The purpose of this review is to clarify the definition of "natural" as it pertains to commercial pet food and to summarize the scientific findings related to natural ingredients in pet foods and natural diets on the impact of pet health and physiology. The term "natural," when used to market commercial pet foods or pet food ingredients in the United States, has been defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials and requires, at minimum, that the pet food be preserved with natural preservatives. However, pet owners may consider natural as something different than the regulatory definition. The natural pet food trend has focused on the inclusion of whole ingredients, including meats, fruits, and vegetables; avoiding ingredients perceived as heavily processed, including refined grains, fiber sources, and byproducts; and feeding according to ancestral or instinctual nutritional philosophies. Current scientific evidence supporting nutritional benefits of natural pet food products is limited to evaluations of dietary macronutrient profiles, fractionation of ingredients, and the processing of ingredients and final product. Domestic cats select a macronutrient profile (52% of ME from protein) similar to the diet of wild cats. Dogs have evolved much differently in their ability to metabolize carbohydrates and select a diet lower in protein (30% of ME from protein) than the diet of wild wolves. The inclusion of whole food ingredients in natural pet foods as opposed to fractionated ingredients may result in higher nutrient concentrations, including phytonutrients. Additionally, the processing of commercial pet food can impact digestibility, nutrient bioavailability, and safety, which are particularly important considerations with new product formats in the natural pet food category. Future opportunities exist to better understand the effect of natural diets on health and nutrition outcomes and to better integrate sustainable practices in the production of natural pet foods.
Keywords: companion animal; food; metabolism; natural; nutrition.