The newest buzzword in the pet food industry is “human-grade.” If you Google it, you get 114 million search results. But is human-grade dog food worth it? And what does the label even mean? In an industry estimated to be worth $195 billion by 2027, human-grade dog food companies are competing with over 600 traditional brands for pet parents’ attention. We know this is overwhelming, so we asked several vets for their take on human-grade dog food, along with their recommendations if you decide to try it out.
Is Human-Grade Dog Food Worth It? Vets Weigh in on Their 3 Favorite Brands
Fido’s new favorite foods
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Meet the Experts:
- Dr. Jamie Whittenburg, DVM, lead veterinarian at Senior Tail Waggers and director of Kingsgate Animal Hospital
- Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, DVM, MPH, a veterinary epidemiologist
- Dr. Nell Ostermeier, DVM, CVA, FAAVA, an Integrative Veterinarian at AKC Pet Insurance
- Dr. Lindsay Butzer, a veterinarian and PetMeds partner
- Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS, is a locum veterinary surgeon and part of Pawleaks Modern Dog Training’s veterinary consult team
What Does “Human-Grade” Mean?
It’s easy to think of human-grade dog food as people food. This is not the case! The Association of American Feed Control Officials says people food must meet rigorous federal regulations from the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Foods meeting all standards are “edible.” If a pet food product meets the same standards and qualifies as “edible,” the AAFCO says it can be labeled “human-grade,” though it adds, “Edible is a standard; human-grade is not.”
However, Dr. Jamie Whittenburg notes “human-grade” still means nothing when it comes to actual human food. She considers this phrase more of a marketing tactic than anything else. “Being ‘human-grade’ does not guarantee better ingredients, does not eliminate the risk of potential contamination and does not have anything to do with whether or not the diet is balanced or formulated appropriately for a dog,” Dr. Whittenburg told us.
“Feed-grade” is the term used for food deemed safe for animals, but unsafe for people (or at least, doesn’t meet the FDA, USDA or AAFCO requirements to be considered “edible”). If you’re confused, consider this: A Hershey’s chocolate bar is edible and human-grade (meets federal standards), but not feed-grade (unsafe for dogs).
Jodie Otter, MSW, notes that feed-grade doesn’t mean worse food. All it takes is one ingredient that’s unsafe for humans to qualify pet food as feed-grade. So, some high-quality feed-grade dog food could in fact be more nutritious for your pup than low quality human-grade food. It all comes down to ingredients and their sourcing.
One example of dry kibble that is arguably healthier for dogs than some human-grade food is Open Farm’s dry food. Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, DVM, MPH, a veterinary epidemiologist, is a fan of Open Farm because of their nutritious options (dry and wet foods, treats, supplements, broths, toppers). We challenge you to find a more transparent dog food brand. Open Farm’s partners include Certified Humane, Oceanwise, The Global Animal Partnership and Terracycle. Their whole goal is the highest quality ingredients from the most sustainable sources and full transparency throughout the process. This is feed-grade food we can get behind.
Is Human-Grade Dog Food Better for Dogs Than Feed-Grade Food?
Many human-grade brands were started by dog parents trying to cure their pets’ digestive problems. For those dogs, human-grade food was better than feed-grade food. Some vets, like Dr. Nell Ostermeier, DVM, CVA, FAAVA, an Integrative Veterinarian at AKC Pet Insurance, think feed-grade diets can take a toll on dogs. “All kibble is highly processed. So, if you choose to feed your dog kibble only, you are choosing to feed all processed food, all the time,” Dr. Ostermeier said, adding a kibble-only diet could dehydrate dogs over time. “This does not make sense from a health perspective for dogs or humans.”
Dr. Venn-Watson agrees. “Unfortunately, many commercial dog brands contain low-quality ingredients, unhealthy fillers and harmful preservatives,” she said.
On the other hand, Dr. Whittenburg pointed out there’s no evidence that AAFCO “edible” handling guidelines offer significant benefits to dogs. “There are many things to consider when choosing a pet food, including formulation, feed trial testing and the unique needs of your individual dog,” Dr. Whittenburg told us. Relying on the human-grade label alone isn’t enough.
The bottom line is the best food for your dog depends on…well, your dog!
What Are the Potential Benefits of Human-Grade Dog Food?
The primary benefits of human-grade dog food are hydration, additional nutrient intake and a potential for improved digestion. “Human-grade food or whole food, that is gently cooked, can provide a high level of nutrients and hydration for your dog,” according to Dr. Ostermeier. Plus, there’s much less processing done to human-grade dog food than kibble or canned food. (Technically, cooking counts as processing. Most human-grade brands state their meals are minimally processed.)
JustFoodForDogs, a human-grade brand, organized a study to compare their menu to commercial kibble. The results indicate their formulas were “up to 40 percent more digestible” compared to dry food. Dogs in the study also absorbed more nutrients when they ate JustFoodForDogs meals.
Human-grade food can also supplement a feed-grade diet to ensure your dog ingests plenty of the good stuff. Say your pup requires a prescription commercial dry food. There are tons of fruits and vegetables you can feed her to fortify her diets with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, while sticking to the prescription. (Obviously check with your vet before trying this!)
What Should I Look For in Human-Grade Dog Food?
It’s all about ingredients and processes. Focusing on the ingredient list, quality control standards and nutritional team behind a dog food brand is most important. “If the brand does not provide sourcing information or information on veterinary formulation, it may not be the safest or best food to feed your dog,” Dr. Ostermeier said. “If the food is formulated and balanced according to AAFCO standards, it can be fed as your dog's entire diet.”
Dr. Lindsay Butzer, a veterinarian and PetMeds partner, said nutritionally complete dog foods contain an intentional mix of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. “Look for statements on the packaging along the lines of ‘meets nutritional requirements of dogs established by AAFCO’ or ‘complete and balanced nutrition for dogs based on AAFCO feeding trials.’”
When checking out ingredient lists, Dr. Linda Simon, who is part of Pawleaks Modern Dog Training’s veterinary consult team, advised reading through an “edible” lens. “Ingredients used in these recipes should be fresh and wholesome, mimicking what you or I might eat. This can include meat (rather than meat and bone meal), grains, legumes, fruits and veggies… The foods should not contain fillers, artificial colors, preservatives or similar ‘bad’ ingredients.”
Dr. Whittenburg urged dog parents to make sure a dog food brand is “formulated by a board certified veterinary nutritionist and feed trial tested to ensure it is high quality.” One thing all vets agree on is that meat or a high-protein ingredient should be listed first.
Which Human-Grade Dog Food Brands Are Best?
Several of our vet sources recommended The Farmer’s Dog. One reason is this brand went “above and beyond the AAFCO standards of nutrition by conducting live feeding trials on actual dogs of all shapes and sizes over a six-year period,” according to Dr. Lindsay. Plus, The Farmer’s Dog can tailor meal plans to a dog’s age, weight, breed, health issues, activity level and more.
Working with board-certified veterinary nutritionists, The Farmer’s Dog formulated recipes using whole ingredients that taste delish to dogs (and humans, apparently). Their site states, “Our meals are prepared in USDA kitchens, where each recipe is gently cooked at low temperatures according to USDA-facility standards.” They also never use feed-grade ingredients.
“Another strong option in the human-grade food department is Ollie,” Dr. Lindsay said. This brand offers meals depending on your dog’s life stage, plus full ingredient lists are displayed and meals are slow cooked. Ollie offers both grain and grain-free options, too, as some dogs benefit from incorporating more grains into their diets. Plus, the Ollie website says their recipes don’t contain by-products, fillers, artificial flavoring, or preservatives, and they used a “board-certified veterinary nutritionist who helped us formulate our balanced and complete, human-grade recipes, abiding by the AAFCO standards.”
Finally, Dr. Lindsay recommended JustFoodForDogs if you’re in the market for more DIY recipes. Their meal kits give you more control over what your dog eats while ensuring the pup gets all the nutrients she needs. JustFoodForDogs could also be ideal for pets with certain allergies or weight concerns, as the brand offers a feeding calculator and various meal sizes for portion control. With nine veterinarians and board-certified specialists on their team and systematic feeding trials, this is an excellent human-grade food option.
1. Farmer's Dog
What We Like
- recipes created by board-certified veterinary nutritionists
- 50 percent off first order, delivered to your home
- tailored meal plans
- DIY options
What We Don’t Like
- food must be refrigerated
- not available in Alaska, Hawaii or internationally
- recipes only available after filling out questionnaire
Vets love The Farmer’s Dog, so we have to think it’s a stellar option for your pup. Everything is made fresh, cooked gently (aka at a low temp) and frozen just enough to preserve it until it arrives at your house. The company even offers a DIY model where they recommend recipes you can make at home and supplement with their signature Nutrient Mix. The Farmer’s Dog boasts compliance with AAFCO standards and USDA-certified proteins. You do have to fill out their questionnaire before you can glimpse the recipes they recommend for your pup, but since everything is tailored to your dog’s life stage and health, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Meals are delivered pre-portioned and ready to serve or refrigerate.
I tested The Farmer’s Dog questionnaire with info for my parent’s dog, an 8-year-old labrador retriever who is relatively healthy. The results were $3.58/day (or $25.06/week) with the 50% discount for two weeks of food including three unique recipes (beef, pork and chicken). Any subsequent orders would be $7.16/day ($50.12/week).
Best for Recipe Customization
What We Like
- budget-friendly half meal plan option
- baked “kibble” option
- 60 percent off first order
- cooked in small batches at low heat
What We Don’t Like
- must thaw meals 24 hours before serving
- not available in Alaska, Hawaii or internationally
If your dog is a picky eater and needs some crunch (aka, kibble), Ollie is a great alternative to processed dry food. Yes, they have excellent AAFCO-approved human-grade recipes, but you can mix and match with their baked dry food if you want. Ollie’s team sources fresh ingredients from U.S. suppliers (their lamb is sourced in the U.S., New Zealand and Australia) and made in small batches at their Minnesota facility. Once it goes into your fridge, food is fresh and good to serve for up to four days.
I tested Ollie’s site with the same info for my parent’s dog, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever who is relatively healthy. The result for a full fresh plan was $22/week (with the first-timer discount and $57/week for subsequent orders). A half-fresh plan was $15.40/week (again with the discount). Then, I was able to choose between their beef, turkey, chicken and lamb recipes. So, Ollie put a little more control in my hands when it came to recipe choice.
Best for Dogs with Specific Health Needs
What We Like
- DIY recipe option
- some brick-and-mortar store locations
- can order a la carte without answering any questions
- less expensive than other options
What We Don’t Like
- must schedule a consultation for tailor-made meals
- all products require freezing or refrigeration, including treats
- no first-time order discount
As mentioned above, JustFoodForDogs is another great option if you want a little more control over the human-grade ingredients in your dog’s food. Their recipes are vet-developed and seem to cater well to specific health issues. This company also says that by “sourcing directly from human-grade suppliers” they are able to keep costs lower than other leading brands. Plus, part of their mission is continuing research (beyond the extensive studies they’ve already done) on how to best deliver prime nutrition to dogs. They’ve already found their food to be 40 percent more digestible than regular, store-bought kibble. Finally, you can order any recipe you like without enrolling in a plan, which is nice if you want to test it out.
I tested JustFoodForDogs’ site with the same info for my parent’s dog, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever who is relatively healthy. The recommendation for her was their turkey recipe at $5.87/day (or $41.12/week) if you enroll in autoshipping, which gives you free shipping. They also recommended two other recipes that could work well for the dog.