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I’ve said this before, we live in an age of “designer pet food”.

You can buy almost anything you or your pet desires, and even food you didn’t even KNOW your pet wanted (freeze dried lobster meat treats anyone?). Not to mention, the quality of your pet’s food can now rival or surpass the food you buy for yourself at the closest grocery store.

With the general American population becoming more and more aware of words formerly reserved for the Hippy-Dippy-Crunchy set — words such as “organic”, “holistic”, “natural”, “GMO”, “free range”, “cage free”– we are becoming more and more discerning as pet food shoppers.

When chatting with people about pet food, I especially hear the words “organic”, “natural”, and “holisitic”. Often used interchangeably.

However there is a difference between these three words. And in order to be the most informed pet shoppers it’s best to know the difference. As we know (from reading all our pet food and pet product labels – don’t forget!), not all pet foods are created equal.

So here is a quick reference for you. Note, that is not the intention of the Calvin & Susie Blogger to tell which is best, this is simply a means for you to make more informed decisions!


In order for a food (pet or otherwise) to be labeled as “Organic” or really, “USDA Organic” it must meet certain criteria. In short organic food is food that does not negatively impact “the ecological balance of natural systems”. Organic farming is a practice that treats farming as a part of “an ecological whole” and therefore does not chemically or otherwise contaminate the resulting food product or the environment which is grown — “the air, soil and water”. Organic food is produced not only without chemicals or synthetic components, but it is also a way of growing food, by use of rotation and composting, among other systems, that does not deplete the earth. Essentially the goal is health and harmony amongst “soil life, plants, animals and people”.

According to the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) all pet foods labeled Organic must adhere to the guidelines set by the USDA for human food.

In order for a food to be labeled as organic it must be certified by the USDA. This label can only be found on products that are 95-100%:

Foods that are less than 70% organic cannot be labeled “USDA Organic” or “Organic” but specific ingredients can be listed as ingredients on the ingredients list. A third party (USDA certified) organic certifier’s seal or label must appear on the packaging.

Also, not all Organic is created equal. Just because something says organic does not make ALL the ingredients in it organic.

  • 100% Organic: All ingredients are organic.

  • Organic: Product contains 95%-100% organic ingredients.

  • Made with Organic Ingredients: At least 70% organic ingredients.

So what does this mean for your tomato plants and your personal “Organic gardens” at home? Well, strictly speaking, unless your garden is certified it’s not OFFICIALLY organic, though for personal enjoyment and health that is not a neccessity. You may not use super high-tech chemicals to aid in the growth of your garden, but even using something as simple as Miracle Grow (unless it’s the Organic formula) will render your garden inorganic. However, it IS possible to have a personal Organic or partiaclly Organic garden. Do your research, pay attention to soil, fertilizer, water and pesticides, and before you know it you could be growing your own healthy food!

What about GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms)?

A GMO is a biological organism (plant, animal, etc.) that has been altered by biotechnological means on a genetic level. Essentially, they do not occur in nature. Proponents of GMO’s claim that they make the organism stronger, more nutritious, more resilient, but there are a lot of questions as to whether or not consumption of such organisms is safe for humans and pets.

Many livestock animals are fed GMO crops like corn, and many argue that such “modifications” can cause health problems, if not mutations in humans and pets. If a product is labeled as “Organic” GMO’s cannot be used in it’s production.

So what does this mean for your Organic pet food or tomatoes?

It means that if it is certified Organic, no GMO’s, chemicals or synthetic materials were used in it’s production. But because the earth cannot be 100% controlled, there may be minute trace elements of GMO’s, even in Organic food (due to accidental cross pollination of GMO plants i.e. wind blowing pollen, seeds).

To be sure the food you buy is GMO free, look for this label:

The Non-GMO Project label “[certifies] products that ‘contain no more than 0.9 percent of biotech material'”, in a product.

PHEW! Did you get all that?


According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO, you know the guys who tell you on your pet food label if the food is formulated for All Life Stages or Adult Maintenance), the word “natural” on a pet food label legally means:

NATURAL – A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.

This is a fairly open ended description. The ingredients must have been naturally grown and not be subject to chemical manipulation, but that does not mean “natural” is always best. Remember, fillers and by-products can also be natural. For example, a lower quality dog food can use corn and soy as fillers in their food. These ingredients are still “natural” as they are not man made. The same goes for by-products. Animal by-product can come from a natural source (a chicken for example, not a test tube), but that does not mean it is a healthy ingredient in a pet food. NOTE: GMO’s can still be found in “natural” pet and human foods.

What do I always say? READ INGREDIENT LISTS!!!


This is a term we hear a lot in the store, both from customers and from pet food manufacturers. There is no legal AAFCO definition for the use of “holistic” in pet food.

In theory, “holistic” foods are those which strive for balance in the feeding of your pet. It is a food in which all the ingredients work together to nourish the whole dog or cat, and the ingredients work in concert with each other to achieve this. Hence, balance.

Here’s the problem: there’s no legal restriction as to how pet food companies use the word, so it could really mean ANYTHING. So many consumers see “holistic” and think “natural” or “free range” or even “organic” when, the food in question could have synthetic ingredients with meat from feed-lot cows, but the manufacturer decided that “holistic” would be a good selling point and the word appears on the bag.

My point? Holistic feeding is a great way to think about nourishing your pet. If you are serious about feeding your pet in a holistic way, research what foods and ingredients best suit your pet and find the food (by reading the labels) that best meet your requirements.

Feeding your pet can be a full time job!

I hope this list helped you. I know it was a good refresher for me.

And as always, check with your vet before making any changes to your pet’s diet or body care. The Calvin & Susie Blogger always researches to the best of her ability, but she is not a vet. This blog is not in any way meant to replace veterinary advice or care. When in doubt always ask a vet.

Take care of your fluffy friends!

~Your Loyal Calvin & Susie Blogger


Organic Agriculture Overview, USDA, Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), 2007.

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