When is holistic food holistic?
Holistic is the adjective of the noun “holism”, a term that was first coined by the famous South African academic, military leader and statesman J.C. Smuts, which he described as the “fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe”. The word was used by Smuts to designate the tendency in nature to produce organised “wholes” (bodies or organisms) from the ordered grouping of units.
In more recent times the term has been commonly used in medicine to describe the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, a philosophy that is strongly endorsed by the alternative medicine community, as distinct from the conventional medicine stream that is strongly oriented towards treating organs in isolation to the balance of the organs in the body.
It follows therefore, that holistic food by definition, must nourish the body as a whole. Unfortunately, most pet foods carrying the holistic label claim, simply use the term to describe a food that has been made from natural ingredients. But making a food from natural ingredients in no way guarantees the food ingredients are appropriate for the animal being fed, nor does it guarantee the nutritional and therapeutic needs of the animal as a whole are being met.
So, what does meet the true definition of a holistic food?
Creating a food that actually meets the definition of “food as medicine” must meet two basic criteria. Firstly, the ingredients must be appropriate or sympathetic to the animal’s digestive ability, and secondly the nutrient profile must match the dog’s genetic requirement for nutrients at its particular life stage.
These are ingredients that the modern canine can digest efficiently and effectively and are typically the types of food that match the class of animal (carnivore, omnivore or herbivore), and are in keeping with the animal’s digestive enzyme production and gut structure. Unfortunately, many modern pet foods contain ingredients that are seen by the mainstream human population as being “super foods” but are not necessarily ingredients that can be efficiently and effectively digested by the dog.
Let’s be totally frank here – there is no such thing as a super food, and that’s because all nutritious ingredients contribute essential nutrients to the diet, and no single ingredient meets the precise nutrient requirement of any domestic canine. But even more worrying in relation to the use of the super food label, is the alarming rise in the use of exotic ingredients in pet foods, and the growing body of evidence that suggests the use of inappropriate ingredients is causing unintended and life-threatening consequences in our pets. An alarming increase in the incidence of heart disease has been linked to some grain free foods with the belief the issues are directly related to the use of inappropriate ingredients.
To fully understand this phenomenon requires an understanding of the role the gut microbiome plays in the nourishment and wellbeing of the host animal. In short, for the “whole” to be balanced, the gut microbiome must be balanced and that can only occur when a diverse supply of appropriate food ingredients in the correct proportions are contained in the food. Anything less than this will create disruption or a loss of species diversity within the gut microbiome, which in turn leads to those unintended health issues mentioned above.
Having the correct ingredients in the food still doesn’t guarantee the food will treat the dog holistically. Holistic nutrition demands the individual nutrients be contained in the food at the same levels as they are used by the body, so a holistic dog food will be built around a specific nutrient profile of proportionally supplied nutrients. Furthermore, this nutrient profile must be provided in strict ratio to the energy density of the food.
So, it can be seen that making a holistic food is no simple task. Without a full and complete understanding of the requirements of the canine microbiome, coupled with a full and complete understanding of the inter-relationship of nutrients required by the modern dog, there is little hope of producing a truly holistic food. Despite the ever-increasing range of premium foods on the market, we are still seeing an extraordinary number of dogs with skin and gut sensitivity issues, the vast majority of which are directly related to poor diet or the use of biologically inappropriate ingredients. But not only are sensitivity issues on the rise, but evidence shows as many as one in every three dogs will experience cancer of some type during its lifetime.
For the pet owner, identifying a truly holistic food from one that merely claims to be, is a daunting task that demands a high degree of due diligence. Using the points in this article as a guide and coupling this with interrogation of the pet food manufacturer, will greatly assist in the decision-making process. But until you can be completely satisfied the ingredient selection is balanced and appropriate, and the resultant nutrient ratios are correct, the food cannot be called “holistic”.
We trust you have found some, or all of the above of some benefit. Obviously, ethical diet formulation is a huge topic and we have only skimmed the surface of many of the areas of consideration. So, if you would like to add to the discussion, want more information on any aspect of the above, or would like to ask a question that hasn’t been addressed by this article, please contact us using the form below.