Why Fresh Is Best
Dr Justin Shmalberg
KatKin Chief Veterinary Officer
Fresh food for our cats sounds like a novel concept, but it’s really the commercial availability that’s novel. This is exemplified by the fact that KatKin is the first company to ever offer freshly cooked food directly to cat parents in the UK.
I define a fresh food as one that is not shelf-stable at room temperature and which should be fed within a shorter period of time than foods like kibble or cans. You can read more about fresh diets broadly here.
I have long been an advocate for fresh foods in the US, both as a practicing veterinary nutritionist, researcher, and formulator of such diets. Historically, we would recommend a fresh diet under certain circumstances:
- When we had specific nutritional needs which were not met by other diet forms (home-prepared diets were the only option until recently)
- When pet parents had concerns about ingredients and ingredient transparency, or
- When we needed a highly digestible or palatable diet.
It’s exciting that the benefits of fresh can now be merged with the convenience of direct delivery, as I often found over the years that even my most dedicated clients struggled to deliver a consistently balanced meal to their cats or that they became fatigued by the labour involved with doing it themselves.
The research on fresh is still in its infancy but generally aims to compare the responses of individuals on fresh diets versus other dietary options. One of the real challenges nutrition researchers have in evaluating diets is that there are few objective measures to really decipher if one food is superior to another in terms of its impact on health. Take, for example, a serum biochemistry panel - what most people would consider a ‘routine blood panel.’ It takes massive nutrient deficiencies or excesses to cause changes in these values. This makes sense, as after all cats and most mammals are built to survive and preserve their critical organ function and blood proteins; which are the parameters measured in such a test.
What type of testing might be helpful then? Well, more sophisticated measurements can be done. The simplest of those is what’s known as a digestibility study, whereby you measure what goes into the animal and what comes out in the faeces to see roughly how much was absorbed. Preliminary research undertaken by myself as well as some of my nutritionist colleagues suggest that fresh diets are highly digestible, meaning much of what is in the food gets absorbed.
The reasons for this are multiple. Firstly, many fresh diets are low in fibre, and one type of fibre (known as insoluble fibre) is not digestible and passes through the cat’s system. Even accounting for fibre difference, however, the proteins and fats in fresh diets are usually more digestible than in many kibble diets. This is likely because the meats and dry meat meals used in many kibble and canned diets are inherently less digestible sources of protein, based on the part of the animal from which they were derived. In contrast, the cuts of meat usually fed to humans, which is the grade of meat used in the KatKin recipes, are typically highly digestible. As a result of all of this, the net effect is that cat parents switching to fresh often notice a reduction in the amount of stool produced because more of the diet is getting absorbed.
The composition of bacteria in the gut, collectively known as the microbiome, is influenced by diet, and there is emerging evidence that fresh diets may create microbiome differences compared to other diet types, especially kibble. Both kibble and canned diets contain very few bacteria because of how they are cooked and processed, whereas cooked fresh diets have a reduction in harmful pathogens (verified by testing) while retaining potentially beneficial bacteria found in the food. As the gut is critical to the absorption of food as well as regulation of the overall immune system, fresh diets could have an important impact in this area. This is an area I continue to actively study.
Fresh diets, because of their naturally high water content, may also influence the activity level of cats and promote a healthy weight. Research has shown that higher moisture diets increase spontaneous activity for reasons that are incompletely understood. In addition, KatKin meals are individually portioned using a scientific algorithm; this allows removal of the guesswork surrounding how much to feed. Let’s face it - traditional packaging is confusing, and research has shown it’s inconsistent from company to company, and food to food. It’s no wonder that obesity is such an issue as a result. Cats that are overweight and obese are prone to a number of health problems ranging from diabetes to joint issues. The lower calorie density of fresh food compared to kibble also allows your cat to eat a greater volume of food.
Scientists always look for objective data when evaluating diets, but anecdotal evidence from cat parents over the years has suggested to me and others that improvements in skin and coat, allergic symptoms, and gastrointestinal issues may well be tied to switching to a fresh diet. There are certainly scientific explanations for this, such as increased amounts of less-inflammatory fatty acids; better absorption of nutrients; and altered gut flora.
At KatKin we remain committed to advancing the scientific understanding of the benefits of fresh food, and in the interim are even more committed to formulating the best cat foods available. We hope you’ll be part of the movement to fresh and contribute to the expansion of ingredient-focused, whole foods nutrition for cats in Europe.
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