Inside This Article

Organic food. The phrase may bring to mind farmer’s markets and upscale grocery stores, but organic ingredients are also increasingly being featured in dog food, fueled by demand from savvy consumers who want the best for their pets. But is organic food always the best choice? Drawing on our experience as well as from prominent veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker, we’ve produced a comprehensive guide to organic dog food. Read on to get a thorough definition of organic dog food, explore the differences among various types of dog food, and learn valuable tips on choosing the right dog food for your dog.
Organic Dog Food Guide by Darwin's Natural Pet Products

What Is Organic Dog Food?

The National Organic Program (NOP), which is part of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), regulates all organic crops, livestock, and agricultural products in the United States. Currently, organic dog food must adhere to the same standards and regulations as organic food for people in order to be USDA certified. This means organic dog food ingredients must be grown, raised, and processed without the following:

  • Toxic pesticides
  • Genetically modified ingredients (GMOs)
  • Sewage sludge
  • Antibiotics
  • Synthetic hormones
  • Irradiation (a food safety technology intended to eliminate germs)
  • Artificial preservatives, flavors, and colors

In addition, organic farmers are required to follow certain guidelines, including the humane treatment of animals and various water and soil conservation methods. They are required to keep records of their food processing and production and are subject to regular inspections by a USDA agent to make sure their foods meet organic standards. Some people who choose organic foods do so for environmental reasons as much as they do for the ingredients.

Organic Dog Food: The Lowdown on Labeling

If you’re interested in purchasing organic dog food, it’s important to read the label carefully. Some foods contain no, some, or all organic ingredients. Here’s what to look for on the label:

  • Made With Organic Ingredients: At least 70 percent of these ingredients must be organic
  • Organic: At least 95 percent of these ingredients must be organic; in addition, the other ingredients must be approved
  • 100 Percent Organic: All the ingredients are organic

You should also look for the USDA Organic seal, which signifies the product contains 95 percent or more organic ingredients that have met the stringent guidelines. (Some unscrupulous pet food manufacturers may call their foods “organic” even if they’re not certified, so it’s important to look for the USDA Organic seal.) The NOP is currently developing specific standards in the area of pet food. Once the new standards have been implemented, revised labeling guidelines are sure to follow — so stay tuned to keep up on any changes.

Is Organic Dog Food Always Better?

Now that you understand what organic dog food contains, you probably are asking yourself one key question: Is organic pet food always superior to conventional pet food?

The USDA does not claim that organic food is healthier, safer, or more nutritious than conventional food. In fact, the organization urges consumers to choose food based on the bigger picture: “nutrition, quality, taste, cost, and other factors.” The organic certification simply ensures consumers get what they’re paying for.

In addition, renowned veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker cautions against accepting organic food as the best choice without carefully considering a food’s ingredients. She notes the importance of choosing pet food that contains raw ingredients that have been properly sourced and processed and are suitable for human consumption.

When choosing a pet food, it’s important to look at which ingredients come first on the list as well as which ingredients are actually organic. Will dog food containing organic rice benefit a dog who does not even nutritionally require grains? Probably not. Feeding a biologically appropriate diet featuring high-quality ingredients matters more than seeking out organic dog food.

Consider a similar example for people: Is it better to eat organic potato chips or to snack on conventionally grown vegetables and fruit? Just like you, your dog should not rely on processed foods for nutrition, even if it is organic.

The Pros and Cons of Each Type of Dog Food

When you’re deciding on the right dog food, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by the choices. But it’s important to do your research, separate fact from fiction, and make the best decisions you can. In a video on DogFoodAdvisor, Dr. Karen Becker advises pet owners not to beat themselves up if they discover the food they’ve been feeding their dog is not ideal.

“As a general rule, people who are feeding their pets a lesser quality diet are doing so either because they can’t afford a better food or they simply don’t know what constitutes good nutrition for their pet,” Dr. Becker says in the video. “If you discover your furry buddy is eating [a lower-quality food], set a goal to feed a better quality food now that you know the difference, or when you can afford a more nutritious brand.”

When it comes to pet food, start by focusing on a few key factors: high-quality protein, appropriate moisture levels, and minimal processing. Here’s the scoop on a few different types of pet food:

  1. Dry Dog Food: If you feed your dog kibble and have not yet seen the documentary Pet Fooled, you may want to watch it. The pet food industry overall focuses more on benefiting manufacturers than it does dogs. Organic or not, much commercially available kibble contains low-quality ingredients, including rendered meat sourced from slaughterhouse leftovers and euthanized animals.In addition, kibble is not species appropriate. It lacks crucial moisture, containing only about 12 percent moisture rather than the 70 percent your dog should be consuming — meaning kibble-fed dogs risk dehydration. In addition, it also tends to contain grains, additives, and fillers that aren’t biologically appropriate as well as lack important nutrients and enzymes due to processing.
  2. Canned Dog Food: As a general rule, canned dog food is a better choice than dry kibble. For one thing, it contains a greater concentration of the moisture your dog needs. Some brands also contain more protein than kibble, and because they’re canned, they aren’t likely to become rancid the way bagged dog foods can. (Beware of moist dog food in pouches, however, which may contain propylene glycol — a controversial ingredient used to preserve moisture content.)However, canned dog food is still less than ideal for many families. The high cost can be off-putting, especially given that the ingredients may not necessarily be of higher quality than those found in kibble.
  3. Raw Dog Food: According to Dr. Karen Becker, a balanced raw food diet is the best choice for your dog. Organic or not, a raw diet offers a number of benefits, one of the most important being that it’s species appropriate. A good raw diet is based on the ancestral diet — high in protein, balanced fats, and some fresh foods — which closely mimics what dogs hunted and scavenged in the wild. In addition, raw food retains vitamins and enzymes since it’s not cooked or processed, and natural whole foods are easy for dogs to digest. Though raw dog food costs more than kibble for obvious reasons, many owners see a decrease in veterinary bills that helps offset the price.

Quick Tip: Beef Up Your Dog’s Diet: It can be hard to accept the fact that the kibble you’re accustomed to feeding is not the best nutritional choice for your dog. Sometimes taking baby steps is a good way to switch to a better food. If you’re interested in trying a raw diet but worried about the expense, you can start by offering raw food in addition to your dog’s current diet. You can also begin serving broth for improved hydration, offering more fresh foods, and providing nutritional supplements.  

Beyond Organic: Dog Food Terms Defined

You know that pet food labeled “organic” must adhere to very specific regulations set by the NOP in order to display the USDA Organic seal. But when you’re checking out different types of food, you’ll notice a variety of appealing words. Below, we supply a primer on these terms so you can truly understand dog food labels when you read them.

  • Holistic: This word conveys a link with whole-body health. AAFCO does not possess an official definition, so its usage among pet food manufacturers is not regulated. However, reputable companies may use the term to describe dog food that has been carefully and thoughtfully formulated for optimal health and doesn’t contain fillers, chemicals, hormones, and other potentially harmful products.
  • Natural: According to AAFCO’s definition, “natural” refers to “a feed or feed 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 by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.”
    • Translation? On a pet food label, “natural” doesn’t always mean much. According to AAFCO, “natural food” is not necessarily safer; the term natural “includes more ingredients than it excludes”; and an ingredient can undergo processing or contain trace amounts of chemicals and still be considered natural. However, among reputable companies, natural is an apt description of unadulterated pet food containing only meat, vegetables, and trace minerals.
  • Grain-Free: Typical kibble contains at least some type of grain, such as rice, oats, corn, barley, buckwheat, or quinoa. However, grains are nutritionally unnecessary for dogs, as canines are primarily carnivores. Diets heavy on grains can cause inflammation and promote insulin production. Food labeled grain-free will not contain these ingredients; however, beware of formulas that swap out grains for potatoes or other high-starch carbs.
  • Exotic: When it comes to pet food, the term exotic (or novel) refers to unusual proteins such as alligator, duck, rabbit, bison, or venison. The No. 1 reason owners try these foods is to diagnose and address a dog’s suspected allergy to a typical protein, such as chicken or beef.
  • Human-Grade: According to AAFCO, “This term has no definition in any animal feed regulations.” But among small, reputable pet food companies, human-grade conveys that the pet food has been deemed human edible because it adheres to strict quality control and processing regulations and includes no rejected ingredients.
  • Vegetarian: Many vegetables are good for dogs. However, an exclusively vegetarian or vegan diet is not biologically appropriate for dogs and cats. Just look at your dog: His teeth are designed for tearing flesh and chewing on bones. One vegetarian dog food formula contains brown rice, oatmeal, barley, peas, and potato protein. Even if a vegetarian food contains high levels of protein, this protein may not have appropriate biological value — in other words, the nutrition or the usability of that protein is not up to snuff.

Choosing Dog Food: Specific Considerations

When selecting dog food, it’s important to note that not all dogs are the same. An adult dog in good health may have different nutritional needs than a pet at a different life stage or prone to a health condition  Let’s take a look at some of the special needs you may need to consider:

  • Overweight and Obese Dogs: Some breeds are prone to obesity, but other dogs simply consume too many calories and/or don’t get enough exercise. In some cases, kibble is the culprit, as feeding nutritionally deficient dry food can lead to weight gain. Overweight dogs benefit from a high-protein diet, portion control, and regular exercise.
  • Food Allergies: Depending on your veterinarian’s advice, if you suspect your dog has a food intolerance or food allergy, you can seek out allergy testing or try a new diet that eliminates potential allergens. When choosing a pet food, keep in mind that certain types of foods are more allergenic, including corn, wheat, soy, and dairy products. A raw diet with limited ingredients can often ease a dog’s food allergies.
  • Dental Health: Dogs benefit from routine dental care, such as regular tooth brushing and dental visits. Some  pet owners believe the myth that chewing on dry kibble will help prevent plaque and tartar buildup. According to Dr. Karen Becker, feeding a raw diet is an excellent way to promote good oral health. Chewing on raw meaty bones helps with buildup, and raw meat contains beneficial enzymes.
  • Dogs Requiring a High-Fiber Diet: If you notice diarrhea or constipation and suspect your dog is not getting enough dietary fiber, you should consult with your vet. Adding too much fiber — or the wrong type of fiber — can actually exacerbate health problems. Commercially available high-fiber diets may promote regular bowel movements, but too much fiber can affect nutrient absorption and digestion. The right raw diet will provide adequate dietary fiber. You can also serve up fiber in the form of these Human Superfoods, including broccoli and pumpkin.
  • Puppies: Young dogs have different dietary requirements than adult dogs. Puppies need more calories and more frequent meals, but they should not be overfed. Their mineral needs also differ, particularly calcium and phosphorous. Too much calcium can be harmful for large-breed pups prone to joint and bone issues. If you are considering a new addition, learn more about how to properly feed a puppy.

7 Steps to Choosing the Right Dog Food

  1. Read the label carefully. A pet food label should contain complete and accurate information, including an ingredients list and a guaranteed analysis of nutrition content. The first ingredient should be meat, and the name should not be misleading (beware of “beef dinner,” for instance, which may be light on beef).
  2. Know the origins of the ingredients. The best pet food companies are honest and transparent about ingredient sourcing. You should know which countries their animal ingredients are sourced from, how the food is grown and raised, and how and where the food is manufactured.
  3. Look for complete and balanced food. Pet food standards require minimum amounts of protein, minimum and maximum amounts of fat, and other standards for certain nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. To ensure a food is complete and balanced, look for an AAFCO statement to this effect — for instance, “Darwin’s meals are formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO dog food nutrient profiles for all life stages.”
  4. Seek out natural and organic ingredients. As we discussed, the terms “organic” and “natural” aren’t a guarantee of quality. But if you look past the words and truly examine the label, you can find more information: a relatively short ingredients list, whole-food protein source, and clues that the ingredients are human grade (or at least high-quality).
  5. Opt for minimal processing. The best dog foods are as close to their natural states as possible. Heat and high pressure processing (HPP) can destroy important enzymes, nutrients, and antioxidants.
  6. Turn to trustworthy brands. Research pet food companies, read customer reviews, and check for past recalls. A good pet food company will be transparent about ingredients and manufacturing processes.
  7. Beware of certain harmful ingredients. See the checklist below for a list of ingredients to avoid. Organic or not, pet food containing any of the following should drop to the bottom of your list.

Potentially Harmful Ingredients & Contaminants to Avoid

  • Artificial colors or flavors
  • Preservatives
  • Byproducts
  • Pesticides and Herbicides
  • Antibiotics
  • Fillers (corn, sugar)
  • GMO Ingredients
  • Factory-farmed ingredients
  • Meat containing hormones, steroids, or antibiotics
  • 3D or 4D meats (made from dead, dying, diseased, or disabled animals)
  • High-Pressure Processing (HPP kills good bacteria dogs need for a healthy gut)

Consider Raw Dog Food for Optimal Health

If you want to provide optimal nutrition for your dog, consider feeding a raw diet. Producing 100 percent organic pet food is cost prohibitive, and Darwin’s strives to make natural pet food available to as many pet owners as possible. Darwin’s incorporates both conventional and organic ingredients, but the bottom line is that all the ingredients are fresh, minimally processed, responsibly sourced, and of excellent quality. You’ll notice ingredients like cage-free poultry, free-range grass-fed beef, and organic vegetables. If you’re interested in trying raw food, call 877-738-6325 or contact Darwin’s online for a free menu consultation.