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What’s in This?: Dog Food

Recent testing discovered lethal euthanasia drugs in this canine cuisine. So what else is in it?

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on) themselves.

This edition: Gravy Train Chunks in Gravy with Beef Chunks canned dog food, which is made from 31 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on their website.

But before diving into the ingredients, here’s some distressing news: Low levels of pentobarbital — a lethal drug commonly used to euthanize dogs, cats and horses (and also used to execute inmates sentenced to death) — were recently detected in Gravy Train products, prompting a recall. How pentobarbital found its way into the food remains unclear, but there’s one prominent theory:

“It comes from euthanasia of animals using that euthanasia drug,” Nicholas Dodman, chief scientific officer for The Center for Canine Behavior Studies and former director of the Animal Behavior Program at Tufts University, told the D.C. ABC affiliate. “So, these animals could be dogs, they could be cats, they could be horses — but how is it getting into the pet food? If they say it doesn’t come from dogs, cats and horses where does it come from? It doesn’t come from outer space.”

Indeed it doesn’t — it comes from the corpses of euthanized animals, which you are now feeding to your dog.


Now that we’ve addressed the (euthanized) elephant in the room, let’s get back to the rest of the ingredients.

The Ingredients

1) Water Sufficient for Processing: According the FDA, “When the qualifier, ‘sufficient for processing’ or some such similar statement is used, the added water must be listed in its proper order and must indeed be necessary for the complete processing of the product.” Put simply, this means they didn’t add any more water (as filler) than was necessary.

2) Soybean Meal: Because it’s cheap and nutrient-dense, soybean meal is an incredibly popular animal fodder. Unfortunately for your pet (and anyone in the vicinity), soybean meal has an unpleasant beany taste and promotes flatulence.

3) Meat By-Products: According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the term meat by-products “includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents.” Delish!

4) Wheat Flour: Wheat flour is commonly used in dog food because it’s a cheap form of protein, containing 13 grams per cup.

5) Animal Fat (preserved with BHA): According to AAFCO, animal fat is “obtained from the tissues of mammals and/or poultry in the commercial processes of rendering or extracting.” This essentially means it could come from anywhere, including (you guessed it) dogs, cats and horses euthanized with pentobarbital.

Worse yet, a recent report from the National Toxicology Program claims that BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) “is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in [wait for it] experimental animals.”

6) Beef: This accounts for the “beef chunks.”

7) Modified Food Starch: Modified food starch is extracted from the source (usually corn, potatoes and/or tapioca), then treated physically, enzymatically or chemically to partially break down the starch. It’s typically used as a batter to give foods a light, crispy texture. But in this case, it’s more likely a filler ingredient with little nutritional value.

8) Soy Flour: Similar to soybean meal, soy flour is a more affordable source of protein than meat or eggs.

9) Dicalcium Phosphate: Used primarily as a calcium supplement and tartar control agent, dicalcium phosphate is also used to improve the texture of dog food. Too much dicalcium phosphate, however, may cause symptoms similar to calcium overdose, which include kidney stones, fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting, frequent urination, changes in heart rate, confusion, constipation or diarrhea, headaches and coma.

10) Salt: This is presumably added for flavor, but it also supports normal growth and development.

11) Calcium Carbonate: Calcium carbonate is commonly used in dog foods as a calcium supplement, and sometimes as an acidity regulator, or as coloring, an anti-caking agent or stabilizer. Calcium carbonate also can help to ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, but again, excessive calcium can pose problems.

12) Caramel Color: As we discovered in our exploration of the eight ingredients that make up Diet Coke, caramel coloring has an incredibly controversial byproduct called 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI): A 2007 study found that mice fed a diet of 4-MEI developed cancerous lung tumors as a result. The FDA quickly pushed back, noting that a human would have to consume more than 1,000 cans of soft drinks (which are notoriously high in caramel coloring) every day for two years to reach comparable levels of 4-MEI. Whether 4-MEI affects dogs remains unclear, but generally, coloring agents in dog food are largely unnecessary: They only serve to make the food more appealing to the human eye.

13) Titanium Dioxide (Color): Titanium dioxide is typically used as a dough conditioner, but it also prevents discoloration. Unfortunately, the European Chemical Agency has concluded that titanium dioxide may cause cancer when inhaled, which means you probably shouldn’t feed it to your dog.

14) Iron Oxide (Color): Iron oxide is commonly used to impart a reddish color to food. But again, it’s unnecessary and dangerous: A recent study published by the European Food Safety Authority argues that iron oxide “should be considered as an irritant to skin and eyes.”

The Vitamins

Because the average doggie diet isn’t exactly well-balanced, many dog foods — including this one — are fortified with vitamins and minerals, which we’ve listed below along with a brief explanation of what each does for your pup. (Keep in mind that many of these are synthetic, and therefore, lesser versions of their natural counterparts.)

1) Vitamin E Supplement: This is an antioxidant, which prevents cell damage.

2) Vitamin A Supplement: This promotes vision, the immune system and reproduction.

3) Thiamine Mononitrate: This helps break down carbohydrates.

4) Niacin Supplement: This lowers cholesterol, eases arthritis and boosts brain function.

5) D-Calcium Pantothenate: This converts carbohydrates and fats into energy.

6) Riboflavin Supplement: This helps metabolize fats and protein.

7) Pyridoxine Hydrochloride: This helps metabolize fats and proteins, as well as produce red blood cells.

8) Vitamin D3 Supplement: This helps the body absorb calcium and promotes bone growth.

9) Folic Acid: This plays an important role in mental health by promoting brain function.

10) Biotin: This strengthens hair and nails.

11) Vitamin B12 Supplement: This helps nerve and blood cells, as wells as DNA.

The Minerals

1) Ferrous Sulfate: This helps produce red blood cells.

2) Zinc Oxide: This promotes skin health.

3) Manganous Oxide: This prevents low levels of magnesium, which promotes muscle and bone health.

4) Copper Sulfate: This promotes nerve cells and immune system health, and helps produce red blood cells.

5) Calcium Iodate: This promotes thyroid health.

6) Sodium Selenite: This is a form of selenium, which is an antioxidant.

The Takeaway

Let’s pretend for a moment that this dog food isn’t contaminated with the corpses of euthanized animals. Even still, it’s an artificially-colored, bean-flavored mash of throwaway animal parts, reinforced with powdered vitamins and minerals.

We don’t deserve dogs.