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A Taste of Tufts: Lisa Freeman

Professor, alumna reveals myths of pet nutrition

Published: Monday, March 12, 2012

Updated: Monday, March 12, 2012 07:03


Courtesy Lisa Freeman

Freeman, who holds three Tufts degrees, lectured on animal nutrition at the latest Taste of Tufts installment March 9.

The most recent installment of the Experimental College's weekly lecture series, "A Taste of Tufts: A Sampling of Faculty Research," showcased Dr. Lisa Freeman, a professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. At the lecture in the Granoff Center on March 9, Freeman spoke about her research on the optimal nutrition for pets.

Freeman, a "Triple Jumbo," has earned a degree from three separate Tufts campuses: a B.S. from the College of Liberal Arts, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the Cummings School and a Ph.D. from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Explaining that she had always wanted to be a veterinarian, Freeman began the lecture by describing how she became fascinated with nutrition, which is her specialty. Her main research focus is on the use of nutrition to prevent and slow the progression of heart disease, and she is able to use her clinical practice at the Cummings School to help develop her research.

"My particular area of interest is nutrition and heart disease. By using nutrition as a component of the therapy for [the patients in Freeman's clinical practice], we can actually help them to improve," Freeman said. "So we use it to help the animals, but we also study this to find what we can feed them and how we can feed them, to get them better more quickly and more effectively."

Freeman's lecture centered on exposing the myths of pet nutrition and educating pet owners on how to select an optimal diet.

"It's a really difficult area for people to deal with because there are so many mixed messages coming out for our own nutrition," she said. "You look in the newspaper, on the Internet, in the magazines, every single day there is something on nutrition, and then usually the next week there is something contradictory."

According to Freeman, nutrition is an incredibly powerful area because it is one thing that pet owners can actually control. The $17 billion pet food industry — and the advertising that goes with it — does not help in debunking the myths.

Freeman emphasized that one pervasive myth in particular — the belief that the pet food industry is not regulated, which exploded after the 2007 pet food recall — is not true. According to Freeman, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) serves two crucial purposes: the AAFCO has pet food regulations that set the standards for individual states, and it also establishes nutrient profiles.

But how is this useful for the average pet owner when it comes time to select food? Freeman expressed her disbelief at the number of options in the grocery or pet store aisles, where each brand aims to convince owners that its food is best for the animal.

"The key is that a pet food label is an advertisement as well, and it has to appeal to us as consumers," Freeman said. "Unfortunately, when I talk to owners, what they base their decision on is the advertisement, not the legal part."

During the lecture, Freeman asked audience members which pieces of information on pet food labels were most important. According to Freeman, the most common answer given is the list of ingredients, but this is yet another myth.

"The … most important thing is the manufacturer," she said. "You would absolutely be shocked at the variability in the quality of different companies."

Freeman explained that at least one full−time, qualified nutritionist, a research and development department, self−operated plants and internal quality control standards are essential for any reliable manufacturer.

"You would be shocked at how many of these pet food companies do not have a nutritionist," Freeman said. "I also don't want them to be spending all of their money on marketing. I want research and development [so they] continue to enhance their own foods, to enhance our knowledge collectively about nutrition."

The second−most important fact on the label, Freeman said, is the nutritional adequacy statement, which reveals three essential pieces of information: whether or not the pet food is complete and balanced, how the company knows that it is complete and balanced and the intended life stage of the food.

"If you're feeding this to your pet, you want it to meet all the nutrient needs for that animal," Freeman said. "The best way to decide that is with feeding trials. AAFCO has regulations, and they make sure that animals fed these foods actually stay healthy on these foods. And finally, the intended life stage — who it's marketed for can be really different from who it meets the requirements for. That one little statement tells you a tremendous amount of information."

Freeman presented images of pet food labels representing various brands, reading the nutritional adequacy statements and testing her audience as to whether these statements were reasonable.

One particular label for cat food that Freeman showed listed flaxseed — which can be metabolized in humans and at low efficiency in dogs, but not at all in cats — as an ingredient. According to Freeman, this is an indication that the company does not know a lot about nutrition.

"They used it for us, because we see flaxseed and think it's great. That is marketing to us," Freeman said. "People get really deceived by the ingredient list. But that's how I use it — to look for red flags that say they don't know very much."

According to Freeman, pet owners make the process more difficult than it needs to be. She advises customers to be skeptical of marketing, as most of the "stuff" on the label is just advertisement and has little to do with quality.

In terms of assessing the health of a pet, body weight and condition are very important, Freeman said. Although there is a body condition "score chart" that can be used when feeling the animal's ribs, Freeman has a new trick that she recommends to avoid assumptions.

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