The Secret to Reading Dog Food Labels


Woman choosing dog food

Looking at the back of dog food packaging can be overwhelming — all the long words and numbers written in the smallest font possible are enough to make you want to turn the can around and look at the picture of the happy-looking dog on the front instead.

However, all responsible dog parents should be able to navigate this mass of information — and disinformation — to know what they’re serving up to their pets every day. That’s why we’ve put together this explainer to make it all clear.

Product Name

This is most likely to be one of the easiest things to locate and you’d be well within your rights to think it’s a fairly self-explanatory description of what can be found inside. However, manufacturers have been known to use a bit of linguistic subterfuge to disguise the real contents.

Thankfully, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — the government department in charge of regulating the pet food industry — has set a few rules as to what phrasing can be legitimately used.

The 95% Rule

If a producer calls a recipe something straightforward like ‘beef dog food’ or ‘chicken dog food’, that recipe must contain at least 95% beef or chicken by weight. This quantity excludes water and when this is added back into the equation, the named ingredient must make up 70% of the content’s weight.

This rule also applies when there are two named ingredients — for example, beef and liver dog food — but the ingredient appearing first must be the one that’s higher in quantity.

The 25% Rule

Now 95% is quite a big target to hit and one that many high-quality recipes might not meet. In these circumstances, you might see certain qualifying terms used in the name — things like lamb dinner, salmon platter or chicken entrée. Formula and recipe are often used in this context, too.

By law, a manufacturer must use this styling when the named ingredient includes anything less than 95% by weight but more than 25% (again, this figure excludes water and changes to 10% when it’s re-added).

The ‘With’ Rule

Now here’s where things get a little sneaky. Say you see a product called ‘dog food with venison’, how much venison do you think needs to be included? Only 3%. What makes up the 97%, you ask? In some cases, you probably wish you hadn’t asked.

However, there’s an even worse offender when it comes to dog food names — read on if you dare…

The Flavor Rule

Pick up a can that reads as ‘turkey flavor dog food’ and you’d expect it to include at least some part turkey. Well, it does, but only enough to impart its taste to a specially trained tasting animal.

We could be talking about seriously microscopic quantities of turkey here and even then, it could be from mysterious sources such as meal and by-products. This is definitely one to avoid.

Other Descriptors

As well as named ingredients, pet food manufacturers are no strangers to littering titles with positive-sounding adjectives. However, some of these are meaningless, while others can only be used if certain standards are reached.

Natural

This is an increasingly fashionable word used to describe dog food and one that parents keen to avoid nasty artificial ingredients might be especially happy to see.

The FDA doesn’t monitor the term ‘natural’ in the same way as it does with named ingredients, but the AAFCO plays an important role in preventing disingenuous usage of the word.

The organization defines natural dog food as the following:

“a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices”

Now, the AAFCO as a body has no authority, but the majority of states have adopted the AAFCO Model Bill and Model Regulations which decree that pet food manufacturers must comply with this description should they want to use the word natural in the name.

Organic

Similarly, organic is another term sometimes spotted on pet food packaging and again, this means the product inside must meet certain criteria.

Any food labeled as organic needs to comply with the criteria set out in the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program. At the moment, these rules are the same for human food as they are for pets’.

The USDA is quite strict on this front and carries out regular enforcement, so you can be fairly sure any pet food labeled as organic is just that.

Low-fat/calories/lite/lean

This is altogether more slippery terrain. There’s no legally enforced benchmark that self-proclaimed healthier dog foods need to meet in order to label themselves as such.

The only thing that the AAFCO Model Regulations (which remember, not all states have adopted) say on the topic is that the claims should not be false or misleading.

If parents want to be properly sure of a dog food’s nutritious content, they need to inspect the figures on the back of the packaging (which we’ll teach you how to do below) or lean on the expertise of a trusted authority on the subject — such as ourselves!

Gourmet/Premium

There are a lot of parents out there who want to be reassured their dogs are eating the crème de la crème of pet food, so it’s only understandable if their heads are turned by products claiming to be gourmet, premium or some equally fancy term.

We have news for you — this is all marketing. Again, the only way you can tell if a product is truly outstanding is by looking at the ingredient list or casting an eye over our meticulously researched lists.

Human-grade

Similar to gourmet or premium, human-grade is another descriptor that actually means very little when you delve a little deeper.

The AAFCO states ‘human-grade’ has no definition in animal-feed regulations. Instead, the term is used by manufacturers to boast of the quality of their ingredients — i.e. meeting the strict standards set for human food.

As already mentioned, dog food is subject to strict regulation by the FDA already, so the ingredients will have already been judged safe for canine consumption.

What’s more, it doesn’t automatically follow that ‘human-grade’ means better. For starters, there are lots of foodstuffs and ingredients that humans can eat which are not good for a dog’s insides — chocolate and peanuts, for example.

Similarly, think of all the highly-processed and dubiously-sourced products you can find in your local supermarket that have been designed for humans, and contrast these against some of the top-quality dog food recipes which are inedible for humans.

Again, parents can beat this marketing bluster by inspecting the ingredient list themselves and weighing up the quality of the recipe in comparison to others.

Ingredients

In the AAFCO’s Model Regulations that many states have adopted into their law books, there’s a requirement for pet food manufacturers to include a comprehensive list of ingredients on the packaging. We probably don’t need to tell you to be highly suspicious of any products for which this is missing.

For the vast majority of dog food, it will be present and these will be written in descending order by pre-cooked weight (i.e. the predominant ingredient first, followed by the second-most predominant, and so on).

In the states that have adopted the AAFCO’s Model Regulations, all of the ingredients must be one of the following:

  • A substance found on the organization’s database of defined ingredients
  • A well-known foodstuff listed on its Common Food Index
  • A substance recognised as Generally Recognized as Safe by the FDA
  • An approved food additive in 21 CFR 573.

Guaranteed Analysis

OK, so you’ve read the ingredient list, but it’s hard to tell from these words alone how nutritious the recipe is. This is where the Guaranteed Analysis comes in handy.

Another of the AAFCO’s recommendations adopted into many state laws, the Guaranteed Analysis outlines the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, plus the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. This is usually calculated in third-party laboratories.

This information is useful as it can tell parents at a glance if a food is really high in protein or low in fat. These metrics can also be used to calculate the fat-to-protein ratio (FPR), which is a useful indicator of how much unhealthy fatty meat is used in the recipe. We work out this figure for every dog food product we review and publish it against the industry averages.

AAFCO Nutrient Profiles

Another quick way to check the quality of dog food from its packaging is by checking if it meets one of the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles.

These are the required ingredients and nutrient levels the AAFCO has decided dogs need for a complete and balanced diet. It’s up to pet food manufacturers to independently test their products against these criteria and if they meet them, a statement can be printed on the packaging.

This usually reads as “(Name of food) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for (nutrient profile).”

Currently, there are three nutrient profiles: All Life Stages, for pets at every age; Growth and Reproduction, suitable for expectant mothers and newborn puppies; and Adult Maintenance, for grown-up canines.

Feeding Directions

Once you’re confident the contents of the packet are worthy of your dog’s tummy, the next thing to work out is how much to give them, something complicated by the fact that each dog is unique — a Great Dane wouldn’t be too happy with a Pomeranian-sized portion.

Helpfully, the AAFCO recommends pet food manufacturers should include a section outlining the suggested amount to give to dogs throughout the day, often distinguishing between pets of different sizes and ages.

However, it’s important to remember that these are only educated guesses and there’s a range of other factors you should take into consideration when it comes to weighing up their dinner, everything from breed and temperament, to their current health and the time of year.

If you’re ever unsure of the correct amount of food to serve your dog, your vet will be able to offer professional guidance on the topic.

Manufacturer’s Name and Contact Details

Another AAFCO requirement is for the manufacturer’s name and contact details to be visible on the packaging. If this is missing — which will be illegal in some territories — ask yourself why a company might wish to hide away and look for an alternative instead.

And remember this…

It’s best practice to keep hold of dog food packaging even if you decant the contents into another container, as you might need those contact details or the ingredients if your dog gets sick or has an allergic reaction, or you might need the batch number if there’s a recall.



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