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This is the second installment in our series of articles about the Farmer’s Dog, the pet food startup whose emotional 2023 Super Bowl commercial and other high-profile marketing efforts have helped it to become a household name among many dog owners.
In our first article, we tried to help you figure out how much the Farmer’s Dog costs. Ordinarily, that’s not a subject that requires long-form writing. But the Farmer’s Dog employs a variety of tactics that make it remarkably difficult for consumers to understand its prices. (According to Google, as I write these words, some 25,000 people ask the search engine how much the Farmer’s Dog costs every month. That number is a good deal higher than the number asking the same question for the top ten most popular dog foods in the country combined, so obviously something’s not adding up for lots of dog owners.)
If you don’t have time to read the earlier article, here is the key takeaway: the reason the Farmer’s Dog makes it hard to understand how much it costs is because the Farmer’s Dog is one of the most expensive dog foods ever sold in the United States (if not the most expensive).
It costs 400% to 500% more than popular kibbles like Purina ProPlan. Meaning that it would cost a cool $300 to $400 per bag, if you could get it in large bags like Purina products. So, yeah, it costs a fortune. If I were to feed it to my dog Wayne it would cost me more than $500 per month. Although, in fairness, he’s a big boy:
So that’s the cost side of the cost-benefit equation. And in today’s article we’re going to look at the benefit side. What do you (and your dog) get for your money when you buy what’s basically the most expensive dog food in the history of the United States?
Let’s get into it.
There are several key takeaways when looking at the benefits of the Farmer’s Dog, as compared with other pet food products. But they all fall into one of two groups. The first group is composed of health and nutrition characteristics (and other benefits) for which there is real, valid evidence. The other is composed of “benefits” that the Farmer’s Dog touts but that don’t actually have meaningful evidentiary support. Obviously the first group is the one that should matter more to conscientious, responsible pet owners. But we’ll be looking at both here and doing our best to explain which specific health claims go in which bucket.
Benefits Supported By Actual Evidence
1) The nutritional profile of the Farmer’s Dog really is “better” than some pet foods, but it is also worse than others.
For those of us who think that science and evidence are the best tools for understanding health subjects, there is only one group of characteristics that actually matters when evaluating the healthfulness of pet food products: nutritional characteristics.
When scientists set out to understand the impact of food products on health, they do so through the lens of nutritional content. That’s why we call the folks who do this for a living “nutritional scientists.”
This may sound pedantic, but it’s not. Because there are other ways to understand the potential benefits of pet foods: What ingredients are used in the recipes? What processing methods are employed during production? What country do the foods come from? In fact, in my experience, these tend to be the ways that most pet food companies talk about their products and the ways that most laypeople evaluate those products. They’re the rule, not the exception.
Unfortunately, that thinking is exactly backwards. If you want to understand how a pet food product is likely to impact the health of your dog, your focus should be on nutritional content, not these other qualities.
Now, my claim that our analysis should be focused on nutritional content is not to say that these other considerations aren’t meaningful or valuable. They are! But only to the extent that they can be reduced to nutritional terms. Ingredients matter because different ingredients contain different nutrients. Processing methods matter because different methods alter nutritional content in different ways.
Lots of things impact nutrition, but only nutrition impacts health. So when thinking about the claimed health benefits of pet food products, the claims can either be reduced to nutritional terms or they’re not worth considering at all, period. Make sense? Good.
Okay, so what nutritional qualities matter most? To answer that question we need to do a very quick digression to cover some basic concepts. Feel free to skip this part if it all sounds familiar.
Fundamentally, there are two broad classes of nutrients: macronutrients (the calorie-containing ones – fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Both groups can impact your dog’s health. However, when evaluating modern-day pet foods, macronutrients are far more important than micronutrients. This is because micronutrient content typically doesn’t vary too much product-to-product, whereas macronutrient content usually varies a lot.
There are two separate reasons for this:
- All pet foods that are considered “complete and balanced” by the relevant government regulators (this designation means they are approved for everyday feeding as a dog’s sole source of nutrition) contain micronutrient profiles that fall within a pretty narrow range. Over the decades, nutritional scientists have worked out how much of each vitamin and mineral dogs need in order to avoid diseases of deficiency or excess. And those scientific findings have been translated into specific requirements that all pet food products must meet in order to be sold commercially as complete and balanced diets. So if a pet food is being sold as complete and balanced (and that’s 99% of what you can purchase commercially), you know that the regulators are confident that its micronutrient profile falls within a narrow, predefined range that is grounded in peer-reviewed scientific research.
- The vast majority of pet food recipes (including those sold by the Farmer’s Dog) include multi-vitamin supplements designed to make sure that the products comply with the micronutrient requirements set by the regulators. And those supplements are all pretty damn similar.
Since the micronutrient content of pet food products is almost always very similar, when comparing products it is wiser to focus on their macronutritional content: how much protein, fat, and carbohydrate (and the nutritional “building blocks” of each of those nutrients) do the various products contain? Because, unlike with micronutrients, pet foods often differ hugely in those regards.
For reasons that I’ve outlined extensively in other articles, blog posts, videos, and podcast episodes (and, of course, in my book), based on the peer-reviewed record, there are three specific macronutritional qualities that matter most when comparing pet foods:
- How much total (“crude”) protein does the diet contain? In 99% of cases, the more protein the better.
- How much of each essential amino acid does the diet contain? Amino acids are the building blocks of which proteins are composed. Some of them are made naturally within your dog’s body and others (the “essential” ones) have to come from its diet. As with total protein, in 99% of cases, the greater the essential amino acid content the better.
- How much digestible carbohydrate does the diet contain? Some types of carbohydrates pass through your dog’s digestive system without being digested and broken down into metabolizable substrates. The rest get absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose (i.e., sugar). That glucose does a host of nasty things to your dog’s body. As such, for a host of different health-related reasons, dogs should consume as little digestible carbohydrate as possible. In other words, the lower the digestible carbohydrate content the better.
And that’s really it. Yes, other qualities do matter. But according to the evidence, if a diet is certified as complete and balanced, those are the three nutritional qualities that move the needle the most when it comes to improving or maintaining your dog’s health.
If you don’t have time to dive deep into my other writing about these subjects, the graphic immediately below does a pretty good job of making the case for me.
I pulled the graph from this study, which was published just last year. In it, the authors looked at the relationship between mortality and diet in a group containing nearly 18,000 people. More particularly, they looked at the association between mortality and protein:carbohydrate consumption. And, essentially, what they found was that the higher each participant’s protein:carbohydrate intake ratio was, the less likely they were to die.
In other words, the people that ate more carbohydrate than protein tended to die younger. Whereas those that ate more protein than carbohydrate tended to die later. And the data showed what’s called a “dose-response relationship,” meaning that the higher the protein:carbohydrate intake ratio got, the lower the risk of death got.
To my knowledge, no one has performed a similar experiment on dogs. But all of the various mechanisms and theories that would explain this pattern (the biochemical nuts and bolts that occur within the body when we consume protein and carbs) apply to dogs at least as much as they apply to humans. In many cases, these various mechanisms seem to be present in dogs to an even greater extent than in people.
We’ll return to this graph in a minute. But for now let’s get back to the Farmer’s Dog.
The company sells four different diets: turkey, beef, chicken, and pork. As of August, 2023, the nutritional content of the Farmer’s Dog’s turkey recipe looks like this:
If you’re used to looking at the labels for kibble products, the protein and fat numbers might seem surprisingly low. But that’s only because the moisture number is so high. Kibble products are dehydrated, so they typically contain only about 10% water. But the Farmer’s Dog’s recipes aren’t dehydrated. So its products are typically at least 75% water.
(This is also why the Farmer’s Dog contains so few calories per pound of food. Most of the weight of the product is water. And water weighs a lot but doesn’t contain any calories—or, for that matter, any vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, or fats either.)
The protein and fat numbers that go into the FDA’s “Guaranteed Analysis” nutrition box have to be given on what’s called an “as-fed” basis, meaning that the percentages you see on the bag (or, in the case of the Farmer’s Dog, the website) are what is actually going into your dog’s mouth, including any water in the product. And since the Farmer’s Dog contains so much water, its protein and fat numbers look really low, when in reality they are higher than many other pet food products.
The best way to make apples-to-apples nutritional comparisons between kibble products and the Farmer’s Dog is to consider what the Farmer’s Dog’s nutritional content would look like if it contained the same amount of water as a typical kibble. As I mentioned already, most kibbles contain about 10% moisture. And, using nothing more than some basic math, we can see that if the Farmer’s Dog’s turkey recipe was only 10% moisture, it’s Guaranteed Analysis panel would look as something like this:
Crude Protein: 30% (minimum)
Crude Fat: 16% (minimum)
Crude Fiber: 6% (maximum)
Moisture: 10% (maximum)
Because the Farmer’s Dog doesn’t tell its customers how much digestible carbohydrate its products contain (incredibly, the relevant regulations currently allow brands to hide this information from consumers if they wish), we have to estimate instead. Fortunately, that's easy enough to do.
We know that the product is no more than 38% carbs because protein, fat, fiber, and moisture make up, collectively, 62% of the product. But we can’t tell exactly how much less than 38% because the Farmer’s Dog also chooses not to tell its customers how much “ash” its products contain. (The relevant regulators don’t require this either.) The ash contents of pet food products don’t vary very much and rarely go above 10%. So we think it’s fair to estimate that the Farmer’s Dog contains somewhere between 28% and 38% digestible carbs.
So how do these numbers stack up against some popular kibbles? In essence, they represent a middle-of-the-road nutritional profile: legitimately better than “value” kibble products, roughly equivalent to the nutritional content of many “upper middle class” brands, and not nearly as good as the healthiest (read: highest protein, lowest carbohydrate) options.
“Value” kibbles usually contain less than 25% protein and more than 50% digestible carbohydrate. So the Farmer’s Dog is certainly a better choice than those products. Then again, products like Pedigree, Purina Dog Chow, and Kibbles ‘n Bits are among the least expensive pet foods being sold in America today. I guess you’d hope that the Farmer’s Dog would offer somewhat better nutrition than products that cost 90% less than it does.
That said, you can certainly find brands with similar nutritional profiles to the Farmer’s Dog (30% protein and 28-38% digestible carbohydrate) in your local Costco or grocery store. Blue Wilderness by Blue Buffalo is a good example of these “upper middle class” brands: its chicken recipe contains 34% protein and somewhere between 26% and 36% digestible carbohydrate – so maybe a little better than the Farmer’s Dog but pretty similar. And you can buy it at your local grocery store for about 80% less than the cost of the Farmer’s Dog.
However, you can also find brands with nutritional profiles that are better—much better—than the Farmer’s Dog. In fact, as you have probably discovered by now, my company makes one! Our Ketona recipes all contain more than 46% protein and less than 6% digestible carbohydrate. And, as I explained in my earlier article about prices, they only cost about ⅓ as much as the Farmer’s Dog.
Now, as promised, back to the graph. If we were to take the nutritional profiles of the various products I just mentioned, then express them using the same protein:carbohydrate ratio discussed in the study above, they’d look something like this:
Protein:Carbohydarte Ratio of “Value” Kibbles: 1:2 to 1:3.
P:C Ratio of “Upper Middle Class” Kibbles: ~1:1
P:C Ratio of the Farmer’s Dog: ~1:1
P:C Ratio of Ketona: 8:1
And if we were to map them onto the graph I showed you earlier, they’d look something like this:
So, again, the take-home point is as follows, the Farmer’s Dog sells dog foods that have a protein and carbohydrate profile that is meaningfully better than “value” kibbles like Pedigree, about the same as “upper middle class” brands like Blue Buffalo, and far worse than “best in class” brands like Ketona.
And that’s really about all that I can tell you (for now) about the nutritional profiles of the Farmer’s Dog’s pet foods and the extent to which the scientific record supports the idea that they are any “healthier” than other products.
There are of course other nutritional qualities that have been shown to impact canine health in positive ways, but the Farmer’s Dog has chosen to provide the public with only the nutritional data points that are absolutely required by law (and none of the “optional” items that would tell us a lot more), so I can’t tell if its recipes contain, for example, lots of essential amino acids or not.
That said, I have asked them a host of questions about their recipes and their manufacturing processes, and if they ever give me anything more than what’s on their website, I’ll certainly be able to say more.
For now, however, it’s time to transition to the second part of our analysis.
Claimed Health “Benefits” With Limited Or No Evidence Supporting Them
This is the beginning of what you might call the “air quotes” section. You’ll be seeing a lot of quotation marks from here onward because the “benefits” (see?) discussed in this section are primarily benefits in name alone. The Farmer’s Dog identifies them as reasons to choose their products but, in reality, there’s little or no actual evidence that they will do anything to improve your dog’s health and wellbeing.
There are at least four of these. I’ll start with those that have at least some real evidentiary support and work towards those that are just completely baseless.
1) The Farmer’s Dog only uses ingredients processed in facilities that meet the FDA’s “human-grade” standards.
If you squint hard enough at this one, you can just about see a real, verifiable health benefit here.
Under federal law, food products sold for human consumption must be manufactured in accordance with what the FDA calls “current good manufacturing practices” (cGMPs), a set of rules that help ensure safety in the food supply. The rules get hyper-specific, but they generally concern subjects like sanitation measures, construction guidelines, personnel rules, and risk mitigation policies.
Facilities that produce food products intended for pets do not have to comply with these guidelines. Instead, there’s another, somewhat different set of cGMPs that apply to facilities that only produce foods intended for consumption by animals. And all pet foods sold in the United States do need to comply with those.
Nevertheless, some pet food brands, including the Farmer’s Dog, make it a point of producing their products using facilities and processes that meet both sets of standards.
Does that make their products healthier in any way? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, it doesn’t change their nutritional profiles in any way. On the other, although I’m not aware of any evidence showing this, I think it’s fair to assume that the risk of contamination is at least somewhat lower when a more rigorous safety standard is met during production.
Animal food recalls are uncommon. According to the FDA, there have only been sixty over the past five years. (And that includes all food and drug products for all non-human animals, not just foods for dogs and cats.)
Human food and beverage recalls are actually more common, not less so. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that contamination is less common in animal foods than human ones – because it’s easier to violate a more restrictive standard than a more permissive one.
So I wouldn’t be surprised if meeting the FDA’s “human use” cGMPs served to reduce the risk of contamination in the Farmer’s Dog’s products, as compared to products that just meet the usual “animal use” guidelines. But seeing as only two or three pet food products get recalled each year (of the more than $30 billion worth of pet food sold annually), I also wouldn’t worry too much about minimizing this risk. There are bigger fish to fry.
2.) The Farmer’s Dog’s products aren’t made with extrusion processing – they’re cooked using some other (unspecified) “gentle cooking method.”
The Farmer’s Dog calls its products “fresh diets.” But what it means by this isn’t at all clear.
One thing I know for sure is the diets don’t meet the definition of the word “fresh” that is used by AAFCO and the FDA, because both of those organizations define “fresh” as meaning (1) raw and (2) never frozen. Whereas the foods made by the Farmer’s Dog are both cooked and frozen. I have asked the Farmer’s Dog to explain how it justifies the use of the word “fresh” despite these realities, but so far they have refused to tell me anything.
So we know that the Farmer’s Dog cooks its food. But how exactly the products are cooked is less clear. Throughout its website the company refers to its manufacturing process as its “gentle cooking method.” But it doesn’t actually say what that method is. Again, I have asked the company to tell me more about this subject. But to date it hasn’t told me anything.
Here’s what I can say about the “gentle cooking method” (other than the Farmer’s Dog doesn’t want to say what it is):
– It involves heating the meat ingredients until they reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
– It doesn’t involve dehydration.
– It isn’t producing grill marks, browning, or any other obvious signs that flames are touching the ingredients.
Based on all of this, my best guess is they’re injecting superheated steam into their formulas once all the ingredients have been mixed together. This is a very common way of cooking pet foods – in fact, it’s also the way that extruded kibbles get cooked!
In extrusion processing, very hot steam is used to cook the ingredients before the resulting mixture gets cut into little nuggets and then dehydrated. The Farmer’s Dog isn’t cutting its products into kibbles and it isn’t dehydrating them. But otherwise its mysterious “gentle cooking method” seems to be the exact same one that virtually all kibble companies are using: steaming.
Of course, that’s not to say that there’s anything bad about using steam to cook ingredients. (It’s certainly a healthier cooking methodology than, say, frying them in oil.) But it also isn’t unique. If you feel strongly that you only want to feed your dog a pet food that has been steamed, you’re in luck – because that’s how basically every product in the modern pet food industry is cooked.
3.) The Farmer’s Dog only uses what it calls “real ingredients” in its products.
This last one is really just an attempt at trickery.
Under the relevant pet food labeling laws, what ingredients constitute “real” ingredients? All of them. In other words, claiming that all the ingredients in your pet food are “real” is literally a meaningless statement. It sorta feels nice and wholesome, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. (Not unlike the word “gentle” in the “gentle cooking method” that the Farmer’s Dog says that it uses.)
This is why the Farmer’s Dog has every right to say that it uses real ingredients, despite the fact that it supplements its recipes with micronutrient powders, just like most other pet food brands.
When the Farmer’s Dog says it only uses real ingredients, it is making a totally accurate statement. It’s just not highlighting something that makes its products different from other pet food brands. Which is why it isn’t really a “benefit.”
And that’s about all there is to say about the health benefits of the Farmer’s Dog.
In the end, when you sign up for one of the most expensive (if not the most expensive) pet foods in the history of the United States, you get a nutritional profile that is legitimately better than most value brands, roughly equivalent to most “upper middle class” brands, and legitimately worse than best-in-class brands like Ketona.
You also get products that are made entirely of ingredients that are processed in facilities that meet the relevant standards for lawfully producing human-use foods, which may mean that they are somewhat less likely to be contaminated with pathogens than pet foods that don’t meet these standards. But it must also be said that this risk is truly minuscule in either case.
In the end, do the benefits outweigh the costs? That’s a value judgment you’ll have to make for yourself. But from my (hugely biased) perspective, they do not. Not even close. You can find products with far better nutritional profiles than the Farmer’s Dog. And virtually all of them also cost way less than the Farmer’s Dog does. That’s not a trade-off, it’s a no-brainer.