Why we hesitate to cook

Or not-cook, as the case may be for those of us feeding raw food.

(Note: I’ve written a companion piece on my worries about feeding commercial raw food, and why I’m taking the risk.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit that over the past forty to fifty years, we’ve been cowed and browbeaten by food advertising. Food companies tell us, over and over again, that cooking is difficult, messy and far too time-consuming for people with busy modern lives. They sell us microwaveable dinners, energy bars, cake mixes and canned spaghetti, all on the premise that they will be delicious, convenient, and (depending on the kind of instant food you get) healthy and nutritious.

Some foods claim to be meal replacements, like energy bars and Slim-Fast shakes, but not one of them has the chutzpah to claim that they should constitute your entire food intake. The foundation for a lot of the food advertising is that home-made is best, but cooking is arcane, difficult. Who has the time and skills to cook these days? And some of you need to eat our food or you’ll get fat (and then who will love you any more?). So use our products, of varying levels of crappiness, to suit your time and energy limits.

But home-made doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. It’s perfectly possible to create a fresh, home-made meal in 25 or so minutes, and the only know-how you need is enough reading ability to follow recipe directions. Steaming vegetables doesn’t take all that long; neither does sauteeing chunks of meat, or drizzling raw salad greens with olive oil and vinegar. People, it’s OK. You have nothing to fear but fear itself—well, that, and accidentally burning your food, but this is where things like digital timers come in handy. What you make will almost assuredly taste better and be much more nutritious than what you can pour out of a box, a jar or a can. (Unless you burn your food. Seriously: timers are your friend. Also, instant-read thermometers.)

I don’t see how, in any way that matters, this is different from food for our pets. I’m not saying that everybody should make their own pet food, because bad home-made pet food is in many ways worse than bad commercial pet food. What I am saying that it’s a perfectly viable and relatively easy option, as long as you do your homework and approach it sensibly. Most people think otherwise, however, because the pet food industry has not only managed to sell us a convenience cobbled together from agricultural leavings, it has actually convinced us that feeding our cats anything else is going to be dangerous. Pet food companies have achieved what food advertising for humans hasn’t quite managed to do yet: they’ve made their food the gold standard against which everything else must be compared. It’s now conventional wisdom that commercial food should be fed as a sole ration to pets; anything else is unhealthy.

Pet food companies have managed to do this in a few ways:

They convinced us, and most importantly, the vets, that home-made food is nutritionally imbalanced. Dangerously so. If it weren’t for the expertise of pet nutrition scientists coming up with complete and balanced formulations that pass AAFCO feeding trials, we’d have cats suffering (and sometimes dropping dead) from malnutrition, such as diseases related to taurine deficiency, copper deficiency,1 steatitis, and feline lower urinary tract disease, or… Wait. ALL of these things have happened to cats eating commercially-available, scientifically-formulated foods, many of which had passed AAFCO feeding trials. Right.

But the nutrient imbalances I’m talking about are in the past, you say. Pet nutrition has come a long way, baby. Look: no more copper or taurine deficiencies, steatitis is relatively uncommon, and we’ll all wave our hands and more-or-less ignore the fact that dry food seems to be implicated in idiopathic cystitis.

There’s no denying that cat food today has, indeed, corrected reported deficiencies, but there’s still a problem with trust. Pet food companies have been wrong about their foods being healthy and balanced for cats—and believe me, I’m talking about the relatively recent past, because up until 1992, propylene glycol was commonly used in cat treats (hey, it causes anemia in cats, but who knew?)—and I’m looking at this track record and going “No way am I going to believe them.”

And furthermore, they’re still wrong. About many, many things. Commercial foods still make cats sick—I’m not just talking acutely sick, like aflatoxin or melamine poisoning. I’m talking chronic diseases and malnutrition. Diabetes, food allergies and obesity are usually viewed as idiopathic or lifestyle diseases; they’re not seen as problems with commercial food per se. In fact, commercial prescription diets are the typical solution for cats with these problems. But commercial food—specifically carbohydrate-heavy dry food—plays a disproportionately large role in these conditions. The number of cats suffering from hyperparathyroidism or hypervitaminosis A from eating imbalanced home-made diets pale in comparison to the sheer number of obese and diabetic cats eating commercial dry food, or even the number of cats in the past who’ve suffered from taurine deficiency while eating commercial food.

But you wouldn’t know it, talking to most vets or reading nutrition textbooks. Cat food manufacturers and vets love to use gruesome stories of well-meaning but not-especially-bright owners feeding their cats nothing but beef liver, or pig brains, or texturized vegetable protein as evidence that all home-made diets are bad. But these home-made diets are bad because they’re unbalanced, not because they’re home-made.

By the same token, of course, commercial cat food isn’t necessarily bad simply because it’s made in a factory, but the realities of the industrial process and the corporate infrastructure means that the odds of them actually being good are very, very low. Here’s the biggest hurdle: Cat food companies may try to convince you that they have your cats’ best interests at heart, but most of them don’t. They have their bottom line and their shareholders’ interests at heart. They want to make the best cat food, sure, but it’s not the best cat food for your cat: it’s the best cat food that they can create from convenient, affordable feedstuffs that will meet known feline nutritional requirements while maximizing profits. (And I want to draw particular attention to the word “known,” because it’s the unknown nutritional requirements that have a nasty habit of biting us in the ass.) Any interest a pet food company may have in not killing Kitty lies in the desire to avoid PR disasters, not a deep-seated love for animals. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of public relations that these faceless, massive corporations are able to convince us that they have personalities and emotions.

Note: when I talk about “scientifically formulated” foods with disdain, I’m not trying to knock on the scientific process. I’m a big fan of the scientific process, and I’m glad of the transparency and experimentation that goes on in nutrition studies. Where the cat food manufacturers depart from science and fall straight into misrepresentation is when they represent a food not only as safe, but as healthy to feed as a sole ration. Unknowing misrepresentation (I’m not paranoid enough to believe that there’s any sort of malice underlying their screw-ups), but misrepresentation nonetheless.

Ultimately, commercial cat food isn’t governed by science, it’s governed by ideology, one that elevates “nutrients” over other qualities like freshness and ingredient quality. Michael Pollan calls this ideology nutritionism, and nutritionism isn’t just rampant when it comes to pet care, it’s outright normative. Read any veterinary textbook on cat or dog nutrition, and you’ll pretty quickly stumble across the statement that nutrients are what matter, not ingredients. But this iteration of nutritionism is, at its core, nonsensical, because the ingredients—the food itself—determine how easily the nutrients can be extracted and absorbed. Looking at nutrients in isolation strips them of their context and the fact that the ways in which they provide nourishment can be extremely complicated. The nutrients interact with each other. They react with the digestive system. They react to cooking, and freezing, and oxygen, and light, and free radicals, and a million other things. Nutritionism claims to be scientific, but it’s most emphatically not; it’s the values system of the industrial agricultural complex gussied up in a lab coat and protector goggles.

And I’m here to say that pet food companies going “Aw, shucks, we sure did make a mess this time, but we promise to do better next time, because look at all this neat stuff we’re finding out about nutrients!” just isn’t good enough. It’s time we called them on their shit. Yes, the fact that cat food manufacturers have modified their diets based on new data proves that industry, to a certain extent, is self-correcting, thanks to science and, y’know, the desire to avoid big, messy PR debacles. But the self-correction comes after the sicknesses and the deaths, and knowing that cats will be slightly less fucked up in the future because yours was an object lesson for Hill’s or Iams is cold, cold comfort. The incentive to not fuck up in the first place doesn’t even come close to outweighing the desire to maximize profit. The profit motive, combined with widespread public trust bought with millions of advertising dollars, and sheer hubristic ignorance—the kind of ignorance that results from not knowing what it doesn’t know, and is over-confident in what it thinks it knows—results in corner-cutting that occasionally has disastrous results. But the big companies can weather these disasters with relative equanimity, because of lax regulation and because they’ve managed to convince people that commercial pet foods are the only healthy options available. If you need an illustration of what I mean, take a look at the list of brands implicated in the massive 2007 pet food recall. Lots of big names, including so-called premium brands like Evolve, Eukanuba, Science Diet, Nutro and Natural Balance. How many have gone out of business? Of the big names: none. People are still buying these brands in droves, and I’m willing to bet that it’s because they think they have no meaningful choices for a healthy diet outside of commercial food.

It all boils down to this: how do we want to deal with risk and uncertainty? I’m not some kind of radical. I am, in fact, conservative when it comes to feline nutrition. Here are the two assumptions that underpin my skepticism of commercial food and my belief that home-made is ultimately best, if you have the time and energy to invest:

1. I don’t assume that any pet food company has my cats’ interests at heart. Only the people who know my cats and are directly responsible for their care have their interests at heart. Everybody else mostly wants to make a living, and making cat food just happens to be the way they’re doing it. Even the companies that have done a damn fine job of convincing us that they’re small, mom-and-pop outfits that really, really care about your pets are owned by massive private equity firms—Wellness and Eagle Pack are owned by the Berwind Corporation, for example, and Nature’s Variety is owned by Catterton Partners. And because all these companies are interested in making things more efficient, almost all of them outsource their food production; if you think brands like Wellness, Nature’s Variety and Newman’s Own don’t use Menu Foods, well, you have another think coming.

And sometimes, these manufacturers get sloppy. Criminally sloppy. Killing-thousands-of-pets sloppy, such as when they get cheap wheat gluten from China adulterated with melamine (the adulteration was probably deliberate, because melamine makes the protein content appear higher). Sometimes, their sloppiness gets caught, but I’m not going to bank on that, nor on my magic ability to spot the sloppy ones.

2. I firmly believe that we have barely scratched the surface of nutrition science, and, like Pollan, I don’t believe that studying nutrients is necessarily the best way to understand food and how to eat. We’re talking about the multiple, simultaneous interactions of many, many nutrients, some of them complicated chemicals, with biological systems. The reductionist method is a great way to study things, but holy damn can it be incomplete, and this applies especially to anything food-related. Food is complicated, and animals are even more complicated, and pet food companies don’t do a good enough job acknowledging this complexity. What’s more, they have an overriding interest in hiding the fact that the science of nutrition isn’t nearly as certain as they’re making it out to be.

Here’s the thing: Nutrition science is great for studying malnutrition. It’s fantastic for figuring out why we’ve fucked up and how to correct it. But as things stand, it’s terrible at figuring out how to eat well, and not especially great at pointing out where we should go if we’re basically healthy, beyond determining mandatory minimum intakes. And part of this lies in the fact that studying malnutrition and nutritional therapy to address illness are both more likely to produce testable and falsifiable hypotheses. The other part lies in the fact that “how to eat well” is a slippery, value-laden question that’s not especially susceptible to scientific analysis. My decision to feed my cats fresh, whole food is based every bit as much on a secular version of a purity taboo as they are on a science-esque conviction that fresh, whole food offers superior nutritional value. Again, I say: beware of people who claim to be feeding their pets what they do solely because it’s the scientifically sound thing to do. Behind that talk about science is a value judgment that’s lurking just beyond the beakers and retorts, trying to look sciencey.

There’s a quote often (mis?)attributed to Magellan: “The Church says that the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round. For I have seen the shadow of the earth on the moon and I have more faith in the Shadow than in the Church.” I, myself, have seen the fact that my cats have a long evolutionary history of obligate carnivory, and I have more faith in a diet that mimics the composition of whole prey than in anything I can pour out of a can or a bag, especially given the uncertainty in the science and the pet food industry’s terrible track record.

So, you know what? Screw nutritionism. I’m going to feed my cats food.

1 Morris JG, Rogers QR. Copper Oxide is an ineffective source of copper in queen diets. In: Proceedings, Pet Food Forum, Chicago IL, 1995: 107-108. A quick summary: A group of domestic short-haired cats had problems with reproduction, including failure to conceive, fetal resorption, cannibalism, small, weak kittens, and severe coat and skeletal abnormalities in newborn kittens. The queens were fed a dry food that had passed AAFCO trials for feline growth and maintenance, and were on the kibble for 8 months before the owners noticed problems. Note: AAFCO feeding trial periods for gestation runs from estrus to six weeks after the kittens are born. Kitten trials run only 10 weeks. Adult trials last 6 months (the longest). There was no way any AAFCO trial could’ve caught this. []

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