn’t clearly define why may one be better than the other, it does help define the terminology used.
The one major problem with this terminology is that natural is by definition “not caused or made by people”, however many products on the market listed as natural are often made by people: commercial diets, food supplements, etc.
So instead, we should look at the definition of natural used in these products. This definition is often that the ingredients themselves are SOURCED from natural sources, IE whole foods such as fish for fish oil, lamb for the protein source in a meal and fats from meat and plant sources for preservation of food.
Many pet foods go even further in the natural definition, and owners may see products such as organic, holistic, raw food, or even origin diets. These all fall under the natural category of foods, but are considered sub-categories of it.
Organic foods are those that have ingredients that are not treated with pesticides or chemicals that may alter their function or nutrient value.
While a food can be organic, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily natural, and natural foods aren’t always organic. There is also no set guideline on organic foods, so it usually just a buzzword used in marketing.
Holistic foods are foods that are made with whole-food ingredients, or have ingredients that contain beneficial properties such as antioxidants or other healthful properties.
These can be organic or non-organic ingredients, just in their purer forms. This is often also used in conjunction with a grain-free keyword.
Raw Food diets are diets that are made from raw, unprocessed foods including fruits and vegetables in addition to meat, and are considered in their “wholest” form.
Raw foods are gaining in popularity mainly due to their customization options allowing owners to tailor the meal to their pet’s specific needs. Raw foods can be found in fresh or frozen forms with little difference in nutrition.
Origin diets are diets that are made with ingredients that may be found in the wild, to simulate how a dog would eat if wild or still part of his wolf ancestors. These ingredients are often minimally processed and found in whole-food form.
Grain free foods are simply foods that use other sources of carbohydrates in place of grains. Grain-free diets are mainly beneficial to pets that have food allergies to grain or protein sources. For pets without allergies, grains are still a great source of carbohydrates and fats for energy.
Synthetic products, on the other hand, tend to be those things that are created in a lab to produce the final result.
While these may originally come from natural sources (as everything technically is originally natural), they are heavily modified to create desired results- a chemical chain of vitamins that may be chemically similar to the natural vitamin, but is slightly different or is an isomer of the original, or a preservative that helps maintain freshness similar to a fat but with varied carbon chains or fatty acid links.
Synthetic ingredients are often the vitamins added at the end of a food ingredient list, or the preservatives used to keep it fresh.
A few keywords often tossed around in the natural versus synthetic debate are bioactivity and bioavailability. This just means “the degree and rate at which a substance is absorbed into a living system or is made available at the site of physiological activity” IE how much of the ingredient is actually useful to the body.
Substances that are more bioavailable are going to be better utilized by the body, and less of it will be needed to perform the same function as a substance that is less bioavailable.
There is a lot of contradicting information about whether synthetic vitamins are better or worse than getting those same vitamins from natural food sources. And for nearly every vitamin out there, the result is that it doesn’t really matter WHERE or HOW you get your vitamins, just that you should be getting enough of them for healthy living. For most ingredients, just getting a portion of that ingredient is beneficial to overall health.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, and one is with Vitamin E. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that is beneficial to the skin, coat and cell functioning in the body. If you’re interested in more in-depth information about this vitamin, checking out the other articles on this site will provide you with a wealth of info.
Synthetic (DL-Alpha) vitamin E was tested against naturally sourced (D-Alpha) Vitamin E and was found to be 50% LESS bioactive than the natural form. This means you’d have to take double the dosage of the synthetic form to achieve similar results. The synthetic Vitamin E also does not have the same visible effects when placed directly on the skin as the natural version due to a missing acetate ester from production/breakdown.
Another exception to the rule is Magnesium. Magnesium has several effects in the body including decreases in inflammation, heart problems, osteoporosis, cancers and even has a regulatory effect on the digestive system. It is often part of laxatives given to people and pets to help encourage more frequent and healthy bowel movements.
The synthetic form of Magnesium is with Magnesium oxide, which is barely absorbed, with only about 5% of it being useful to the body compared to its natural sources.
As for whole foods, there is some reasoning behind why this may be better than synthetic ingredients or heavily processed ones, and that is in the processing itself.
Most commercial dog foods come in a dry kibble form, which is a sort of doughy paste that is formed into kibble shapes and then cooked at a high heat before being coated with preservative.
In these cases, the cooking process may actually damage some of the enzymes and proteins found in the food if they are susceptible to heat damage.
It may take more of the product to produce the same nutrient result as a whole raw ingredient due to this as the destroyed enzymes or proteins are less bioavailable to the body.
Many manufacturers are trying to find ways to reduce this detrimental processing while still having a food that lasts long-term and have done so with canned foods, frozen meals and dehydrated foods that require less heat processing and may provide better nutrient quality.
Owners are becoming increasingly health conscious about themselves and their pets, and the pet industry is taking a huge note. Many foods and supplements are now touting natural labels and muddling through to find the right product for a pet can be difficult.
However, this boon in product choice can also be a benefit for finding the perfectly tailored product specific to your dog’s needs. Finding the right product, determining if it is natural, and determining if it meets your dog’s needs is the best way to find something that works well.
First determine what your dog needs in a food or supplement. Does he or she have a specific health issue that needs to be addressed? Is your dog in a specific life stage or activity group? Does your dog need to have his or her reproductive needs met? All of these can help pinpoint foods such as senior diets, diets for dogs with stomach issues and more.
Next, begin researching foods that fall under the needs category for your dog. Checking ingredients as well as the company website for ingredient sourcing information is best and most companies will happily advertise their ingredient sources.
These can help you determine what exact form of a vitamin or ingredient is being used and if it truly is from a reputable source. Meal format and type of processing will also play a role as raw or minimally processed foods may utilize more whole-food ingredients while a commercial diet or supplement may take these sources and combine them in easier to feed products.
Checking how the food is made and packaged is also important in finding the right product. If there is concern about heavy processing, or if there are ingredients known to be damaged by heat, then looking for foods in other forms may help. Raw foods, dehydrated foods and frozen meals are all increasing in popularity to help fill this niche where traditional kibble may fall short.
This may also be highly beneficial in cases where a health issue requires a certain supplement or ingredient to be used which may be accidentally broken down in the preservation process.
While most vitamins and supplements aren’t really going to matter for their sourcing, owners of dogs that have skin issues or even digestive and heart problems may want to look toward natural sources for Vitamin E and Magnesium.
Vitamin E in its natural form tends to break down quickly and have a faster expiration date, so products with natural sources may have shorter shelf-lives, a good indication that they are using a truer form of the vitamin.
Magnesium sourced from seeds, leafy greens and fish will often be in its more bioavailable form. Supplementation can be very beneficial for this, as it can offer higher quantities of these ingredients by bypassing the process that cooked kibble or prepared foods need for preservation.
No matter what you choose to feed your pet, having extra knowledge about the types of food available and how natural versus synthetic affects them will help you to make better educated choices.
Choosing a food can be a daunting task, but the wide variety of products available means tailoring to your pet has never been better!