Why you should care
Because maybe a doggie bag is the next natural extension of the food-crazed world?
When I tell my friend Kate about my plan to eat nothing but dog food for an entire week, her reaction is typical. “That’s disgusting,” she says. “I do not approve.”
I try to explain. I’ve been on a paleo diet all year — living on meat, eggs and vegetables. I love it and feel great. But all that fresh meat and produce costs a fortune. Plus, there’s a lot of cooking, and I have better things to do with my time — like reading dog food labels. And yes, I couldn’t help notice that my dog’s high-end kibble — like my paleo diet — is high in protein, grain-free and gluten-free. It’s made with “simple, holistic ingredients.” It’s fortified with omega-3 and omega-6 and antioxidants. The best part? Canidae is an expensive dog food, but at 85 cents a meal, it’s a lot cheaper than eating paleo.
Kate does not look impressed. “I just want to go on the record,” she says. “You are one cheap lady.”
It’s important to keep things civilized. For breakfast, I pour a cup of kibble for my border collie, and a generous cup for myself. I sit at the table and dig in with a spoon. Dry and gritty, it has a nutty, slightly sour taste, like a healthy breakfast cereal. Halfway through the bowl, my jaw gets tired. Dog food requires a lot of heavy-duty crunching. For inspiration, I reread the label: “Look what’s inside! Four animal protein sources … fruit and vegetables … yum!”
In New York City, a lady scarfing dog treats on the street is likely the least interesting thing going on.
Yum indeed. I plow through the rest of the bowl.
Around 1 p.m., I get excited for lunch. Then I remember … dog food. It’s a bit like going to call a friend and realizing he is still dead.
Dinner presents a conundrum. I’m meeting a buddy in Manhattan for coffee at 5 p.m. before attending a panel discussion at 7 p.m. I slip a handful of Milk-Bones into my purse. My coffee meeting runs late and I have to eat on the run, popping biscuits into my mouth as I hustle through the East Village. I don’t bother to hide the Milk-Bones. In New York City, a lady scarfing dog treats on the street is likely the least interesting thing going on.
At the day’s end, I realize an unforeseen upside to my new diet: The only dish I have to wash is my dog food bowl. This is the simplicity I’ve been seeking my entire life.
Already tired of kibble, I visit the neighborhood pet supply shop and ask the owner which dog food is best for people. He selects a can labeled Chunky Colossal Chicken Dinner. “It’s chicken, peas, carrots and gravy,” he notes. Sold! As he rings me up, I ask if he ever eats dog food. “No,” he says. “You don’t know what’s in it. But I’ve tried biscuits.”
He offers me a Boo Boo Berry dog cookie. “They’re not bad,” he says. “A little dry.” I pop one in my mouth. It needs salt.
Back home, I rip the lid off the Colossal Chicken Dinner. There are whole baby carrots and peas. It looks and smells fantastic, like a can of Campbell’s Chunky. But the flavor is metallic and disturbingly bland. If North Korea produced a canned chicken dinner, it might taste like this.
“Don’t forget to walk yourself,” says Mom.
Back to the kibble. For the first time, I notice the fine print on the bag: “Not for human consumption.”
Whoa. Could my diet be dangerous? I email Marion Nestle, an NYU professor who has written best-selling books on both human and pet nutrition. “Canned food is sterile,” she replies. “The kibble is not, and there have been many instances of salmonella contamination.”
She also warns about palatability: “Dog food companies add flavors attractive to dogs,” she says. “These are generally disgusting to most humans.” I didn’t need her to tell me that.
My mother, eager to help, recommends something called Freshpet: “It’s a refrigerated pet food that comes in a tube, like liverwurst.” This sounds revolting. I promise to check it out.
“Don’t forget to walk yourself,” says Mom.
So I do: to the local PetSmart, which is dog food heaven. There are four aisles of kibble and canned, not to mention an astonishing array of snacks — bacon chews, dried sweet potato slices, deer antlers. It’s all very tempting and a bit overwhelming. I explain my situation to a clerk, who steers me to store’s high-end house canned brand, Simply Nourish. There’s a chicken and beef stew, a tuna pasta casserole, even a chicken and carrot bisque with pumpkin and quail egg. I’m impressed.
“At least it looks like human food,” he says. “Everything else is pretty much kibble, or just gelatinous.”
I buy two cans of Simply Nourish along with a tube of Freshpet, feeling skeptical, but the bisque turns out to be very tasty. I heat it up and add a little salt. It’s chock-full of chicken; the broth is rich and flavorful. The quail egg is a bit rubbery, but I can deal.
It’s more expensive than going paleo.
I return to PetSmart to take advantage of the buy-10, get-two-cans-free deal. I find the clerk and thank him for his excellent advice. “Good to know,” he says. “Now, if I ever get that question again, I can answer it with confidence.” He looks frightened.
Later, I call PetSmart’s PR office to ask why their dog food tastes like people food. The company declines to comment.
I have a nice routine going. Kibble for breakfast, chicken bisque for lunch, chicken and beef stew for dinner. The canned food is so delicious, I don’t feel deprived. My digestion is fine; my energy level is through the roof. And is it just my imagination, or do I have brighter eyes and whiter teeth?
But this setup is hardly ideal. A can of Simply Nourish costs $2.39 and has just 200 calories. It’s more expensive than going paleo. And then there’s the social aspect. I’ve avoided restaurant meals all week by scheduling coffee dates. But Saturday evening, I’m walking through SoHo with a pal when I realize I’m starving for dinner. He suggests we stop by the deli for a can of Alpo. I politely decline.
By the time I get home, I’m finally hungry enough to try the Freshpet. Inside its plastic tube, the pink paté, flecked with carrots and peas, looks a bit like olive loaf. I cut a few slices and fry them up in a pan. Surprise! It tastes like meatloaf. I could serve this at a dinner party and no one would blink. Alas, it’s also on the pricey side. At $5 a pound, I might as well buy real chicken. But maybe it’s worth it. Freshpet, after all, isn’t just chicken. It has vegetables and brown rice, not to mention vitamins and fatty acids “for healthy digestion and a shiny coat.” Like most dog foods, it’s designed to be a complete, all-in-one diet. If the goal is convenient nutrition, what’s the harm?
I discuss my idea with Dr. Angele Thompson, chair of the Pet Food Institute’s Nutrition Task Force and president of Thompson PetTech, a pet food nutrition consulting firm. She puts the kibosh on my idea.
Surprise! It tastes like meatloaf. I could serve this at a dinner party and no one would blink.
Dogs and humans evolved together, says Thompson, and unlike other species, both people and canines can survive, if not thrive, on a wide variety of diets. But when it comes to optimal nutrition, our needs are different. Dogs make their own vitamin C. Humans do not. Dogs and people require different amino acids. Humans have a more efficient metabolism.
And just because a dog will happily eat something, that’s no indication that it’s fit for human consumption. “Why the heck would a dog, within two weeks, eat two jars of petroleum jelly?” she says. “I certainly wouldn’t do that. But my dog did.”
The last day of dog food week is a blur of kibble, canned and Freshpet. Monday morning, I weigh in. I’ve lost nearly 2 pounds. I get the results of a blood test back from my health clinic. My blood sugar level has dropped to the ultralow end of the ideal range — even better than when I was eating paleo.
I’m excited to go back to eating people food. But if I were broke? I’d choose to live on kibble over Kraft dinner or ramen noodles. Surely, an all-in-one, high-end dog food is more nutritious than a diet of white flour and fat?
No one else agrees.
“Dog food,” says Thompson, “is designed for dogs.”