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Food Synergy and Whole Food Nutrition for Pets

April 13, 2021 • 2 min read

Proper nutrition is vital for the wellbeing of any animal. Nutrients interact with and modify molecular mechanisms in the body, affecting all aspects of the organism’s physiological functions. From the fields of nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics, research shows that diet plays an important role in an animal’s observable traits and expression of health. Pets evolved over millions of years eating whole foods, and their genetics are programed to manifest optimal health through interaction with a natural, whole food diet. Natural nutritional therapies can be implemented to foster health in animal patients.

Whole Food Nutrition for Pets

Whole food nutrition is important for humans and pets alike. This fact is demonstrated in research that looks at the effects of whole foods on the body. Lycopene, a nutrient found in tomatoes, has been shown in research to address prostate cancer. However, it turns out that research also shows that consuming tomatoes may have a more robust health effect on the human prostate than taking an equal amount of isolated lycopene.1,2 The same idea holds true for peanut allergies. A study found that consuming the allergenic proteins of peanuts in isolation did not cause an allergic reaction in those allergic to peanuts.3 In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), clinical trials of pharmaceutical-like vitamin/mineral products have found that many do not work as intended or even have adverse effects.4

Food Synergy for Pets

“Food synergy” represents a wholistic view of nutrition. This is the idea that the biological effect of consuming nutrients in the form of the whole food matrix (the composite of naturally occurring food components) on biological systems is greater than, or different from, the actions of the individual food components.5 According to proponents of this nutritional philosophy, “a fundamental feature of food is that the constituents are coordinated… a person or animal eating a diet consisting solely of purified nutrients in their Dietary Reference Intake amounts, without benefit of the coordination inherent in food, may not thrive and probably would not have optimal health.”5

The goal of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Pet Food Profiles is to yield complete and balanced diets that nourish dogs and cats. AAFCO is responsible for setting nutritional standards for pet foods akin to Dietary Reference Intake amounts. Based on studies regarding nutritional deficiencies and toxicities, AAFCO determines the minimum and maximum levels of about 30 nutrients that should be in pet foods. According to food synergy scientists, relying solely on such an isolated profile for pet food could lead to dogs and cats that are not manifesting optimal health.

There are thousands of phytochemicals present in whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These work together synergistically to promote health in the body. According to researchers, these nutrients “in some sense could equally be deemed essential for life [as vitamins and minerals] … It seems a good assumption that the vast majority of components of plant and animal-based food is functional, that it has some kind of biological activity.”6

A modern, wholistic understanding of nutrition, which considers the complexities of food synergy, better accommodates the genetics of pets and leads to better health outcomes. All patients can benefit from natural nutritional therapies which include whole-food supplements.

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  1. Stacewicz-Sapuntzakis M, Bowen PE. Role of lycopene and tomato products in prostate health. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2005;1740:202–5.
  2. Boileau TW, Liao Z, Kim S, Lemeshow S, Erdman JW Jr., Clinton SK. Prostate carcinogenesis in Nmethyl- N-nitrosourea (NMU)-testosterone-treated rats fed tomato powder, lycopene, or energy-restricted diets. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2003;95:1578–86.
  3. van Wijk F, Nierkens S, Hassing I, et al. The effect of the food matrix on in vivo immune responses to purified peanut allergens. Toxicol Sci. 2005;86:333–41.
  4. NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH. NIH State-of-the-Science Conference Statement on Multivitamin/Mineral Supplements and Chronic Disease Prevention, held on May 15-17, 2006.
  5. Jacobs DR, Gross MD, Tapsell LC. Food synergy: an operational concept for understanding nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1543S-8S.
  6. Jacobs DR Jr, Tapsell LC. Food, not nutrients, is the fundamental unit in nutrition. Nutr Rev 2007;65(10):439-50.

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