Eat Your Greens: The Surprising Value of Plant-Based Protein in Dog Food
You've probably noticed that pea protein, potato protein, and other plant-based protein sources are becoming more popular in dog food. But plant-based protein can cause some uncertainty: Is plant protein really as effective as animal-based protein? If so, why is it controversial? And at the end of the day...is plant-based protein good for your dog? As a dog owner, you need to know. Let's take a look.
Wait, There's Protein in Plants?
There is! Even though it may seem a bit strange to think of plant-based ingredients as sources of protein, protein ingredients in dog food typically contain more than 20% protein -- whole peas, for example, contain 25% protein. And concentrated pea protein like what's used in Just Right blends? Even more so, with greater than 60% protein. Here's how we get the most out of a plant-based protein source:
Animal Protein vs. Plant Protein: Does It Work the Same?
The short answer: yes. As long as your dog is getting all the amino acids his body requires from his nutrition, there's no physiological difference between protein that comes from plant sources and protein that comes from animal sources. Now let's break that down.
As you already know, quality protein is incredibly vital in your dog's diet. Protein supplies amino acids, which act as the building blocks of your dog's body. Amino acids build organs and tissues like tendons, muscles, skin, hair and blood, and they also function as enzymes, hormones and antibodies. When your dog consumes protein, his body doesn't absorb protein as a whole; it breaks it down into individual amino acids. This is because your dog doesn't have a protein requirement...instead, his body requires that a checklist of essential amino acids to keep him fueled and functioning. Veterinarian Jennifer Coates of PetMD.com puts it this way:
"Different types of protein contain different amino acid combinations, but as long as the pet eats, digests, and absorbs the right amount of each required amino acid, the source is not particularly important. In other words, arginine is arginine no matter if it comes from soybeans or turkey."
This graphic from PetFoodNutrition.com does a great job of illustrating this point:
The protein from one ingredient (e.g. chicken) will differ from the protein in another food source (e.g. corn) based on how long the protein is, its structure, and the combination of amino acids that make up that protein. However, each individual amino acid – in this case, methionine – is exactly the same, regardless of whether it came from chicken or from corn.
So why does dog food contain both animal-based protein sources and plant-based protein sources? Very few ingredients actually contain all the amino acids your dog needs in his diet by themselves. When combined, however, animal-based protein and plant-based protein can complement each other to meet your dog's amino acid requirement. In other words, a healthy balance of protein sources works together and completes the checklist that your dog needs to thrive.
Why is Plant-Based Protein in Dog Food Controversial?
Many of the arguments in the trendy pet food space against plant-based protein in dog food get their start from a seemingly "common sense" approach to ingredients. It's not a bad place to begin, but most of the interpretations don't have a full understanding of how ingredients and nutrients work in a dog's body. When fear swirls around pea protein because of lectin, not many know that moderate heat treatment (as used during the making all dry and canned pet food) breaks down lectins and makes them inactive. When plant-based protein sources are dismissed as "cheap fillers" that help companies "boost the protein levels" on the dog food label, they're often ignoring decades of research (not to mention the proof of millions of healthy dogs) that point to the fact that ingredients like corn, soy, pea protein and potato protein provide significant nutritional benefit in a dog's diet. Lauren Pagliughi, DVM, puts the idea of fillers in dog food in another light.
"The term “filler” doesn’t have a place in the pet food industry," she says. "It takes an extraordinary amount of work to formulate the right nutrients in the right amounts for complete and balanced nutrition. It would be a waste of money and valuable space to use an ingredient that has no purpose!"
What Does This Mean for Me When Choosing the Best Food for My Dog?
All biochemistry lessons aside...we get it. We know that at the end of the day, you just want what's best for your dog. And we do too. There's so much out there about animal nutrition – differing opinions, unfamiliar concepts, and more – and we hope to open up a new part of the conversation, and maybe even debunk some of the misinformation out there.
So here's a long story made short: when it comes to looking at protein sources in your dog's food, our best advice is to always find a food that's complete and balanced, and to look for a good balance between both animal-based protein and plant-based protein. If you have any questions, comment below. We're here to help.