Food Ingredients: How To Read A Label & Choose a Good Dry Food
We love our dogs and cats and only want what’s best for them so they can live long healthy lives. But, what is best for yours? With the ever-expanding brands and types of foods growing, it can be confusing to find just the “right” food. I hope to break it down to help you make informed decisions for your pets.
To begin, I would like to explain a little about ingredients, but to do this, it’s important to know that the pet food industry is not regulated the way human food is regulated. In fact, there is not one organization fully overseeing the production of pet food from beginning to end. The Association of American Feed Control, or AAFCO, is the most involved. They have defined what ingredients are considered “acceptable” and are involved in labeling of ingredients as well as setting minimum standards for the amount of protein, fat, moisture and fiber content.
AAFCO website states that “AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way” but does “establish the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company’s responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.
State feed control officials are tasked with ensuring that pet food produced in their state follows the laws and rules established by their state so that “only unadulterated, correctly and uniformly labeled pet food products are distributed in the marketplace and structure for orderly commerce.” With the main focus on accurate labeling and ingredients approved in the state, how does a pet owner know that the food they’ve chosen has quality ingredients?
It’s my opinion that the quality of ingredients is the absolute most important factor in choosing a pet food, and that is why stores like mine all over the country will not carry any food that contains:
- Animal by-products
- Artificial colors
- Artificial flavors
- Artificial preservatives
- Fillers such as corn, corn gluten, wheat, wheat gluten or soy products
The next most important factor I look at when choosing a pet food is finding foods that use high-quality animal protein as the main ingredients over protein fillers and carbohydrates.
Food labels are listed in order of weight, with the heaviest ingredient listed first, the next heaviest second, and so on. I wanted to share labels of two popular foods. The first one is from a large, well-known pet food manufacturer that can be found at most big box stores, including Petsmart and grocery stores. The second label is from a popular natural brand that can be found at most independent, smaller pet supply stores.
Label #1: Chicken & Rice Adult Dog Food-Popular big brand
(Main ingredients, not including vitamins and minerals) Chicken, whole grain wheat, poultry by-product meal, rice, corn gluten meal, barley, beef fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols, oatmeal, dried egg product, dried beet pulp, fish oil, natural flavor, L-Arginine, calcium carbonate, fish meal, mono and dicalcium phosphate, salt, potassium chloride…
30 lb. bag – $73.98
40lb dog would eat 2.5 cups a day
Label #2: Chicken & Rice Adult Dog Food-Popular small brand
(Main ingredients, not including vitamins and minerals) Chicken, chicken meal, brown rice, barley, chicken fat (preserved with tocopherols and citric acid), oatmeal, menhaden fish meal (a source of fish oil), natural turkey and chicken flavor, dried plain beet pulp, flax seed, potassium chloride, brewers dried yeast, salt, DL-methionine, choline chloride.
30 lb. bag – $55.99
40lb dog would eat 1.75 cups a day
Keeping in mind that the ingredients are listed in order by weight, it’s easy to see that Label #1 contains wheat as its second heaviest ingredient compared to chicken meal as the second heaviest ingredient in Label #2. Label #1 uses by-products, and Label #2 uses three sources of animal proteins, all free of by-products. The food from Label #1 is significantly more expensive and requires the dog to eat more food to get the calories needed than Label #2, thus, Label #2 contains more high-quality protein and is significantly less expensive.
Label analysis doesn’t tell the whole story, but it’s a really good way to start and can give you a good idea of what you are paying for when purchasing a dry food. In addition to label reading, it is becoming more common to change out foods and give your pets more variety. We regularly help our clients choose new proteins and brands, as this can help prevent boredom and, in many cases, help the pet’s gut microbiome, which can then lead to improved overall health. However, we do not recommend doing this quickly, which can overwhelm their digestive systems and cause gas, bloating and runny stools, but over the course of 4-7 days. Of course, if your pet is on a special diet, please do not do this without talking with your veterinarian first.