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There is no easy answer to this question because one food does not feed all.
We truly are what we eat. So are our pets. Even more so because they depend on us to provide them with proper nutrition and diet. Proper nutrition includes feeding a balanced diet to prevent both deficiency and excess, and to provide the diet in such a way that the body can utilize the nutrients of the diet. In order to understand this, we need to first look at what are nutrients and what are ingredients.
There are 6 nutrients. These are protein, fat, carbohydrates (including fiber) vitamins, minerals and water. That is all we need to live. We need to consume the nutrients in such a way as to prevent deficiency as well as excess. What happens if we eat too much overall? We gain weight. What happens if we exclude vitamins from our diet? We become ill. The classic example of this is the disease Scurvy (a connective tissue disorder) caused by lack of Vitamin C. This is why we need to eat a wide variety of food stuffs (ingredients) to prevent disease, to make sure we consume all the variety of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals that we need.
Ingredients are simply the foodstuffs or "vehicles" that contain the nutrients. A steak for example is mostly protein with some minerals (iron) thrown in. A potato is mostly carbohydrate with some minerals also found in the skin. Butter is a good example of oils and some protein, with some vitamins (Beta carotine a precursor to Vitamin A) along for the ride. Salt contains minerals sodium and chloride.
Quick quiz, is a chicken a nutrient or ingredient? Chicken is an ingredient that provides mostly protein, a small amount of vitamins, and minerals. Can I take a mineral and turn it into a vitamin? No, nutrients are exact compounds and cannot be turned into one another. We must consume a variety of ingredients to supply the necessary nutrients to fuel our bodies in order to live. This is why variety in our diets is so important.
Now armed with the difference between nutrients and ingredients, what is more important when it comes to purchasing a bag of pet food? The ingredient list of that bag, or the nutrient profile of that bag? The answer is the nutrient profile because we need a balance of nutrients to live, and the ingredients are simply the vehicles to provide the nutrients. Let me explain. "Chicken by product" is an unfortunate name, but this does not mean it is all bad. A "by product" is what is left over. Take a chicken for example. The breast of that chicken, the legs and the wings all wind up at the grocery store. What about the heart of the chicken? There is not a large market for chicken heart in this country, so the chicken heart would be considered a by product. Does that mean it is bad? Certainly not, because there are a lot of valuable amino acids and protein in that chicken heart, making it a good source of nutrients. Does it sound appetizing? No, not really, but that does not mean it is bad for you or your pet.
Point 1: Don't get hung up on ingredients because we need to remain focused on nutrients. Remember the pet food industry is multi-billion dollar a year industry, and a lot of people are vying for your dollar. And some of the marketing claims listed on a bag of pet food may not be true.
Another complicating issue is to look at the nutrient requirements of the pet based on the age of the pet. Just as our diets change throughout our life time, puppies and kittens have a different nutrient requirement than adult and senior animals. Animals with disease have a different nutrient requirement than a healthy pet. A human infant cannot handle a steak and lobster dinner, and I personally don't want to eat mashed pears and apple sauce all day now that I am older. Our nutrient profile changes throughout our lifetime, and we have to tailor the different food stuffs to allow for those changes.
Point 2: One bag of food does not fit all.
So what food do I feed my pet? The answer is the best combination of ingredients to provide the proper nutrients for optimum nutrition and diet based on his/ her lifestyle. In a perfect world, you would source all of the ingredients yourself to maintain quality. You would then cook the diet and have the diet analyzed by a laboratory to make sure all the nutrients are present and in optimum amounts to prevent either excess or deficiency taking into account the nutrient requirements of your pets lifestyle. Then you would be feeding your pet the best diet. Wow, that is a lot of work and seems daunting.
Alternatively, we rely on the pet food manufacturers reputation to make sure THEY are sourcing the best high quality ingredients and balancing the diets. Does this happen all the time? No, and the recent pet food recalls prove that point.
Now you see why this question is hard to answer, and I can't in good faith go tell you to feed "XYZ pet food" for the rest of your pets life.
You should consider the following. Feed a high quality pet food. Out of all the pet food companies out there, Hills, Royal Canin and Purina do the most research in the area of pet nutrition. Purina Pro Plan in my opinion, is better than the Purina available at the grocery store. The "ultra premium" foods may have a better nutrient profile that more closely mimics what a dog would eat in the wild.
Look at the nutrient composition of the diet and tailor it to the dietary needs of your pet. For example, if you pet is obese, feed a lower calorie food, or cut back on treats and overfeeding.
Look at how your pet "performs" on the diet. Does her skin and hair coat glisten? Does she vomit frequently? Does he have loose stool? Is she able to absorb those nutrients and process them so she looks and acts healthy?
Some pets may benefit from a home cooked diet, especially those with chronic disease conditions, while other pets may not do well with the change in routine.
The best answer to this question is to discuss your questions with a veterinarian with an interest in nutrition or in holistic medicine. They have the training necessary to weed through the label claims and to give you honest advice that will work within your time, your budget and most importantly your pet's overall health and well-being. Taking all of this into account, a diet can be made or purchased that will ensure your pet is getting the quality nutrition he or she deserves.