When I started as the in-house nutritionist at Pet Valu, I realized even with many years of experience working in the pet food industry, it was difficult to write a definition of holistic pet food in simple, understandable terms. While I had an understanding of what a holistic pet food was, trying to write something down on paper proved to be very difficult. It took some time for me to realize that although there are good definitions of holistic, and holistic medicine, there was no definition for holistic food.
Holistic is defined as: “A belief that a system must be managed as a whole rather than addressing the individual components that make it function.”
Holistic medicine is defined as: “An approach to medical care that emphasizes the study of ALL aspects of a person’s health, including; physical, psychological, social, and cultural factors.”
Holistic food is actually just pet food terminology, because for people we would talk about holistic nutrition. Holistic nutrition looks at the total being: their dietary intake, including supplements, and lifestyle. As much as possible, a wide variety of natural, whole, fresh foods are consumed, including whole cereals, grains, vegetables, fruits, pulses and animal protein. Consumption of refined foods, chemicalized foods, and/or processed foods is reduced.
Let’s look at different sections of this definition. To achieve holistic nutrition you aim to consume natural, whole, fresh foods and reduce consumption of refined, chemicalized and/or processed foods. In holistic nutrition we recognize that science does not presently know every health benefit of every ingredient. Therefore we should use whole ingredients in as close to their natural state as possible, so we don’t end up throwing away potential health benefits.
As a scientist this was a hard concept for me to come to terms with. In science, if you cannot prove something statistically, then it has limited or no value. A pet food that is strictly scientifically formulated will include very specific ingredients, at very specific levels, to give very specific nutrient levels. This scientific approach is more characteristic of super-premium foods.
For example, the scientific approach to include Beta-carotene in a pet food would be to add a very specific amount of a pure or synthetic Beta-carotene. The holistic nutrition approach would be to add carrots or maybe sweet potato to achieve a less defined level of Beta-carotene in the food. By adding actual vegetables instead of synthetic Beta-carotene, the potential other health benefits of carrots are not thrown away.
The scientific approach to formulating a food also tends to be less expensive. Again with the example of Beta-carotene, while synthetic Beta-carotene is not cheap, per milligram provided it is a lot cheaper than fresh carrots. Providing whole, fresh ingredients is a major reason why holistic pet foods cost more than the scientifically formulated super premium pet foods.
In recent years there has been an explosion of scientific research on the health benefits of specific ingredients. Not surprisingly some of the super-premium or “scientifically formulated” pet foods are now adding ingredients that may have originally only been found in holistic pet foods. This is because science now has statistical proof that there are health benefits from these ingredients.
Flaxseed is a good example of where science has changed how an ingredient is used. Science has long known about the health benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids in flax oil, but only recently have the health benefits of Lignans, which are found in the seed hull, become known. Originally, flax oil was used in some of the super-premium pet foods, which missed potential benefits of the whole seed. Now most super-premium pet foods use whole flax seeds, whereas holistic pet foods have always used whole flax seed. This example illustrates why we use ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible.
Another part of the definition is wide variety. This was initially a stumbling block for me. Holistic foods, strictly speaking, should have a wide variety of ingredients but some foods in the category have very short ingredient lists because they are created as hypoallergenic diets. If you want to follow a strict holistic diet, you should rotate these diets or add additional foods to it.
Although I’m defining holistic and other categories of pet food here, there are also many foods that don’t fall neatly into only one category. If you want to feed holistic pet food, the definition is explained in this article. If you want to choose the right food for your pet, talk to the experts at your Pet Valu store.
By Dr. Dave Summers