How does dog food get its flavor?

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Ever wonder who dreams up the flavors in your pup’s doggy bowl? Companies put just as much effort into product testing pet food as they do for ours. And the parallels don’t end there.

Good Food host Evan Kleiman spoke with Mary Roach, author of  “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” about the kibble development process.

When humans decide what to eat, there’s a whole set of cultural norms that come into play. “It has a lot to do with how we were raised and what we think of that food,” explains Roach. “Do we associate that food with high status or low status? Have we ever tried it? ”

Cats and dogs are little more straight forward, she explains. A dog will come into the room and if the food smells good to him, he will devour it. However, dogs and humans don’t  always agree on what smells good. A dog’s nose is a thousand times more sensitive than ours so if you have something that smells good to a human, the pet may find it overwhelming or strange.

Dogs, for example, love the smell of decaying flesh. And they really like organ meat, which has the most nutrients. This is why wild beasts rip out their prey’s intestines and kidneys before they eat the muscles. When the flesh stops being nutritionally valuable, it doesn’t continue to smell good to the animal.

But most pet owners would balk if Fido was munching on a steaming animal heart. Balancing pet and owner needs turns out to be a significant challenge for dog food companies. “It’s a delicate dance to find something that both pet and owner will like,” explains Roach.

Photo credit: Christina Lopriore

When pet food flavorists think they have a hit, they release a group of animals into a large room lined with kibble pans and watch the reactions through a glass wall. The canine taste-testers romp around and wolf down anything that smells good. (Cats are a bit more cautious).

If  a dog throws a dish up, that’s often a good sign – it means he liked the product so much that he ate it faster than his stomach could handle. “That’s the best indication that the dog loved what you gave it,” says Roach.

Dry dog food has a lot in common with the processed products people eat. (Think: Cheetos) Both start with a bland grain pellet, which then gets a lot of touching-up to be palatable. Manufacturers add flavor with spray-coatings. For humans, that might be curry or cheese sauce; for puppies, it’s sometimes derived from animal viscera.

But puppy and human tastes do converge sometimes. One study found that Mexican dogs like spicy food. Roach says that dogs are just like us in some ways: We don’t eat what we like – we like what we eat.