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  • Writer's pictureSacha Packer

Synthetic Nutrients in Commercial Dog Food

Updated: May 23, 2022

What are synthetics and why are they used and how does the body react to them?

To start this discussion, we first need to outline that for a commercial diet to use the line "Complete & Balanced" they need to meet the minimum guidelines set out by Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). In order to do this they need to meet one of two different criteria's: either meeting Nutrient Profiles established by AAFCO or passing the criteria of a feeding trial established by AAFCO.

A feeding trials' criteria is pretty unimpressive:

  • You need 8 dogs

  • You only need 6 out of the 8 to finish the trial

  • You need to feed the food for 26 weeks (6 months)

  • Before an after the trial the dogs need to pass a physical examination by a veterinarian

  • At the end (but not at the beginning) of the trial, 4 blood values are measured and recorded: hemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphatase, and serum albumin and these cannot fall below certain values.

  • Show no clinical or pathological signs of nutritional deficiency or excess

  • Do not lose more than 15% of its starting body weight

So, they, in short have to keep just 6 dogs alive for 6 months without FOUR blood values falling below certain values and not losing more than 15% of their starting weight - that would legit be pretty much every relatively healthy dog out there living in family homes. I do more testing twice a year on my own dogs to track their health and wellbeing! Nutritional deficiencies and excesses occur over time, even 5-10 years down the track not just immediately within a 6 month period.

Minimum guidelines are equally as unimpressive

The minimum guidelines are about how to keep a dog alive, they are not based on optimal nutrition for dogs. In order to meet these minimum nutrient guidelines in a highly processed recipe that has degraded nutrients, synthetic nutrients typically have to be added in to achieve those minimums - I'm not familiar with a product that doesn't use synthetics when using the nutrient guideline, but correct me if I am wrong!

In Australia, at this time, I am only aware of one raw commercial product that does not use synthetic nutrients, and that is Big Dog who instead conducted a food trial in order to claim their recipe is complete and balanced. All kibbles have synthetic nutrients in Australia to meet minimum nutrient guidelines that I am aware of.

So, if you buy a commercial diet in Australia then this is something you need to accept unless you don't care about the term "complete & balanced", in which case there are plenty of products to choose such as small companies that you won't generally find in a pet shop but instead order from their online stores.

As pet parents, we are conditioned by kibble manufacturers and some Vets who receive forms of sponsored education by them to think "complete & balanced" is the only way we should feed our dogs so we can get nervous when something is not "complete & balanced".

As a pet parent, you need to understand that "complete & balanced" are guidelines that were made for kibble and they take into account nutrient losses in the manufacturing process i.e. heat which a number of nutrients are damaged by heat, therefore requiring a higher level in the mix. There are no AAFCO guidelines for fresh food even though they would be different with much of of the balancing coming from natural sources and when we feed a variety of ingredients on rotation rather than the same thing day in, day out we give our dogs an opportunity to "balance" overtime. In addition, every dog is biochemically an individual. You could have siblings and one would need more Zinc than the other to run at its best.

AAFCO is also only 1 source of guidelines, there are also other organisations such as NRC and FEDIAF - there are NO current guidelines of OPTIMAL feeding of dogs.

Companies that use synthetics may want you to know that those synthetics are almost or fully chemically identical to those found in whole foods. The problem with this is that the very production of synthetics is very different to the way plants and animals create them. We cannot state that just because they have a similar/same chemical structure that our dog's (or our) bodies will react exactly in the same way as how it would react when it gets nutrients from whole foods.

When our dogs eat real food vitamin and minerals, they're not just consuming that single isolated component, for example, they're consuming a wide range of not just vitamins and minerals but also co-factors and enzymes that work synergistically in their body for optimal results. Without these additional components, can synthetics be used by the body in the same way as natural sources?

Bees and flowers are a great example of a synergistic relationship. Without bees, flower pollination is severely limited and a matter of chance with pollen being simply blown by the wind.

A 2003 study(2) exploring whether a purified phytochemical has the same health benefit as whole food or mixture of foods, they found "that the vitamin C in apples with skin accounts for only 0.4% of the total antioxidant activity, suggesting that most of the antioxidant activity of fruit and vegetables may come from phenolics and flavonoids in apples". They proposed that the additive and synergistic effects of phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables are responsible for their potent antioxidant and anticancer activities and that the benefit of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is attributed to the complex mixture of phytochemicals present in whole food's. So let us consider again how a synthetic can do the same?

We have a huge range of studies to choose from that outline how fresh food reduces disease i.e. Fish, one study(5) of more than 40,000 males aged 40–75 found that those who regularly ate one or more servings of fish per week had a 15% lower risk of heart disease, however, a 2018 study(6) showed that fish oil by itself does not prevent heart attack or strokes - is the synergistic process of whole food nutrients at play here too even though this is not a synthetic example?

A 1998 study(3) explored the differences between natural and synthetic Vitamin E indicated that natural vitamin E has roughly twice the availability of synthetic vitamin E.

Vitamin E is a good example of showing how AFFCO guidelines are made for kibble not fresh food, "some Vitamin E is destroyed when the kibble goes through the extrusion process"(4), therefore manufacturers of heat-treated food will need to account for these nutrient losses and increase the amount of Vit E that goes into their formula.

A 2013 study(7) exploring if synthetic or food-derived vitamin C are equally bioavailable stated that "Although synthetic and food-derived vitamin C is chemically identical, fruit and vegetables are rich in numerous nutrients and phytochemicals which may influence its bioavailability and that the majority of animal studies have shown differences in the comparative bioavailability of synthetic versus natural vitamin C".

Better Health Victoria(7), an Australian government organisation state "Research indicates that most of the vitamins you get from the food you eat are better than those contained in pills. Even though vitamins in supplements are synthesized to the exact chemical composition of naturally-occurring vitamins, they still don’t seem to work as well.

The main exception to this is folate. The synthetic form (in a supplement or fortified food) is actually better absorbed by the body than folate from food sources."

They go on to say "Food is a complex source of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals), which all work together. Supplements tend to work in isolation. Research has shown that a food component that has a particular effect on the body may not have the same effect when it is isolated and taken as a supplement. This could be because the vitamins and minerals in foods are also influenced by other components of the food, not just the ‘active ingredient - Phytochemicals are an important component of food and are thought to reduce the incidence of heart disease and some cancers. Supplements do not provide the benefits of phytochemicals and other components found in food. Taking vitamin and mineral supplements is no substitute for a healthy diet."


Yes! We could go on and on but I think you get the gist


No one can say that synthetics and natural nutrients are the same, so should you be ok to include them in your dog's diet?

My recommendation would be, where you are feeding a diet that contains synthetic nutrients, I would suggest to to bridge the gap in relation to meeting AAFCO guidelines that you should always be rotating through brands and flavours to get different nutritional profiles and add real food (in its natural form) to your dog's diet. A hybrid diet is a great way of adding fresh food to your dogs diet if you are not ready to go 100% fresh food. The risk of not rotating has been seen in recent years with Hills Science Diet who had a product with excessive levels of Vit D, if you were feeding this day in and day out then your dog is likely to get sick or worse.


My concern would be deficiencies and excesses over a longer period of time i.e. 5+ years - we need more research on this topic but someone has to pay for it. Are there any long term dog food studies that show dogs eating the same formula day in and day out for years don't experience deficiencies and excesses? Not that I know of, you?


Well, you can't have your cake and eat it can't only want to feed "Complete & Balanced" and not want to accept the synthetics that comes with.

Come and learn how to feed a non synthetic diet at our Fresh Food Feeding Group.


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