That's an excellent analogy!
I do think it's a combo of quality, quantity, and placement.
Back to the mammalian analogy ... When I fed my cats food with chicken by product meal and higher carbohydrates, they ate a lot, pooped a lot, the box was super stinky, and they got a little chubby with lots of plaque. When I fed them food without byproducts, and stuck with kitten food (higher protein and fat, less carbohydrate) ... They ate less, pooped less, the box didn't stink as much, and they were super lean with clean mouths.
recommended cobalt, and there didn't seem to be much waste because the flakes don't really deteriorate. But NLS is a bit higher quality, and the tank was cleaner with it even though the .5mm pellets "scatter" a lot more.
Seriously, the NLS pellets end up EVERYWHERE. But I find them to equal a cleaner tank than anything else I've tried (including frozen), probably because I have an assorted clean up crew: ghost shrimp, otos, pygmy loaches, malaysian trumpet snails, and yes even pond snails. I've learned to love even the "pest" snails because the tank is so clean. My 29 gallon has 1 shrimp/oto/loach per 2 gallons, plus the snails.
Even when I go to vacuum, nothing really comes up, the snails/etc have converted it down to such teeny particles. Apparently ghost shrimp and snails sift through fish poop, breaking it up, getting what food went undigested, and scattering the rest.
So. I think it's part quality, part method, and a big big part ecosystem.