Natural Dog Food vs. Holistic: What’s the Difference?

natural vs holistic dog food

The terms “natural” and “holistic” get used a lot in both the human and pet food industries. Few people understand what those terms mean, though. 
Although they are sometimes used interchangeably, they do not mean the same thing. When it comes to pet food, they aren’t even regulated equally. 

What is Natural Dog Food?

In general, natural is defined as “Existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.”

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a legal definition for natural human or pet products. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), however, does have a more specific definition of the term as it relates to pet food: 
“A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced or subjected to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic, expect in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

According to their guidelines, the term natural can apply to a single ingredient or to a product as a whole. All ingredients in a natural dog food product must meet AAFCO’s definition. Some synthetic nutrients are necessary to help ensure the product is nutritionally complete. Per AAFCO’s guidelines, natural dog food products can include synthetic sources of essential amino acids, vitamins or minerals. The natural claim must include a disclaimer statement, though. You may see “Plus vitamins and minerals” on the package. This statement discloses the addition of synthetic nutrients.

In natural dog food formulas, all ingredients but the vitamins and minerals come from non-synthetic sources. 

If only some ingredients are natural, the manufacturer can’t label the product as natural. 

What is Holistic Dog Food?

Holistic is defined generally as “Characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.”
The medical definition is “Characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.”

Holistic sounds like a good thing, but it’s pretty meaningless when it comes to dog food. There’s no legal definition for holistic. It’s also not regulated by the FDA, AAFCO or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates organic products. 

In the pet food industry, “holistic” is a marketing term used to imply whole-body health. Since there’s no legal definition of the term, it’s used freely without any regulation or oversight. If a dog food label claims it’s both natural and holistic, only the word natural has any real meaning. 

The overuse of words like natural and holistic can be misleading. That’s why it’s so critical to read dog food labels and understand what they mean. 
If you have questions about a specific ingredient or claim, ask your veterinarian or contact the product manufacturer. You deserve to know what’s in your dog’s food because he deserves the best. 

For more information on what to feed your dog and pet safety in general, see our pet expertise page. 

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