H.G. Wells is credited with saying, “Advertising is legalized lying,” though I cannot imagine he is the first person to have thought so. Of course, the difficulty with identifying actual lying in advertising is that it is impossible to know whether the person making false claims actually believes their statements are true. When talking about inaccurate advertising of alternative medicine, supplements, unconventional diets, or even conventional therapies such as stem cell injections, I try to make the safer and more charitable assumption that the advertiser believes what they are saying, however egregiously implausible and inaccurate it may be.
Unfortunately, whether inaccurate claims made to sell a product are genuine misconceptions or deliberate deception, the truthfulness of the claims is often not something the consumer can judge, so false claims sell just as effectively as the truth. And because of the undeniable effectiveness of science as a means of identifying the truth, claims of “scientifically proven” benefits are often made in advertising healthcare products and services, which creates an undeserved and false appearance of legitimacy to unsupported, pseudoscientific ideas.
The latest example I have run across of this phenomenon, and a particularly brazen one, is the advertising of Souly’s Raw Pet Food. I’ve written in detail about raw diets before, and the bottom line is that there is no reliable research to indicate any benefits at all to feeding our pets raw food. The theories behind these diets are a mixture of reasonable supposition and nonsense, but there is no sound evidence to support any of them. There is, however, abundant evidence that cooked food is more nutritious than raw food, and that raw diets come with serious risks, including nutritional inadequacy and contamination with harmful bacteria. Despite this lack of any real reason to believe raw diets are good for our pets, manufacturers and promoters of these diets are not shy of making aggressive claims.
A press release from the makers of Souly’s sounds like a report on a new scientific study, but a close reading finds no evidence of any research at all, merely unsupported opinion and error.
Soul’y Raw Pet Food Discovers that Switching Your Pet to a 100% Handmade Raw Food Diet has been Successful as an Alternative Treatment for Coprophagia
The most common cause [of coprophagia] is usually a dog that is lacking a diet that provides him with sufficient vitamins and minerals to quell the desire to seek out other food sources to make up for the deficiency….Soul’y Raw Pet Food in San Marcos CA has noticed that the practice of dogs consuming their own feces or that of other dogs has all together stopped in their loveable following of furry friends when transitioned to their high quality raw food diet. One could say that this simple breakthrough in successfully deterring pets from seeking out feces as an alternative food source is just what the Doctor ordered.
To begin with, the consensus among veterinary nutritionists is that medical and nutritional causes of coprophagia are quite rare. It is usually behavioral in origin and can be a normal activity for healthy dogs and cats. The claim that it is the result of a nutritional deficiency is not supported by any evidence, and the implication that a raw diet would prevent such a deficiency better than conventional commercial diets is even more preposterous. And in this case, the “evidence” appears to be nothing more than the opinions and observations of the diet manufacturer and their friends, which hardly merits a press release announcing a scientific “breakthrough.”
But further reading clearly illustrates that the folks at Soul’y Raw Pet Diets do not understand nutritional science and care little about what scientific evidence supports or doesn’t support.
Soul’y Raw Pet Food does not chemically alter any of our ingredients by cooking or any other manufacturing process. Research has shown that most pet food allergies are derived from denaturing the ingredients and their bodies are not able to recognize them as a protein and their bodies will try to fight off the foreign body which creates the chronic allergic reactions.
This explanation is, in fact, the exact opposite of the true nature of dietary allergies. Whole proteins are the primary trigger for allergies in animals predisposed to have them. And when there is a malfunction in the GI tract such that it fails to break proteins down into small enough pieces, this can make allergies more likely. Finally, one of the most effective treatments for food allergies is to feed hydrolyzed protein diets, diets in which the proteins are chemically processed (gasp!) into small enough pieces that they cannot trigger an allergy reaction.
I certainly don’t expect lay people to be experts in the mechanics of digestion and food allergies, but this level of ignorance is frightening and inexcusable in a manufacturer of a pet food. It also indicates the blatant disregard for scientific fact so often seen in the marketing and promotion of raw and other unconventional pet diets.
The company’s web site contains many other examples of unproven or simply incorrect assertions. Their diet is claimed to be “PROVEN” to control allergies, though there is no research to support this. The company also claims eating their diet will prevent lawn staining, reduce vet bills through the ever-popular “strengthening the immune system” nonsense, and even prevent flea infestation! These are all implausible claims presented with no real evidence.
Finally, the terms “human grade” and “restaurant grade” are frequently used for the ingredients despite the fact that these are not legally defined terms or part of the USDA meat grading system. Use of such meaningless terms cannot be anything but misleading and deceptive since they appear to indicate an official judgment on the quality of the food’s ingredients when the manufacturers must know that no such judgment has been made by anyone but them.
My purpose is not to pick on a single manufacturer, though the advertising by this company is certainly inaccurate and misleading. The unfortunate truth is that advertising full of unproven claims and inaccuracies is widespread in the marketing of veterinary health products. A blithe disregard for the meaning of the term “scientifically proven,” as shown by using this term and others like “research proves” and “studies show” without citing any actual published scientific studies, is a warning sign for the consumer. Such terms are meaningless at best and a signs of active deception at worst.
The best chance for us to identify what is truly beneficial for our pets is not to rely on advertising but to demand claims be supported by actual scientific evidence. Where such evidence doesn’t exist, claims that the benefits of a product are “proven” should be regarded as deceptive. The most that should be said in the absence of true scientific evidence is that a product might have benefits and that some people believe they have seen it work. The same, of course, has been said of every health practice ever invented, whether it worked or not, so this is not a very reliable guide to the truth of such claims, but at least it is not actively misleading.