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What’s in a Pet Food Flavor?

What’s in a Pet Food Flavor?

A great deal of research has been done to find the exact right flavorings for pet foods.  But probably not for the reasons you’d think.  To quote a recent Popular Science article titled The Chemistry of Kibble “The billion-dollar, cutting-edge science of convincing dogs and cats to eat what’s in front of them.”  There’s nothing like using their own words to explain the truth about pet food.

It started with this (rather insulting) video…

“Kitty crack.”  “These flavorings or coatings entice animals to eat food or treats that while nutritious aren’t part of their native diet.”  “Scents like Cadavernine and Putrescence tend to grab a dogs attention.”   Is this how the industry thinks about our pets?

This video led to an article on the Popular Science website titled “The Chemistry of Kibble”.  The article, a close look at the pet food flavoring plant AFB International states “To meet nutritional requirements, pet food manufacturers blend animal fats and meals with soy and wheat grains and vitamins and minerals. This yields a cheap, nutritious pellet that no one wants to eat. Cats and dogs are not grain eaters by choice, Moeller is saying. “So our task is to find ways to entice them to eat enough for it to be nutritionally sufficient.”

So…to get dogs and cats to eat a “cheap pellet” which contains grains – of which dogs and cats are “not grain eaters by choice”, the challenge to pet food manufacturers is to add the right flavorings to “entice” the dog or cat to “eat enough (of the “cheap pet food that no one wants to eat”) for it to be nutritionally sufficient.”

One interesting point in the article was about cats.  While most of us that have cats know they are often picky eaters, Nancy Rawson of AFB International says “outdoor cats tend to be either mousers or birders, but not both.”  Which is why cats often prefer to stick to one type of food.  But the article also tells pet food consumers not to worry…because “Most of the difference between Tuna Treat and Poultry Platter is the name and the picture on the label.”  The author says that a tuna pet food and a poultry pet food might taste exactly the same to the cat (and appears to state there is very little difference in ingredients as well).

With cats, the flavor additive of choice is pyrophosphates.  It is not completely understood why pyrophosphates entice cats to eat.  A study published in magazine (from another pet food flavorings company Monell Chemical Senses Center) states “the possibility that pyrophosphate could act as a modulator of the activity of the cat’s amino acid receptor.”  Monell Chemical Senses Center has found that mixing pyrophosphates (phosphate salts) with meat hydrolysates is the most effective enticer of cats to a food.

In a very basic non-scientific explanation, meat or meat by-product ingredients are broken down by use of water.  The amino acids (building blocks of protein – that cats are looking for) remain in the meat hydrolysate are basically magnified in taste (for the cat) by the phosphate salts (such as Sodium acid pyrophosphate).  This magnified taste of protein – though chemically achieved – is what keeps cats addicted to a “cheap pet food that no one wants to eat”.

Tetrasodium pyrophosphate (another name for sodium pyrophosphate) is stated on Wikipedia (quoting Handbook of food toxicology) “toxicity is approximately twice that of table salt when ingested orally.” states “Ingesting sodium acid pyrophosphate in large quantities can lead to diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, whereas its inhalation may cause nosebleeds, irritation in the respiratory tract, coughing or chest pain. Skin contact with the compound may cause severe to mild skin irritation or chapping the of skin. Those who are pregnant or have heart disease or diabetes should limit consumption of sodium acid pyrophosphate due to its sodium content.”

It makes one wonder – if toxicity studies have ever taken into consideration a pet that would be consuming the pyrophosphates day in and day out over their lifetime.  (I doubt it.)

AFB International states for a dog the sense of smell is what pet food manufacturers are selling to.  “The takeaway lesson is that if the palatant smells appealing, the dog will dive in with instant and obvious zeal, and the owner will assume the food is a hit.  When in reality it might have only smelled like a hit.”  In other words, the dog food need only smell like meat to the dog – that’s the concern of many pet food manufacturers.

What a shame there is such a thing as a billion dollar industry to just flavor pet foods…’cutting-edge science to convince dogs and cats to eat what’s in front of them.’  I believe the explanation for why there is this billion dollar industry (pet food flavors) was mentioned early in the Chemistry of Kibble article…”cheap“.  Pet food manufacturers make more money (more profit) using cheap ingredients adding cutting edge science flavorings convincing the pet via taste receptors it’s real food.  What a shame.


Wishing you and your pet(s) the best,

Susan Thixton
Association for Truth in Pet Food
Pet Food Safety Advocate
Author Buyer Beware, Co-Author Dinner PAWsible

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  1. Agribusinesses employ legions of scientists who work tirelessly to induce dogs and cats to eat things they normally would never touch. By conduct a “physico- chemical analysis” of the foods (designing kibble, for example, to appeal to the consumer and secondly, to get the dog to eat it), they identify the “palatability drivers” and typically spray “animal digest” (rendered fats and waste) on junk dry foods. The animals are really “eating” these digests, not the food itself, and can become “addicted” quite easily, often even turning down better quality foods when this happens. Some people question why their dog or cat chews on plastic grocery bags: the reason is that they are sprayed with animal fat (digest) to keep them from sticking together. Not nice, when you understand what is going on.

    Were it not for TAPF, I doubt many pet guardians would ever know what the term “pyrophosphates” means, and anyway, pet food manufacturers have designed their own vocabulary to confuse them, (“cellulose” instead of wood pulp, or really, sawdust), and AAFCO has their own made-up terminology (such as “brewer’s rice”) to make garbage appear better than it is.

    One of the reason’s a “tuna” and a “poultry” pet food taste similar is that they often are the same thing. As the most stinky of stinky ingredients (cats eat by smell, not taste), tuna is often added to cat foods as a “palatant,” (the word does not exist in the dictionary) and cats become addicted to it quite easily. Some so-called “premium” foods rely very heavily on tuna, across their entire lines. Perhaps toxicity studies have not been performed on pyrophosphates (and this article surely is a call to do that), but the toxicity of tuna IS known: Tuna is high in unsaturated fats that cats have difficulty metabolizing. Tuna robs the cat body of vitamin E, and absence of vitamin E can lead to steatitis (yellow fat disease).

  2. I laugh at flavorants, because when I offer kibble to young orphaned kittens who have never seen anyone eat it they more often than not use it for litter. I actually have to teach them that it is food (and it kills me but they are adopted out by a shelter that still believes in dry food)

    Once they eat it, it becomes addicting.. I’ve had cats chew through bags for it, so I think there is something more than just flavor about it..

    • Could you add some canned food or “real food” to their diets? It’s a well-known problem that cats addict to their food — hence the idea that cats are “finicky”. They can be weaned onto better food, but it does have to be done slowly and most cat owners just don’t want to work that hard at it and give up too soon because they don’t realize the importance of it. Kudos to you for fostering — even if it’s an ongoing process to educate the PTB!!

  3. One more reason to feed raw. Raw doesn’t have to be “dressed up” to be enticing. It contains the enzymes and amino acids animals need naturally. It has not been cooked to death as kibble has, so that any nutritional value has to be “sprayed” back onto the pellets, and it has the proper moisture content animals need (about 70%). It’s no coincidence that many animals are living much shorter lives than they should be and dying of renal failure and UTIs. Considering that most companion animals are fed kibble, most live in a state of mild dehydration because of their diets. It’s not hard to feed a good balanced raw diet to your animals, nor need it be costly. It just takes the will power to do it. Holistic vet Karen Becker’s wonderful little book, ‘Healthy Food for Dogs and Cats’ is a great place to start and there are some wonderful commercial raw foods available for those wanting a ready-made healthy balance. It works. It eliminates health issues, and it’s species-appropriate. Thank you, Susan, for the hard work and time you put into this site, but I can’t help but think that we would get more and better options for our animals from the PFI if we stopped buying their garbage and started demanding species-appropriate options! (And those wanting to argue that kibble is fine, don’t tell me — tell the holistic vets who have studied nutrition from objective sources not tied to the PFI. They see the results of the processed-to-death commercial diets every day in their practices.)

    • Addressing cats’ stubbornness about transitioning from unhealthy foods they are addicted to, to a better diet, the best source I know is Dr Lisa Pierson’s website It’s long and detailed instructions support an owner’s efforts. It can take months and seem impossible without experienced coaching from an authority who knows it’s worth the effort. I wish she would publish it as a book!

      • Thanks for the resource, Laurie. Dr. Hofve’s site, is another great resource for those trying to get their cats to a raw diet. Dr. Becker has also written articles and addressed the problem on her site Many great resources are out there for cat parents!!

  4. This is heartbreakingly tragic. Spending millions of dollars to figure out how to trick pets into eating non-food they otherwise would instinctively reject.

    I have the same problem with the commercial “flavor toppings” that people create to sprinkle on pet food to get “finicky” pets to eat processed crap. “Finicky” is really a code word for “they’re smarter than you give them credit for and they know this is not good for them!”

    If your pet doesn’t want to eat its food, there’s usually a good reason. They are also excellent at detecting contamination of food that people would never spot on their own. We trust them to find bombs, drugs, cancer, etc…. but then do our best to trick their noses so they will eat what may be essentially toxic poisons.

    I will repeat again… if your pet doesn’t want to eat its food, you need to offer it better food. REAL food.

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