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What is ‘hyper-processing’ of pet food?

I keep seeing the use of the terms ‘ultra-processed’ and ‘hyper-processed’ in my feeds, and we are also asked questions about them in our store. We all know we’re supposed to avoid processed foods in our diets, but what does the addition of ‘hyper-’ or ‘ultra- ’mean when talking about pet food?

Processed foods for people are things like bologna or cheese slices. They still look and taste like food but are generally made of ingredients that have been put through a process to improve their taste or form to make them more palatable. Those processes can be simple or complex and may or may not add undesirable ingredients to the end products, either by intent, or as a byproduct of the process.

Ultra/hyper-processed foods take this to the next level. Creating a product that contains meat yet is shelf-stable for 18 months, while retaining much of its nutritional value, means that it has to be processed and preserved. These processes include simple cooking, and many times a meat product may be cooked more than once. — at minimum, once when the meat products are rendered, then again when they are made into the kibble.

Cooking can do more damage to food than we’d like. No wolf ever used a campfire to cook its food and we know that cooked food has some of its best nutrition destroyed by heat. The rendering process for meat meals is quite interesting — raw materials (anything from butcher waste to dead animals) is ground, crushed, cooked in a continuous cooker, drained and sent through a screw press to remove the fats (also used in some dry pet foods), ground again and screened. The resulting powder, which, depending on the source, can be meat meal or meat and bone meal, is a primary ingredient in most inexpensive pet kibbles, as well as the animal fat that has been rendered out.

The manufacturer takes these processed meal powders and adds them to the other ingredients (usually feed-grade grains and vegetables not suitable for human use) and grinds them together into a mash, which is then extruded and cooked again. The resulting pellet has protein and carbohydrates, but not much more.

These pellets are then tumbled in a large drum, where a coating is sprayed on them which contains items that would have been destroyed in the cooking process — fats, vitamins, preservatives and flavours. The vitamins are usually synthetic, and mostly delivered in a vitamin premix a company will use in all its foods, regardless of the other ingredients. (Vitamin premixes have been the object of scrutiny lately, with recalls required due to improperly balanced premixes, some containing toxic levels of certain vitamins.) These are then bagged and stamped with an 18-month shelf life, even though, after a package is opened many of the food’s nutritional components degrade rapidly by oxidizing. Sealing them in a bucket can help, but every time it is opened, more oxygen is let in, so the damage still occurs.

So, you can see why the terms hyper-processed and ultra-processed are used regarding pet foods. Most commercial pet foods are far more processed than the foods we avoid consuming ourselves.