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10 Key Things to Understand when Reading Your Dog’s Food Label

By Lis on
July 15th, 2015

More and more, people have become accustomed to checking the nutrition facts on the packaging of their foods. We obsess over calorie counts, grams of sugar, and vitamins in our own diets. What about when it comes to our pets?

The label on the back of the bag is one of the most important resources when choosing the best food for your dog; but first you have to know what you’re looking for.

Here is what I pay attention to when judging the quality and value of a bag of dog food:

1. The Ingredients List

The ingredients list should be your first stop, and there are 2 major concepts to understand here. First, according the the rules of the FDA, “All ingredients are required to be listed in order of predominance by weight.” So if the front of the bag claims to be a chicken formula, that first ingredient better be chicken (and preferably the second ingredient as well— like “chicken, chicken meal, etc.”)

This means that there is a higher percentage of chicken than any other ingredient in that diet, which is exactly what we want! A biologically appropriate diet means high meat content.

But beware! One of the pet food industry’s favorite things to do is to list a meat, like chicken, as the first ingredient, and then list four different types of corn, wheat, rice, or soy as the next five ingredients.

Thus, the second major tenet of reading the ingredients lists: duplicates. For example, there are multiple names for corn, such as: whole ground corn, corn gluten meal, corn syrup, and sometimes just corn. In truth, they are all really the same cheap filler.

In most lower-quality dog foods, if all the corn products were just combined into “corn,” it generally would outweigh the meats and be the first ingredient on the list. When the food manufacturer decides to list it as multiple items, they get to break up a higher percentage of weight into multiple percentages. This trick skews the rankings of the ingredients.

Premium dog foods like Orijen often have meats sitting in the first 10-or-so slots of the ingredients list. That’s how you know the food is a meat-based diet, and thus of greater benefit to your dog.

2. Grains and Carbohydrates

Dogs do not have biological requirement for grains. They just don’t require those kinds of sugar (simple or complex carbohydrates) from grains in their diet. It’s better to have dog foods with low grains, low carbohydrates, and more meats.

With this in mind, the ideal diet for your dog will not have potatoes, peas, corn, wheat, or soy products in the top five slots (at least) on their ingredients list. They descend from wolves— they need meat!

3. Animal Byproducts & Animal Digest

When it comes to animal byproducts, you don’t want any. Pure and simple. Your dog deserves better than scraps of meat mixed with corn and other grains. Your dog deserves muscles, and organs, and bones from clean sources. Just like the wolf in them craves.

Animal Digest is even more of a red flag. This vague term refers to a soup of unspecified animals from various sources that are not suitable for human consumption. It’s a “digest” of meats. While this does make poor-quality kibble taste better, we recommend avoiding it.

Here’s a detailed article about why by-products and animal digest are things to avoid.

4. Added Sugars and Syrups

Dogs do not need extra sugars or syrups to sweeten their foods. These just seemingly make them more appetizing to dogs to eat, because who doesn’t like sugar? Dog enjoy it as much as humans— that doesn’t make it healthy or either or us. It makes us feel good temporarily; however, just like dogs don’t need carbohydrates, which are converted into sugars, they don’t need sugars at all.

5. Unlabeled/Non-specific Meat Products

Any meat that isn’t defined is questionable, and can change from batch to batch of a dog food. For example, a “fish” meal can be ANY type of fish. It doesn’t say. It could be whatever is cheapest that day at the market, it could be a combination of fish. So, if you’ve got a dog with a sensitive stomach, this could cause issues from bag to bag. Also, things labeled simply “ANIMAL” are just the lowest of the low. “Animal meat,” or “animal meat byproduct” means that meat can be anything at all. If label isn’t specific, beware.

6. Meat vs. Meal

To meal or not to meal, that is the question. Now just to clear some things up: meat meals are NOT necessarily a bad thing! In a lot of cases I like their inclusion into a diet.

Meat meals are a dried meat product, i.e. pure protein product. Muscle meat, on the other hand, is about 60-75% water. So, referring to what we learned in the first point about dog food ingredients being listed by weight: the water content of a listed meat can cause it to outweigh other ingredients, thus unfairly manipulating the ingredients ranking. It’s possible that the weight of the “chicken” in that first ingredient spot includes the water weight in the muscle! Meat meal has been dried and then weighed, so its placement on the ingredient list is usually fairly accurate as to how much of it is in the food.

The downside to meat meal is that it inherently undergoes more processing by being cooked twice and ground. As such, meal also undergoes less quality control as far as the grade of meat that is made into meal.

Dog food formulations that meet AAFCO standards cannot have a single meat equate to more than 35% of a recipe; however, there are no such standards for the inclusions of a meal, making it possible for higher meat inclusion kibbles. I personally prefer multiple meat inclusions in a diet— unless you have a Limited-Ingredient-Diet dog. In which case, meals may be preferred for you to get more meat in your diets.

7. Prebiotics vs. Probiotics

Probiotics are great! It’s always beneficial to include them in your canine’s diet, so it makes me happy to see them on labels. But labels, as we are learning, can be deceiving.

Just because they put those nice fermentation products in their foods, doesn’t mean that by the end of the manufacturing process of the kibble that those happy little bacteria are still alive and useful.

What is kibble? Cooked. What kills bacteria? Cooking.

Some dog food companies avoid killing useful bacteria by mix their probiotics after cooking, but in the process of making kibble, it’s usually cooked twice. Unless the label guarantees the living amount of microflora on the label, then they are not guaranteed to have any use to your pet whatsoever.

The best advice I can give here is to supplement probiotics yourself with a chewy treat, powder, or spray which has a guaranteed analysis for such microorganisms.

Science Corner: Sugars

“Saccharide” means a sugar, and in the case of fructo- or galacto- saccharides, it means “fructose” or “galactose” molecules (simple sugar molecules) respectively. “Oligo-” means few. So, when you put them together in “oligosacharrides,” it means a “few sugar molecules.”

Prebiotics just help facilitate a healthy bacterial load in the intestines. They help the probiotics work. To find them on the label, look for long sugar names: typically a long oligosaccharide, like fructo-oligosaccharides, or as inulin or chicory root additives. Things like chicory root or other sources of inulin double as good fiber and prebiotics by containing these oligosaccharides.

8. Artificial Colors or Ingredients

Any dog food worth its snuff should not have artificial colors or flavors. Your dog is mostly colorblind. Yes, science has recently proven that they can see some variants of blues and greens, but those brightly colored kibbles and red, bacon-shaped treats are JUST FOR YOU. Your dog doesn’t care.

Plus, the majority of kibble diets include a chemical called Propylene Glycol as a solvent to mix the colored dyes into. Propylene Glycol is also used as a humectant to control the moisture content in many soft chewy treats. It’s even in some human foods (hide your kids, hide your wife.) If you don’t recognize it from food labels, perhaps you recognize it from your car’s antifreeze label. Propylene glycol is a jack of all trades, and to quote the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry:

Propylene glycol has been approved for use at certain levels in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products. If you eat food products, use cosmetics, or take medicines that contain it, you will be exposed to propylene glycol, but these amounts are not generally considered harmful.”

Yes, in small doses this may be okay, and our government assures us that it is a generally accepted as safe food additive— but should our dogs be eating it every day? In every meal? In every treat? And for what? Colored kibbles they can’t even see. Just stop the madness y’all.

9. Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis is one of the most important things to check on a dog food label. As the name implies, it guarantees the amounts of certain nutrients, vitamins, and minerals by laboratory analysis. It’s the best way to know exactly what nutrients are going into your dog, and in what amounts.

Reading a guaranteed analysis can be a little tricky, so pay attention to the “max” and “min” labels next to the nutrient values.

10. AAFCO Standards

Any dog food recommended on this site is guaranteed to meet AAFCO standards. What is AAFCO? The Association of American Feed Control Officials. They help set standards for feed, such as dog and cat feed. Feed is what you call diets that are acceptable for use in animals. It can’t hurt to dig a little deeper into what it is AAFCO actually does, but that’s a whole other post. Literally. Check it out.

Conclusion: Your dog deserves the best you can give.

Most notable dog food brands have their products’ full ingredients lists and guaranteed analysis online, making it easy to research on your own. Soon enough, our Best Dog Food Profiler will be able to do a lot of the work for you in this regard. Until then, use what you’ve learned here to make educated decisions about your dog’s diet. Let us know your thoughts in the comments— what’s in your dog’s bowl?

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