he ingredients that make up a dog food should be of major concern to dog owners. While humans have a varied diet, most dogs are fed daily with the same product, and the choice of ingredients becomes crucial for a dog's health.
Food ingredients have the role of providing the essential nutrients and energy (calories) to your dog, as well as contributing to the food’s flavor, texture and appeal.
Current pet food labeling requirements fall short of what is needed to allow informed choices. Unless you know what to look for, and how to decode the labels, the information is going to be of little use, and can even be misleading.
In this article, you will learn to decode pet food labels and identify what is essential to know, and what to look for when choosing food for your dog.
How dog food is labeled
Pet food labeling is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which establishes standards for all animal food. Some U.S states have their own regulations, which can be adopted from the recommendations of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
According to regulations, pet foods must be truthfully labeled and list all of the food sources and nutrients present. To be compliant, labels must include the following:
- Product name
- Ingredient list
- Guaranteed nutrient analysis
- Nutritional adequacy statement
- Feeding directions
- Net quantity statement
- Calorie statement
Product name, brand, and marketing claims
The first thing you see on dog food packaging (and the most prominent) are the brand and product names.
The majority of pet food brands sold in North America are owned by the 5 giants of the pet food industry: Mars, Nestle-Purina, Colgate-Palmolive (Hills), Procter and Gamble (P&G), and Del Monte.
Let’s consider a random commercial dry food product name as an example: “Purina Beneful Originals Dry Dog Food with Natural Salmon”. Purina is the name of the company, owned by the Nestle group. “Beneful” is the brand, and “Originals Dry Dog Food with Natural Salmon” is the product name. (Make a mental note of the use of the preposition "with" in the product name, we'll come back to that later).
The marketing claims are the company's statements that refer to a product’s benefits or characteristics, and that proclaim its superiority over similar products. An example would be "Helps Maintain Healthy Joints and Mobility". Marketing claims are intended to influence purchasing decisions, but unfortunately they are loosely regulated. That means that although the industry cannot claim just about anything, claims can be unsubstantiated, and using the right words, can be misleading within the boundaries of regulations. Customers have to learn to read between the lines.
The ingredient list is found on the side or back of the food packet. All the Ingredients included in the food are listed in order of predominance by weight (not by proportion). The weight of each ingredient is determined by including its water content before processing, which can vary between 70% for fresh meat to 10% for meat meals.
This tells you about the nutrients, how much protein, fat, fiber, and water the food contains, and it may have minimum recommended levels.
You have to deduct the amount of carbohydrates contained from the other numbers as the FDA does not require it on the label.
Nutritional adequacy statement
That's the statement that proves the food provides a certain level of nutrients.
It may also include the life stages the food is appropriate for. AAFCO only recognizes the stages of gestation, growth, and adult maintenance. It's worth noting that while some products are labeled for a more specific use or life stage, such as “Senior” or for a specific size or breed, there is little scientific evidence as to the true dietary needs of these more specific uses, and no official regulations governing these types of statements.
Feeding directions and calories
Feeding directions are recommendations, not rules. How much of the product you feed should be based on your dog's specific calorie requirements, so you should also consult the calorie statement, expressed by weight in kcal/kg and measuring volume in kcal/cup.
Net product quantity
The quantity refers to product weight, liquid measure, or count, depending on the formulation of the food. Since products can vary in density (think wet vs. dry food), if you want to know how much a product costs, do a cost-per-weight comparison.
What you should be aware of
Let's go through the items that are not always as intuitive as they appear, and what they actually mean.
It’s food, but it’s not called food
The AAFCO regulation that governs the use of ingredients as brand names can be easily remembered as the 95-25-3 rule. Each of the 3 numbers signifies the percentage of the main ingredient referred to in the brand name.
The 95 rule refers to pet foods that are branded using an ingredient name followed by the word “food”, and requires that the product contains no less than 95% of that ingredient. In practice you won’t find any dry food that falls into that category as it would’t be nutritionally balanced. The few products that fall within the 95% rule are canned pet foods that are intended for supplemental feeding or treats.
The 25 rule allows the use of what AAFCO refers to as “qualifying terms,” which are synonyms for the word food. The qualifying terms allowed to be used in conjunction with the major ingredient (“salmon” or ‘chicken”) include “dinner,” “entrée,” “recipe” or “formula”. Basically anything other than the word “food”. So a product called “Gourmet Chicken Formula” is required to contain at least 25% chicken prior to processing.
The final 3% rule has to do with the simple word: “with” in the product name. If a pet food label contains that word in its product name, the product is required to have only 3% of the ingredient in the formulation at the time of processing, as in “Taste of the Wild Formula with Salmon”. For decency’s sake, such small amount of salmon should be considered a “trace” rather than a main ingredient.
Since most dog owners are not familiar with these regulations, it's fair to say that pet food product naming is by design misleading.
Ingredient list: There’s a catch
Dry food is either produced by extrusion or baking. Most dry dog foods are of the extruded type, an industrial process that uses very high heat and pressure to create an air-popped kibble similar to your breakfast cereals. The water content in the ingredients is drastically reduced by the heat.
All included ingredients must be listed in decreasing preponderance by weight on the product’s label. This means that ingredients listed first are present in the highest amount.
Here’s the catch: The weight of each ingredient includes the amount of water present in the ingredient before processing. Since some ingredients contain a lot of water (up to 70% for fresh meat) while others contain very little (12% or less), the result is that an ingredient that's listed first may appear to be the most important component of the food as reflected in the brand name ("Happy Pet Salmon Formula”) when in effect it contributed a lot of water, and much less in the way of essential nutrients in the final product.
For example, whole chicken is approximately 70% water, which means that the chicken “recipe”, “dinner” or “formula” that constitutes a minimum of 25% of the original ingredients is greatly reduced by heat. As a result, although the chicken is listed first on the label, its proportion in the final product is between 9 to 12%, and only a small quantity of the chicken meat provides protein to the food.
The 6 rules of dog food labels
Use the following guidelines to read food labels with a more objective perspective:
Rule #1: It’s all in the product name
If you wish to feed your dog a chicken, lamb, or salmon based food, look for one of AAFCO’s qualifying terms (dinner, recipe, formula) in the product or brand name that guarantees a minimum 25% meat content (before processing), and avoid brands with the preposition “with” in the name.
Rule #2: Ignore the pictures and the claims
Marketing claims are ploys designed to influence our choice. They go hand in hand with enticing photos and play on emotional registries such as our dogs’ health and welfare.
You should know that food companies may include general health claims such as “promotes healthy immune system” on their labels without any requirement for scientific substantiation, which makes these claims meaningless.
Terms like, “natural”, “holistic” or “organic” are also vague and loosely regulated. The same applies to claims about the suitability of the food for specific uses (breed, life stage). Also, you should know that the claim “Veterinarian Recommended” has no standardized meaning or regulatory oversight.
These claims leave a lot of leeway for creative marketing. Trust them at your peril. If you want to be rational about the choice of food you buy for your dog, skip the prominent claims, ignore the glossy photographs and go straight to the most important part, the ingredient list.
Rule #3: Start with the ingredient list
The 7 categories of nutrients for animals are water, energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Dry pet food is supposed to be "nutritionally balanced", although ingredients, proportions, calories, and nutrient compositions vary greatly between brands and products.
As we've seen, ingredients are listed in order of prominence, by weight before processing. As a rule of thumb, the first 5 ingredients in the ingredient list provide 80% or more of the food’s nutrients. The most important in these nutrients are the sources of protein.
Note that the ingredient list does not provide any information about the quality or origin of the ingredients.
Rule #4: Follow the proteins
How are protein sources labeled?
Animal-based ingredients are classified as either “fresh” (most often frozen) or “rendered,” which really means processed and dried into what's commonly called a “meal” (as in "chicken meal").
When a high-moisture (water) protein ingredient (salmon, chicken) is listed first on the ingredient list of a dry food, keep reading and pay attention to the dry protein sources that immediately follow on the list, typically labeled “meal”. Remember the 95-25-3 rule and the fact that extrusion removes moisture. In almost all cases the “meal” is going to be the main protein source in the food.
If you read "chicken" first on the ingredient list, followed by "chicken meal", don't assume that the first ingredient is of higher quality than the meal. The “fresh” meat is often the same product that was used to produce the dried meal, and could even be of lesser nutritional value at the end of the processing.
When the meat or poultry meal is produced from a single animal source (chicken, beef, lamb, salmon etc.) the ingredient will carry that name (chicken meal, salmon meal, etc.). Alternatively, you’ll find the generic terms of “meat meal”, “poultry meal” or “fish meal”, which means the protein source originates from a combination of animal species within that group. These generic group meals are likely to be of lower quality as protein sources than named animal meals.
Rule #5: Count the calories
One of the most common health issue in domestic dogs is obesity, and energy balance should be of primary concern, specifically how many calories you should feed daily. Energy (calories) come from proteins, digestible carbohydrates (starches) and fats, but all calories are not equal.
Lifestyle differences affect a dog’s daily energy needs. The number of calories required depends on the age, breed, health condition, and activity levels of your dog.
You should refer to your vet, or to a nutritionist for the weight and caloric guidelines for your dog, and apply these guidelines to calculate the daily amount you need to feed (per serving, or better per weight of food, as kibble density varies). Remember that the feeding instructions on the label are generic recommendations that might not be right for your dog.
Rule #6: Consider inclusion claims with caution
Inclusion claims are declarations on a food’s label that the food contains a desirable ingredient or nutrient. These claims that can be helpful to identify specific types of protein or carbohydrate sources (grain or non-grain), or the type of fatty acids present in the food.
Bear in mind that claims regarding grain-free or omega-3 fatty acids are often a matter of personal opinion or preferences. They're not substantiated by sound scientific evidence.
It's also worth remembering that all dry foods contain antioxidants, fiber sources and vitamins, therefore claims pertaining to these can be safely ignored.
A balanced and complete diet should however contain 3 to 5% fiber, although you should aim for the lower levels if you feed a small breed.
Digestibility of food is also an important factor, especially when it comes to starches. Although many pet food manufacturers make claims about their product “high digestibility” levels, almost none actually report digestibility values on their food labels.
When choosing dog food, remember that the type of food, nutrients, and quantity to feed need to be appropriate for your dog’s life stage, activity and breed. Get professional nutrition advice for your dog's daily caloric needs, and keep him lean and active.
Try to vary the protein sources, and make sure to avoid any product including the word “with” in the name. Select products containing a single animal source, also listed as a “meal” in the ingredients.
Above all, ignore the marketing claims and keep your critical skills sharpened.