Labels: Do We Know What They Say?

Do we always check the back label of our dog’s food?  Some of us do, and more and more of pet owners are becoming more aware of what their pet is eating.  But do you really know what those labels are telling you?  I didn’t when I first began to research this article.  The labels seem straightforward, but you, as a pet owner, need to know what is actually being said.  What is the importance of the first five ingredients on the bag? What percentages of each ingredient is in the food? Ingredients are listed but the percentages are not. Why?  I hope to share with you the real story.  In my store, I promote dog foods manufacturers that list meat products as the first ingredient ; my hope here is to give you unbiased facts that you can use to choose the right dog food.

The first thing that you should do is look for the nutritional adequacy statement from AAFCO (Association of American Food Control Officials). This statement on the bag insures that the formula at least meets the minimal nutritional requirements needed. The USDA and FDA do not get involved in pet food so we only have the AAFCO to rely on. Check out the AAFCO labeling information here, for more detail. In addition, definitions for holistic, organic, or natural pet food have not been established by the AAFCO, so interpretation of what those words mean in terms of formula ingredients is left up to the manufacturer of the product; it is not an established law.

While your reading the label, it’s good to note that “natural”, does not mean completely natural. If your food comes in a can or a bag it is not totally “natural”. It has to be processed in some way to provide shelf-life for the food.  Grain-free formulas made with truly “human” ingredients (food we humans eat, such as carrots, peas, or blueberries) are “natural”, but do they offer the best nutrition for your pet?


Ingredients: What We Do Know

Here is where we get to the details about what you should look for in a dog food. Those first five ingredients I spoke of before do not have to be the same ingredients on every bag and percentages are not listed because they are not required. However, ingredients are listed on the labels by the highest pre-cooked weight, (which includes water that can be dehydrated out of dry food), to the lowest. Those first five ingredients should be mostly digestible meat-based protein. What does that mean? Meat or meat by-products, not grain. I will get to the corn and by-product discussion later.

We as humans also really like all the “fancy” words on the front of the food bags but what does that mean in terms of ingredients. The following is surprising!

  • If a single ingredient is listed, such as “chicken” dog food, the food must be 95% of that ingredient, not including water.
  • A combination of ingredients, such as “chicken and lamb”, the combination of ingredients must be 95% of the total ingredients.
  • If the bag says “dinner, platter or entrée”, the food must have 25% of the named ingredients.
  • “Made with….”, such as cheese, the food must have 3% of the ingredient.
  • “Flavor”, such as chicken flavored, the food only has to have a “detectible” amount of the ingredient. This leaves a lot of room for other things.

So, if you see “Chicken Dog Food Entrée”, it could be anywhere from 95% to 25% chicken.  Misleading, maybe not, but certainly confusing.


Is Corn Bad? Is Rice Better?

First off, corn and rice are not necessarily bad words but should not be the first ingredient in your pet food.  They are an excellent source of carbohydrates, fat, provide quick energy, and are used as filler in many foods.  Rice is more digestible than corn and still a source of carbohydrates.  They also both contain certain amino acids that are necessary for good health.  What we need to understand is that filler is a necessary ingredient in dog food and the total nutritional value must include a combination of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins to be called a “complete and balanced diet”. Carbohydrates, when done right, are nutritious, but done wrong can lead to obesity and high blood sugar.  In addition, corn syrup and MSG (monosodium glutamate) are never good.  Corn syrup is too high in sugar and MSG is a non-essential flavor enhancer.  Both are known to increase the likelihood of obesity in your pet.


The Bad and Good of By-Products

By-products also come under the scrutiny of the AAFCO. They are highly digestible, nutritious, clean non-rendered “parts” other than meat. They are also a source of high protein. By-products include, liver, lungs, spleen, and other organs. They do not include hair, horns or hooves. We as humans may think of by-products as less desirable if we were to eat them, but on the other hand, carnivorous animals in their ancestral habitat did eat such things.  Reputable dog food companies choose quality by-products.  However, the price point of the food typically dictates where by-products are on the ingredients list.


Grain-Free Formulas

Do pets do better on grain-free pet foods? Many do. However, all reputable dog food diets, whether they contain grain or not, must meet the nutritional needs of our pets. I have customers in my own store with dogs that no longer have allergies or seizures after they changed to a grain-free diet.  Was it the result of the lack of grain or another ingredient from the old food?  Only their vet would be able to confirm the reason for sure. There are proponents of the idea that grains are “unnatural”, however, potatoes, a carbohydrate, are used many times in place of the grains and were not originally a food staple for our pet’s ancestors.  That also leads to the fact that grain-free foods are not necessarily low-carb. The use of vegetables is also a staple of some grain-free dog food recipes, but again we need to be vigilant and make sure our pets are getting the correct nutritional balance of ingredients.


What Can We Take Away with Us?

Hopefully, we are all more conscientious of pet food labels and what they really mean.  Is price the driving factor in your choices?  You can find quality foods in all price ranges if you pay attention to the ingredients and their placement on the label. Most importantly, a good “vet condition” check is always advised.  The vet will tell you what the weight is best for your pet and special nutritional requirements.  Feeding instructions will depend on protein levels and the type of food you buy.


Thank you to our local veterinarians for help with this information.

Let us help. Your pets will thank you!

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