Preservatives are necessary in human and pet foods to keep them from spoiling too quickly on the shelf before they are bought and consumed by us or by our furry friends. Specifically in pet foods, preservatives-or antioxidants-are needed to keep the animal fats and oils from oxidizing, therefore going rancid and losing their health benefits as well as their flavor.
Natural vs. Artificial
While preservatives are necessary, especially in kibble or dry pet food, there is a difference between naturally occurring preservatives and artificially created preservatives, also known as synthetic preservatives.
Natural preservatives are safe! They occur naturally in the world and are meant to be consumed, like citric acid, Vitamin E, and rosemary. They also provide the health benefits of natural antioxidants, such as anti-inflammatory properties.
Artificial preservatives are attractive to food producers because they are less expensive than natural preservatives, and preserve foods for longer. The downside is that many artificial preservatives have been linked to health problems, including cancer.
Common Natural Preservatives
When you are reading your pet food label, look for these common and safe natural preservatives:
- Mixed tocopherols (Vitamin E) are commonly found in vegetable oils, nuts, fish and greens
- Citric acid, sorbic acid and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) naturally occur in citrus fruits, berries and stone fruits (such as peaches and apricots)
- Rosemary and rosemary extract
- Sage and sage extract
- Clove and clove extract
There are great pet foods available with natural preservatives, and while they may not last as long on the shelf, you can buy them in smaller bags if necessary. Also, make sure you buy your pet food from a reputable dealer who keeps their stock rotated! Canned and frozen foods are much less likely to contain preservatives at all. Canned food is airtight, which prevents oxidation, and freezing fresh food also prevents oxidation naturally.
Common Artificial Preservatives
Check your pet food label for these artificial preservatives, which with cumulative effects over time, may be dangerous to your dog or cat:
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are two of the most common artificial preservatives. The World Health Organization has identified BHA as a possible carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, in laboratory animals. They are used as a synthetic version of Vitamin E.
- Ethoxyquin has also been linked to cancer and is commonly used in pesticides. It is also used as a hardening agent in synthetic rubber. Ethoxyquin has been banned in Australia and the European Union but is still allowed to be used in pet foods in the United States. The FDA has received numerous reports from pet owners who think Ethoxyquin has led to medical issues in their pets, such as allergic reactions, cancer, and organ failure.
- Propylene glycol is used in antifreeze. It is also used in semi-soft kibble as a preservative to help stabilize the sugar and water and keep bacteria away.
- Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is a form of butane and used to make resins and varnish.
- Sodium metabisulphite is a bleaching agent.
- Propyl gallate can cause stomach and skin irritation, kidney and liver problems, allergic reactions that affect breathing, and has been shown to be a possible carcinogen in laboratory rats.
Some of these artificial preservatives are known carcinogens. Some are banned for human consumption in the United States but still allowed in our pet food. Some are banned completely in other countries but still used in the United States. Think about what you are feeding to your dogs and cats, and your children! Read food labels carefully and think about cumulative effects when your dog eats the same food every day of every week, for every month of every year of his whole life.
Make sure your pet’s food has high-quality ingredients and natural preservatives, which will lead to a longer, healthier life for your pet (and you will save on expensive vet bills down the road!). Cheaper brands pass the savings on to the consumer somehow, and not by putting the best and healthiest ingredients in their food. Your dog loves and trusts you, so make sure that you are watching out for his health when you buy his food, instead of thinking solely of the cost!