What does "processing" mean in the pet food world?
Processed food is food that’s been altered during its preparation to make it more shelf stable, flavourful or convenient. Some foods can be minimally processed, while others can be more heavily processed. Minimally processed human foods can be foods like vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices. Processed human foods include cheese, tofu, and beans; all of these have been altered/processed in some way, but don’t have any artificial additives or preservatives. Food processing examples include cleaning and removing any unwanted/inedible parts, fermentation, pasteurization, freezing, etc, which are all extremely beneficial to the foods, making them safe to eat and/or more shelf stable.
Ultra-processed foods are foods that have been chemically altered and/or contain artificial preservatives, flavours, or additives. Examples of ultra processed foods are sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, hotdogs, etc. Ultra or heavily processed foods usually contain too much sugar, fat and/or sodium, which usually makes these foods taste much better, but can lead to different health concerns like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease when eaten in excess.
Now onto pet food! Pet foods are different from human foods but also range from minimally processed to more processed foods/treats. The most widely available pet food is extruded or dry pet food, and this type of food is processed, as there is heat, pressure and drying applied to the ingredients to make them into kibbles. This processing makes this type of pet food more shelf stable, digestible and convenient for pet parents. Minimally or unprocessed pet foods/treats could include fresh and raw pet foods, but also food toppers like broths and kefir. Ultra-processed pet foods would include artificial preservatives, artificial flavours, and colours.
Pet food contains preservatives that may be chemically derived but are more frequently naturally derived (mixed tocopherols, rosemary extract). Chemical preservatives such as BHT or BHA can still be used in pet foods and achieve the same effect as natural preservatives. All of these preservatives are antioxidants and prevent fats from going rancid.
Other options that are more minimally processed (or not processed at all) include raw and fresh diets.These diets may be more minimally processed but this can be detrimental and dangerous if these diets include ingredients that require more processing to be bioavailable/digestible for our pets (i.e. chickpeas, lentils, etc.). Unprocessed foods can also be potentially harmful to pets if these diets have ingredients that need to be cooked/heated to be more safe for our pets to consume (“kill” step for different bacteria, like Salmonella that can be present in raw meat).
Processed foods have many benefits in both the human and pet nutrition world. Processing can make incredibly yummy foods like cheese, and make some types of foods more convenient to eat like beans. Processed pet foods are more shelf-stable and depending on the minimally processed food's ingredients, processed foods can be more digestible and safe for pets to consume than minimally or non-processed diets. Whether processed or unprocessed, paying attention to details like ingredient quality, the team behind the diet, and the quality assurance of the manufacturing and testing processes are all very important factors to consider when looking at pet food and deciding on the best diet for your pet.