Human Grade vs Feed-Grade Dog Food: Which Is Better? [Pros & Cons]

human grade dog food vs feed grade dog food

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This content was reviewed and fact-checked by veterinarian Dr. Sandra Tashkovska, DVM.

In recent years, the pet food industry has seen a surge in terms and labels that can sometimes confuse pet owners. Among these, “Human-grade” and “Feed-grade” are two terms that have garnered significant attention.

But what do these terms mean? And, more importantly, how do they impact the food quality we offer our beloved dogs? This comprehensive guide explains what they mean, including the pros and cons behind each so you can make the best nutritional choices for your dogs. Let’s get started!

What Is Human-Grade Dog Food?

“Human-grade” dog food is exactly what it sounds like – it’s food that meets the same quality and safety standards as the food we humans consume. This type of dog food is manufactured, processed and produced in adherence to the same USDA standards and FDA regulations as food produced for people. In other words, human-grade dog food is fit and safe for human intake.

For a dog food to be labeled or claim to be “human-grade,” the following standards must be met:

  • The entire product must be human-grade. It’s not enough for just one or a few ingredients to be human-grade. If a product is labeled human-grade, the entire product, including every ingredient, must meet the criteria.
  • Handling. Every ingredient and the resulting product must be stored, handled, processed, and transported consistent with current good manufacturing practices (cGMPs) for producing human food Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 Part 117.[1]
  • Facility standards. Their manufacturing facility must be licensed to produce human food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards and other appropriate authorities. The pet manufacturer facility will need licenses or permits for operating edible food manufacturing facilities or results of most recent inspections issued by local, county, or state public health authorities.[2]

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies manufacturers who meet these standards, allowing them to use the term “human-grade” on pet products. While the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) AAFCO provides model regulations, each state can adopt, modify, or reject those as they see fit.[3]

Pet foods that do not meet human-grade standards previously stated are considered feed grade. 

Human-grade labeling requisites and regulations are complex and vary by state and locality. This may impede some pet food manufacturers from labeling their recipes human-grade even though they use human-grade ingredients.

What Is Feed-Grade Dog Food?

On the other hand, “feed-grade” dog food is a term used to describe pet food formulated and processed specifically for animals. This dog food category typically does not contain ingredients that meet the same stringent criteria required for human consumption.

Feed-grade dog food can include parts of animals that wouldn’t typically be found in human food. The AFFCO notes that feed-grade pet food may contain by-products, chemicals, animal organs, blood, fat, tendons, bones, fillers, and parts from “4D” meats (animals that are dying, diseased, disabled, or deceased).

According to the FDA, the “feed-grade” term in dog food means:

“Material that has been determined to be safe, functional and suitable for its intended use in animal food…”

Notice how they use the word “material.” — This is legally allowed through rendering, a process that subjects the “material” to high heat and pressure to eliminate harmful bacteria.[4] When rendered, meat tissues and by-products are reduced to a gray, fatty mass, which is heated until fat and grease float on top. A final step is to dry the sludge to create a powder known as a meat meal. This powder is used to make feed-grade pet food.[5]

Feed-grade dog food is only legally allowed to be served to animals because this food contains ingredients that could harm humans. Feed-grade dog food doesn’t meet the same stringent standards for human consumption.

Is Human-Grade Dog Food Better?

Generally, human-grade dog food brands use higher quality ingredients than most commercially available dog foods (feed-grade pet food). The better companies that produce human-grade dog foods are more transparent about ingredient sourcing and manufacturing processes due to the stricter label requirements these brands are subject to by the FDA and AAFCO, making them inherently better in every aspect than traditional kibble.

Human-grade dog food typically far exceeds the minimum nutritional requirements set by AAFCO.

There are health benefits associated with feeding this type of food to your dog, including superior nutrient and amino acid digestibility than feed-grade food.[6] Similarly, a study also found that lightly cooked human-grade vegan dog foods can have digestibilities exceeding 80% and be well-digested by dogs.

A study from the University of Illinois (UI) indicates that commercially available dog food made with human-grade ingredients results in less fecal output than kibble-based dog food.[7] This can be an indicator of better nutrient absorption and less waste production.

Human-grade food digestibility of dry matter, protein, fat, and other nutrients was significantly higher than dry kibble diets.[8]

This makes them better dog foods, but this does not necessarily mean they are good for your dog. Like any pet food decision, a close inspection of the brand and product is recommended. Human-grade dog food must adhere to stringent standards. While the term suggests superior quality, only a few dog food brands on the market meet these rigorous criteria. Read our best human-grade dog food review to learn who these are and more about the benefits of human-grade diets.

best human grade dog food

It’s worth noting when compared to feed-grade, human-grade food is also free from high levels of chemicals, pesticides and processed ingredients, which can make digestion more difficult and diminish the nutritional value of the ingredients.

Human-Grade Dog Food Drawbacks

  • Cost: Human-grade dog foods are usually more expensive than traditional pet foods.
  • Preservation and shelf life: Human-grade foods might not contain the preservatives commonly found in traditional dog foods. While this can be a positive aspect, it also means these foods might have a shorter shelf life and could spoil more quickly.
  • Misleading labels: The term “human-grade” can sometimes be used as a marketing gimmick. Without proper research, pet owners might assume they’re giving their dogs the best food when the product might not be as superior as claimed.
  • Ingredient sensitivities: Some safe and healthy ingredients for humans might cause allergies or sensitivities in dogs.
  • Unbalanced human-grade home cooking: Cooking for your dog with human-grade ingredients may result in health problems if the meals are unbalanced. If you want to cook for your pet, we recommend you check out our homemade dog cooking guide.

Is Feed-Grade Dog Food Bad?

Feed-grade dog food is not inherently bad. Feed-grade dog foods are more affordable than human-grade and many feed-grade dog foods are formulated to meet specific nutritional requirements for dogs set by organizations like the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

According to the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, “most manufacturers [of commercially available pet foods] utilize sophisticated quality control and food safety mechanisms, including screening and reporting systems. Commercial foods remain a consistent, safe, and healthful option for feeding pets.”[9]

Feed grade formulas vary significantly between brands, but most commercial kibble, wet dog food and canned dog food fall into this category. The quality and safety largely depend on the brand, sourcing practices, and manufacturing processes.

The Problem With Feed-Grade Dog Food

The “Feed-grade” process allows dog food manufacturers to use animal by-products and even include sick or dead animal parts (4D meats) deemed unfit for human consumption through a process known as rendering (meat meals).[4]

Legally, food manufacturers can label a commercial pet food that uses 4D meats as “chicken” without providing further details about where that protein was sourced. Talk about mystery meat!

The main concern with feed-grade foods isn’t just about the quality of the meat used but also about what other ingredients, meat or not, are included. —and of course, pet food manufacturing companies wouldn’t advertise this. That is where the problem lies.

A 2004 Congressional Research Services report for the US Congress states that the industry has largely operated outside public view. However, meat rendering has attracted greater public attention since discovering bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease).[10]

When buying feed grade, the key is to choose transparent brands regarding their ingredient list, where they source from, and their preparation procedures. As with any pet food choice, pet owners must research, read ingredient labels, and consult with a veterinarian to ensure they provide a nutritious and safe diet.

Feed-Grade Dog Food Drawbacks

  • Lower-quality ingredients: Feed-grade foods might include byproducts, fillers, preservatives, 4D meat, and lower-quality sources of protein, as well as highly processed ingredients.
  • Potential contaminants: There’s a higher risk of these foods containing substandard ingredients or contaminants because feed-grade foods are legally allowed to include lower-quality ingredients that are unsuitable for human consumption.
  • Highly processed: Subpar meat sources such as meat meals often undergo intense heating to eliminate potential pathogens. This process lowers the nutritional value of the ingredients.

Feed-Grade vs Human-Grade Processing

The processing methods employed in creating dog food are pivotal in determining its quality and safety. In this section, we will delve into the distinctions between feed-grade and human-grade processing, shedding light on how these practices impact the food that ultimately ends up in your dog’s bowl.

Human-Grade Processing

Human-grade processing methods aim to minimize processing steps to maintain the natural integrity of ingredients. This can result in fresher and more nutritious meals. Methods such as gently cooked, oven-baked, dehydration, or freeze-drying are typically employed by human-grade dog food brands to retain most of the nutritional quality of the ingredients, vitamins, minerals, and flavors.

Feed-Grade Processing

Extrusion is a common cooking process used in feed-grade pet food that involves mixing ingredients, cooking them under pressure and heat, and forcing the mixture through a die to create kibble shapes. While extrusion ensures that the food is safe to eat, it may not fully preserve the natural integrity of the ingredients.

About 95 percent of dry pet diets are estimated to be manufactured using “extrusion.”[11]

The Dark Side of Extrusion In Dog Food

Here is what extrusion does to dog food, according to research.

  • Loss of vitamins and minerals. Extrusion has been found to significantly reduce the content of important nutrients such as B group vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E.[12]
  • Additives are not so safe. While additives play crucial roles in processed food production, there’s a need for updated strategies and technologies to confirm their safety in the pet food industry.[13]
  • Stability of vitamins. Some vitamins are more affected than others during extrusion, and even after this process, some vitamins can continue to decrease if the food is stored for a long time.[12]
  • Maillard reaction. This reaction happens when pet foods are heat-processed. It can reduce the availability of essential amino acids, such as lysine; in some cases, up to 61.8% of the lysine in pet foods might not be available for the body to use. This reaction creates various harmful substances, such as Acrylamide and advanced glycation end products.[14]
  • Omega-3 fats decrease. Research has indicated that the extrusion process can adversely affect omega-3 fatty acids in dog food. Of specific worry is the potential for rancidity when the food is stored.[15]
  • Protein changes. The extrusion process can lead to protein denaturation, which can sometimes improve their digestibility but can also reduce their nutritional value.[16]
  • Effects on probiotics. Many food manufacturing processes, like extrusion, involve heat, which can reduce the viability of probiotics.[17] Dog probiotics are beneficial microorganisms that live in your dog’s intestines.
  • Starch-based and Acrylamide risks. Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in starch-based foods when exposed to high temperatures. A study suggests that Acrylamide might have neurotoxic effects in dogs, especially when they consume foods that have been subjected to high-temperature preparation.[18] Acrylamide has also been shown to cause cancer in animal models.[19]
  • Raw meat effects. Extrusion decreases the ability of our pets to efficiently digest and absorb raw meats, thus reducing their bioavailability and making these nutritious protein sources less easily digestible.[20],[21]
  • Cancergonegic. Studies show that food processing has been shown to cause free radicals and carcinogenic chemicals to be released. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals formed when muscle meat is cooked at high temperatures. Research has shown that these chemicals can change DNA and might increase the chances of getting cancer in animals and people.[22],[23] Furthermore, David Turner, Ph.D., and Victoria Findlay, Ph.D., two researchers at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center estimate that dog food is about 100 times higher in Advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These compounds, when consumed, can accumulate in the body and have been linked to various health issues such as cancer. They believe that processed pet food consumption has contributed to this concerning statistic.[24] Researchers from the University of Helsinki discovered that dogs eating kibble had 10 times more homocysteine in their system than dogs on a less processed diet. High homocysteine levels can indicate inflammation linked to diseases like cancer.[24]

Human Grade vs Feed-Grade Dog Food: Which One Should You Pick?

The nutrient standards set by AAFCO are consistent for all pet foods. This means that a “human-grade” pet food might not necessarily offer different nutrients than a conventional pet food. However, the primary distinction often lies in where the food is produced, how it’s produced, how it’s handled, and where the ingredients are sourced.

While dogs can live healthy and happy lives on feed-grade diets, they are not the best option.

Under the current regulations, feed-grade pet food manufacturers are not subject to the same strict regulations as those for human-grade food. As a result, the processes, ingredients, and manufacturing practices for many feed-grade products are not up to the standards of human-grade products.

This is why we recommend opting for minimally processed and balanced diets, such as human-grade diets. This proactive approach ensures our dogs remain healthy and vibrant throughout their lives. It also helps minimize the adverse effects discussed above related to highly processed foods.

Choosing human-grade ensures that the brand follows FDA and USDA regulations, providing your pet with the best possible nutritional profile for their food.

While human-grade food can provide a higher level of confidence in ingredient quality and safety, individual pet dietary needs and preferences can vary. It’s essential to read the label, understand the ingredients, and consult your veterinarian to determine what’s best for your dog.

The Difference Between Human-Grade vs Feed-Grade

Below is a comparative table highlighting the key differences between feed-grade (traditional dog kibble) and human-grade recipes.

CharacteristicsHuman-Grade Dog FoodFeed-Grade
(Kibble)
IngredientsReadily identifiable human-grade ingredients that you may cook for yourself.
Rarely identifiable and not
suitable for human consumption.
AppearanceMost look like fresh dog food (a home-cooked meal). The ingredients (i.e., chicken, fruits & veggies) are visible to the naked eye.
Typically crunchy brown balls.
Ingredients are not visible.
Shelf-stabilityNot shelf-stable. Most human-grade foods must be refrigerated and frozen. However, a few dehydrated and kibble human-grade foods are shelf-stable and require no refrigeration.Kibbles are usually shelf-stable for years.
Health benefitsFresh and high-quality ingredients are associated with better digestion,
stools, skin and coat, longevity and more.
Most kibble is starchy and full of fillers that break down to sugar, which doesn't contribute to good health.
ProcessingMost don't use any preservatives or chemicals. Or are minimally processed.
Heavily processed with preservatives, additives and other chemicals.
HandlingFood is perishable and needs to be treated as real food.
Not perishable.
SourcingIngredients sourced from suppliers, local farms, and other human food purveyors that meet USDA standards.May source ingredients and supplements from other countries.
ServingNeeds to be thawed. Most packages come pre-portioned and ready-to-serve
Fill your pet's bowl with the desired amount.
Life stagesAvailable for all life stages.Available for all life stages.
CostHigher than average.Most affordable
Manufacturing facilityPrepared in USDA-approved human food kitchens in accordance with the FDA.Pet food manufacturing facility.
RecipesEvery recipe uses clean USDA proteins mixed with fresh produce and balanced with vitamins and minerals.Made up of material (i.e., by-products, meat meal) that has been determined to be safe, functional, and suitable for its intended use in animal food.
AFFCOExceeds AFFCO standardsMeets minimum AFFCO requirements.
Cooking processGently cooked, dehydrated and rawExtrusion

What to Look For In Dog Food

Read the labelDoes this label or the other promotional content from the company aim to make me anxious or overly skeptical about my pet’s well-being? Is this label making unrealistic promises? If that’s the case, approach with caution.
No artificial additivesAvoid foods with artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Natural preservatives like vitamin C (ascorbic acid) or vitamin E (tocopherols) are better choices.
Quality ingredientsLook for foods that list whole, recognizable ingredients. Ingredients like “chicken,” “beef,” or “sweet potato” are preferable over vague terms like “meat meal” or “animal by-products.”
TransparencyBrands should be transparent about their claims. If they tout “human grade,” they should have evidence to back it up.
Special dietary needsIf your dog has allergies, sensitivities, or specific health issues, ensure the food aligns with their dietary needs. This might mean grain-free, limited-ingredient, or prescription diets.
Expiration dateFreshness matters. Always check the expiration date to ensure you’re giving your pet fresh food.
Reviews and recommendationsCheck for reviews from other pet owners. Personal experiences can offer insights into how well dogs tolerate the food and any noticeable health benefits.
Nutritional adequacyEnsure the food meets AAFCO’s nutrient profiles for your dog’s specific life stage, whether puppy, adult, or senior.
Source of productionWhile “human grade” implies it’s made in a facility for human food, it’s still essential to know where the food is sourced. Opt for brands that are transparent about their sourcing and manufacturing processes.
Price vs. valueWhile higher quality often comes with a higher price tag, consider the long-term health benefits and potential savings on vet bills.

Human-Grade vs Feed-Grade Dog Food Pricing

The price of human-grade dog food recipes varies based on the company, dog weight (size), formula, and other factors.

According to Statista, for a decent mass-market kibble brand, you can expect to pay an average of $1.97 per pound of kibble. If you opt for a high-end kibble, the cost is around $3.45 per pound. Our team has calculated that the average price per pound for the most popular human-grade dog food brands is approximately $8.

Human-Grade Dog Food Price Comparison

To provide you with more insight into pricing, Nom Nom, a leading human-grade dog food company, has created a graphic that outlines the cost of their food. This data can give us a reasonably accurate estimate of what you might expect to pay for similar brands.

Dog SizeDog Weight (lbs)Fresh Food Daily CostFresh Food Weekly Cost (7days/week)
TinyLess than 10 lbs$3 per day$21 per week
Small10 – 20 lbs$4 per day$28 per week
Small/Medium20 – 30 lbs$5 – $6 per day$35 – $42 per week
Medium30 – 40 lbs$7 per day$49 per week
Medium/Large40 – 50 lbs$8 per day$56 per week
Large50 – 70 lbs$10 per day$70 per week

*Prices will fluctuate depending on the brand you choose, but this is what you can expect to pay more or less.

Frequently Asked Questions

The primary difference is in the quality and safety standards. Human-grade dog food is held to the same rigorous standards as human food. In contrast, feed-grade food is formulated primarily for animal nutrition, allowing for a broader range of ingredients.

Yes, you can mix different types of dog food, but it’s crucial to maintain a balanced diet and monitor your dog’s response to the mix.

Stay informed about pet food recalls and safety concerns by regularly checking with the FDA or our dog food recall page.

Look for clear labeling and product descriptions that claim to be “human grade.” Additionally, some brands provide certifications or third-party verifications to substantiate their claims.

Yes, human-grade dog food is often more expensive due to the quality of ingredients and stricter manufacturing standards. Many pet owners believe it’s worth the cost for the potential health benefits.

Risks can include ingredient variability, lower-quality sourcing, and the potential for additives that may not meet human food standards.

Look for certifications like “USDA Certified Human Grade” or “Human-Grade Verified” to ensure the product meets human food standards.

Yes, feed-grade dog food can meet basic nutritional needs, but the quality and sourcing of ingredients may vary.

Feed-Grade Dog Food vs Human-Grade — Conclusion

Putting your dog on a human-grade diet is generally associated with better health. This eliminates low-quality ingredients, harmful additives, preservatives, and other chemicals from your dog’s diet.

Most human-grade dog food brands do not use extrusion. Instead, they rely on more natural cooking processes (such as gently cooked, raw, and dehydrated) that better preserve the nutritional integrity of the ingredients. Our research indicates that human-grade dog food tends to be superior to traditional kibble. We advise feeding your dog a diet that is minimally processed.

On the other hand, if you can’t afford human-grade food, feed-grade food may also be okay as long as is balanced and meets the AFFCO nutritional standard for your dog’s life stage.


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Sources

Canine Bible uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process and product review methodology to learn more about how we fact-check, test products, and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2023). CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.
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  17. Hosbjerg, T. G. (2018, June 19). Probiotic Pet food – how is it done?. Bacterfield.
  18. Le Roux-Pullen, L., & Lessing, D. (2011). Should veterinarians consider acrylamide that potentially occurs in starch-rich foodstuffs as a neurotoxin in dogs?. J S Afr Vet Assoc, 82(2), 129-130. DOI: 10.4102/jsava.v82i2.47.
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