Like the rest of you, I (Dr. Perry Jameson) want to take care of my family the best that I can. I want food that is safe and healthy. So I find I continue to gravitate toward products that claim to be “natural” and “organic”; I guess I perceive these to be better for my kids and pets. It is also important to know what all these terms mean when trying to find the best food for your pets.

I found out I am not alone in this desire as natural pet foods are the fastest growing segment of the pet food industry in the United States when compared to other types such as science and grocery. Not only are we all looking for what we feel is the healthiest but also what we feel is the safest.

And the 2007 recall of pet food products adulterated with melamine and related derivatives after Chinese-sourced wheat gluten, rice gluten and corn gluten were used, has further fueled this interest.

More pet parents believe diets with recognizable ingredients — meats, whole grains, fruits, vegetables — and fewer by-products are healthier. Most people feel the term “natural” means a food containing whole ingredients that have been minimally altered and that do not contain artificial ingredients or additives.

However, it is the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that makes the definition of “natural” for manufacturers. AAFCO has no regulatory authority but only can provide recommendations for laws and regulations for the pet food industry. They define “natural” as “a feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources either in its unprocessed state” or having been only minimally processed.

Even though synthetic nutrients such as vitamins and minerals do not comply with the definition of “natural,” AFFCO still allows them in natural foods.

Often the pet parent definition of “natural” and the AAFCO definition do not match. Animal by-products are allowed in natural pet foods but are often rejected as unnatural by consumers. Even though routinely rejected in foods, consumers will give animal by-product containing supplements, such as glucosamine for arthritis. Certain grains are often avoided as a cause for food sensitivities, but studies find the ingredients most commonly associated with food allergies to be beef, dairy, wheat and egg for dogs and beef, dairy, fish and lamb for cats.

Many owners feel a natural diet for dogs is one high in protein, often referred to as an ancestral diet. Since dogs are present day ancestors of wolves, who ate predominantly meat, this would appear to make sense. Genetic testing, however, has revealed that as the domestication of the dog progressed, they developed the ability to thrive on starch-enriched diets, so carbohydrates can be part of a natural diet for dogs.

Cats appear to have not changed and instead retain the metabolism of a true carnivore. They can handle small amounts of carbohydrates, but too much can cause GI issues.

Most of us feel that whole grains are healthier than processed grains. Brown rice, oats and barley are the major whole grain types used in pet foods. They provide nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals in higher concentrations than in processed grains. Most of the time, this is a good thing. Sometimes, however, it can cause a problem. Phosphorus content is much higher in brown rice than in white rice. In patients with renal disease who are on a phosphorus-restricted diet, the addition of brown rice, which at first glance seems healthier, could actually cause a problem.

Preserving food until it is consumed helps maintain nutritional value, taste and pet health. Synthetic antioxidants are quite effective in prolonging shelf life, but natural pet food standards mandate that only natural antioxidants be used. Unfortunately, these are not as effective as synthetics and thus require larger amounts. This often increases the cost of the natural pet food. When purchasing natural pet foods, be sure to check the shelf life to insure you will use it all prior to its expiration.

As a veterinarian, I cannot keep up with the amount of new pet foods being introduced, and the natural pet food segment is the fastest growing. It is important to understand what “natural” means when used by food manufacturers.

Just being called natural may not make it the best diet for your pet. Breed and health issues often dictate which diets are best for your pet. Have your veterinarian or pet nutrition expert guide your choice.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com or veterinaryspecialtycare.com.