What’s in a word?

in Contributors by

By Tracie Korol

When it comes to describing a healthier life — for us and our dogs — we are encouraged to participate in a new vocabulary to remain current with rising trends. Both people and animal doctors are trending toward concierge medicine, a trend that forces us to decode buzz words like natural, human-grade, holistic and organic, and my own personal pet peeve, wellness.

For instance, dog owners will maintain they feed their dogs a kibble that is made of human-grade ingredients — because it says so on the label. Here’s the problem with that: human-grade dog food does not exist. Due to the vagaries of the federal government, we just don’t know what that actually means. Once meat, originally intended for humans, leaves a slaughterhouse in a truck bound for a pet food factory, it immediately becomes “inedible” for human consumption. Food material meant for humans is under jurisdiction of the FDA; once it leaves the plant, it belongs to the USDA; it has its own set of rules. The USDA does not inspect pet food manufacturing plants and procedures therefore cannot guarantee that the processing of the food meets human standards. Anything could happen in there, and it does.

Terms like holistic, premium, organic and natural have also become extremely popular marketing vernacular in the pet food industry of late, as well. There is no legal definition to support the use of those kinds of words, either. From the FDA: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives.”

So, it appears these descriptors were created solely to inflate the value of the pet product for marketing purposes. Natural (and it’s derivatives natura, nutro, natural >insert happy word<) implies a safe, healthy, nutritious food, but there’s no legal definition of the word, so a food containing arsenic and ear wax — both of which are natural — could be sold as “100% natural.”

A manufacturer gets to use the word organic if it meets the strict requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program. At least 95 percent of the ingredients must be organically grown or cultivated without the addition of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Therefore, all the beef, or chicken, or wheat, rice and whatever that the dog food contains must be organic. If a dog food contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients, the label can say, “Made with Organic Ingredients.” What the other 30 percent is is up for grabs. These foods cannot carry the coveted “USDA Organic” green and white label. Given, too, that most pet food companies are now subsidiaries of multi-national corporations — for instance, Procter and Gamble own Iams and Eukanuba. Mars owns Kal Kan, Mealtime, Pedigree, Walthams, Sheba, and Nutro — how much do you trust that organic on the package means anything?

And then there’s wellness. The word first appeared in the 1600’s as a counter to ill-ness. Now, that makes sense. Unfortunately, it took a turn when Dr. Halbert L. Dunn introduced the concept of wellness, referring to a lifestyle approach that pursued elevated states of physical and psychological well-being, in a series of lectures he gave at the Unitarian Church in Arlington, Virginia in the late 1950s. He described it as a “disciplined commitment to self-mastery.” Hardly what we think of as wellness today.

Of late, the term has gotten mish-mashed in with holistic health, disease prevention, health education and health promotion, hair care, massage, spa, exercise and fitness, stress management, critical thinking, spirituality, effective relationships and yes, dog food. It’s a marketer’s dream word; it means everything and nothing, but we want it.

Human and animal docs are turning toward the “wellness” approach to practice. Does that mean anything more than selling supplements and suggesting you take a walk? Next time you hear a practitioner use that word, or see it appear on his sign or his brochure, or watch him re-make his practice in a wellness model, ask him what he means. I wager he’ll scramble for a definition.