Gone are the days when pet owners would simply pluck a bag of kibble off the shelf and pour it in their dog's bowl. Back in the day, you only had a few different choices to pick from—wet food? Dry food? Large or small breed? Puppy, middle-aged or senior?—but most brands offered approximately the same options to owners. Not anymore. You can blame the fact that we've gotten way better at reading the nutrition labels on human foods (thank you, FDA!), but as we've gotten more savvy about nutrition for ourselves, we've also gotten more interested in what our pets are eating. Walk into a pet store now, and you'll find hundreds of options for Fido.
Some of these new options make it easier for pet owners to find a formulation that works for their dog or cat. But it's also easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because a product is offered in a so-and-so-free option, or claims to avoid this or that ingredient, that anything else must be bad for your pet. Take preservatives, for example. Most of the hype around so-called "bad" preservatives in dog food is far overblown. Here's what you should know.
Are preservatives necessary?
In a word, yes. Dry and semi-moist pet foods and treats have added preservatives to extend shelf life and keep vitamins from degrading and fats from going rancid. All dry and semi-moist foods need some kind of preservative. Think about it: You usually buy pet food in at least a 10-pound bag, right? Until we start feeding our pets individually prepared meals that we shop for a few times a week (and if you already do this, you've got one lucky pet!), the pet food we give to our dogs and cats will need some type of preservative. It's up to you to decide what kind of preservative to choose when you're buying food for your pet.
Synthetic vs. natural preservatives: which to choose
The common preservatives BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin have mostly been phased out in response to public outcry over synthetic ingredients. However, multiple studies in dogs show no adverse effects of these ingredients at—or even above—allowable levels.
The natural alternatives—vitamin E derivatives (mixed tocopherols), rosemary and vitamin C (ascorbic acid)—seem appealing because they are recognizable, but they are less effective at preventing fats from turning rancid than their artificial counterparts. If your pet's food contains natural preservatives, it may have an earlier expiration date.
How to avoid preservatives entirely (if you must)
Bottom Line: Natural and artificial preservatives are safe for your pet, but if you want to avoid them completely, you can opt for canned products (like Purina Beyond). Canning protects foods from spoilage, without any chemical preservatives.