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Among the hundreds or thousands of different kinds of dry dog food available today, almost all of them are extruded. This process involves mixing the food (wet and dry ingredients) into a dough-like consistency and feeding it into a machine called an expander. The expander uses high pressure steam and high temperatures to cook the pet food dough. Then the dough is forced or “extruded” though small holes called “die” which cut it into kibble pieces and shapes which we all recognize. This has to be done while the dough is still compact from the high pressure – otherwise the dough would puff up. This method and machinery were originally developed to make puffed cereals, in case you’re wondering how this process was created.
After the pieces are cut, they are dried and then coated with oils that affect palatability, minerals and vitamins, preservatives, and sometimes probiotics, depending on the recipe and the manufacturer.
How baked dog foods are different
The early stages of this process are the same for baked dog foods. The ingredients for the food are mixed together. However, baked dog food does not use an expander and it is not cooked with steam or under pressure. Pet foods that are oven baked are typically baked more slowly in an oven. They are cooked for a longer period of time than extruded pet foods. They do not use steam or high temperatures.
For example, Oven-Baked Tradition, from Canada, states that it takes 10 times longer to slow-bake their foods compared to making extruded pet food. They also state that slow baking allows nutrients to be easily digested. And they point out that the high temperatures of extrusion cooking affects vitamins that are sensitive to high temperatures, which, of course, is true. (But extruded pet food makers do add vitamins and minerals to their foods to make up for nutrients lost during the manufacturing process.)
Are baked dog foods better than other dog foods?
Before we answer this question (to the best of our ability), we need to explain that the more foods are processed and cooked, the more easily they are digested, in general. We know that this flies in the face of what many people believe, but it’s true. If you feed two similarly healthy dogs a raw steak and a bowl of kibble, it will take longer for the dog to digest the raw steak, even though the raw steak may be “natural” food for your dog. If you think about this scientifically, you can see why this is true. Kibble is made up of ingredients that have already been processed, cooked, and broken down. Raw food, by contrast, is not processed. Your dog’s gastrointestinal system has to do all of the work so it takes longer to digest something raw. (Obviously, if you give your dog some mashed potatoes, he will probably digest them quickly, but we are trying to compare raw to kibble.)
What does this have to do with extruded vs. baked dog food? Well, baked dog food takes hours longer to cook before it’s bagged and sent to the pet store. Extruded foods are cooked relatively quickly, though they are cooked at high temperatures and under high steam pressure. Most companies that make oven-baked dog foods do claim that their foods are easier for dogs to digest.
Flint River Ranch (RIP – not the same food as Flint River which is now being sold) twice-baked their foods slowly. They claimed that this approach made hard-to-digest molecules of “raw” starches into something that was easier to digest – and acted as a “pre-digest” of the kibble. Per Flint River Ranch, it put less strain on the dog’s digestive system and allowed the dog to absorb more of the food.
Other factors to consider
Of course, digestion isn’t everything. According to an article from Petfoodindustry.com, “Drying petfood at high temperatures may decrease nutrients, researchers find,” researchers at one university in the Netherlands studied drying temperatures – and the amount of time spend drying – on the food’s nutrition. Their experiments tested extruded foods. Researchers said that drying petfoods at high temperatures of 320-360 F can significantly reduce nutrients or nutrient reactivity.
You might surmise from this study that the nutrients in oven-baked foods could be affected by temperatures and the length of time the food was cooked. Some oven-baked foods do note that their foods are cooked at lower temperatures, so this might be something to look for if you are interested in an oven-baked dog food.
Otherwise, we think it’s impossible to say that all oven-baked foods are better than extruded foods or vice versa. Factors such as ingredients and their sources, the dry matter basis of protein, fat, and the percentage of carbohydrates in the food, the manufacturer and their reputation all play a role in determining how good the dog food turns out to be.
Top Baked Dog Foods 2020
There does seem to be an increased interest in baked dog foods today. Here are some brands that we have seen recently (in no particular order):
- Wellness TruFoods Baked Blends Adult, Small Breed, Puppy – various flavors
- Lotus Oven-Baked Small Bites, Senior, Grain Free
- AvoDerm Oven-Baked Original Formula
- Leonard Powell Signature Series Oven-Baked Dinner
- Evolve Lamb & Rice Maintenance, Puppy Formula, Senior/Lite Formula
As you can see, these foods (with the exception of Wellness) are not the big brands. Oven-baking pet food does require different machinery than making extruded dog food so these brands have to use different facilities and equipment than most companies. Baked pet food is something of a specialized pet food niche. Some people do prefer these foods for their dogs, especially if they are looking for foods that are easy to digest. For many years, dog show handlers used to mix Flint River Ranch with another food for their show dogs as a way to provide the best of both worlds – digestibility and other things they wanted in their dogs’ diets. As always, pay attention to other elements with the foods such as the ingredients and nutrient percentages to make sure you are buying a healthy food for your dog.