When it comes to understanding pet food labels, many pet parents have a difficult time, and I totally get it. I worked in veterinary medicine for years, and to this day I still have a hard time deciphering all that stuff on the label. Calcium gluconate, guar gum, monosodium phosphate… and what exactly is byproduct meal, anyway?
Pet nutrition is an incredibly complicated subject. That’s part of the reason why there’s currently so much controversy around which is the “best” food to feed your pet. Kibble or raw? Human grade, organic, natural? Dry or canned? Adding to the confusion is the fact that it seems there are new pet foods coming on the market almost weekly – all with their own marketing strategies, and all vying for our attention. It’s enough to make you want to pack up and move to the Serengeti.
To become an expert in veterinary nutrition takes 10+ years of higher education, writing and publishing your own medical journal, and passing a grueling set of written and oral exams. However, you don’t need a degree in veterinary nutrition to get a basic understanding of the information found on a pet food label. Here’s a high-level overview of what those labels are actually telling us.
Is The Food Nutritionally Complete?
For commercial pet foods, it’s always best to look for an AAFCO statement on the label. AAFCO stands for the “Association of American Feed Control Officials”, which is a group of voluntary members from federal, state, and local agencies that help regulate the sale and distribution of animal food and drugs.
AAFCO is not federally regulated; rather, it’s an association of members from several different countries whose goals are to ensure the protection of consumers while safeguarding the health of both animals and humans. In other words, they voluntarily help ensure consumer protection by making sure your pet’s food actually contains what the label says it does. The AAFCO statement on a bag of food means that the food in question has been formulated to be complete and nutritionally balanced based on animal feeding trials using AAFCO procedures.
What Are The Ingredients?
Here’s a little-known fact: the list of ingredients on the label is actually of little practical use when it comes to determining how much nutritional value the food itself truly contains. For example, wheat flour, wheat germ meal, and wheat bran are all derived from wheat, but they each provide different nutrients.
That being said, the ingredients themselves are still important, and it’s helpful to understand where they come from and how much of each is contained in the food. By law, all ingredients (including additives) must be listed on the label, and they are always listed in descending order by weight.
Now here’s where it gets tricky. The weight of the ingredient does not necessarily tell you the amount of that ingredient present in the food. Many pet food companies base their marketing strategies on the incorrect assumption that the first few ingredients listed on the label represent the total quantity of that ingredient in the food (for example, listing “chicken” as the first ingredient). This doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is mostly chicken. It just means the chicken that is present in the food weighs the most. Companies may also break down certain types of foods, like grains, into separate groups of smaller ingredients on the label to make their weights less. So if the first ingredient is chicken, and the next ones are ground corn, corn gluten, wheat flour, and wheat bran, these grains can all be listed as separate ingredients, but put together, the total grains could still far outweigh the total amount of chicken present in the food.
Certain ingredients can have a very big impact for pets with food allergies, so it’s always important to know exactly which ingredients are being used in order to avoid the specific ones that can cause problems for allergic pets.
Where Do Those Ingredients Actually Come From?
A great deal of confusion around commercial pet food often results from a misunderstanding of certain ingredients. Over the past year, this has been very apparent in the controversy surrounding the use of the term “by-products.”
Pet parents may believe that by-products are solely those parts of animals that are unusable and undesirable, like feathers, hooves, beaks, and heads. Although meat by-products may certainly contain these things, by definition by-products are clean parts of an animal other than whole meat. This can include lungs, kidneys, liver, hearts, tripe, and other internal organs that provide good sources of protein, amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
Here are some of the most common sources of nutrients in pet food, and where they come from:
- Meat. This is muscle tissue. It may or may not contain fat, along with portions of skin, nerves, blood vessels, and sinew.
- Meat by-products. These are clean parts of the animal other than muscle tissue. They may include some of the items previously mentioned above.
- Poultry. This is parts of the bird that you would find if you purchased a whole chicken or turkey from the grocery store. It may include bone, which is a source of calcium.
- Meat Meal. This is a product made from mammal tissues that have been cooked to destroy harmful bacteria and to remove water and fat, leaving mostly protein and minerals. Meal products are usually ground into smaller particles.
- Meat and Bone Meal. Similar to meat meal, but contains added bone.
- Animal By-product Meal. Similar to meat meal and meat and bone meal, but may contain additional by-products.
- Poultry Meal. This is the rendered part of the whole carcass and skin, with or without bone.
- Ground Corn. The entire corn kernel, ground or chopped.
- Corn Gluten Meal. This is the by-product after the manufacture of corn syrup and/or corn starch. It’s the dried residue after the bran, germ, and starch have been removed.
- Brewers Rice. These are small fragments of rice kernels that have been separated from larger kernels of milled rice.
Other ingredients may include:
- Vitamins and Minerals. Some of these are easy to understand, others may be more unfamiliar. Alpha-Tocopherol acetate supplies vitamin E, Thiamine mononitrate is a source of vitamin B1, Cholecalciferol supplies vitamin D from animal sources, Ergocalciferol supplies vitamin D from plant sources, and Pyridoxine hydrochloride is a source of vitamin B6. Ascorbic acid is the technical name for vitamin C, while phylloquinone is the term for vitamin K1.
- Preservatives. These are used to prevent food from becoming rancid. They may include natural preservatives like ascorbic acid, citric acid, and tocopherols, or chemical preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), tert-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ), propyl gallate, and ethoxyquin.
- Thickeners, flavoring, emulsifiers, and seasoning. Commonly used ingredients include carrageenan, agar-agar, sodium hexametaphosphate (to reduce dental tartar in dogs and cats), guar gum, and propylene glycol (used in dog food but prohibited in cat food due to its toxicity in cats).
What About Those Percentages – What Do They Mean?
AAFCO regulations require U.S. pet food manufacturers to include a “guaranteed analysis” that lists percentages of certain nutrients on their labels. These reflect a minimum or maximum percentage of each nutrient, including water or moisture, contained in the final product consumed by the pet.
There are only 4 things required to be listed on the Guaranteed Analysis: Crude Protein, Crude Fat, Crude Fiber, and Moisture. The problem is, these values are only estimates and tell you nothing about the quality of the food or its overall nutritional value. Certain calculations have to be applied, since dry food can differ from canned food because of the water (moisture) content, and these calculations can be extremely complicated. Check out Veterinary Nutritionist Dr. Lisa Weeth’s article What’s In A Name? for a more thorough understanding of Guaranteed Analysis values.
Why Don’t Pet Food Labels List Calories?
Today’s pet food labels were actually based on large animal feed labels, which didn’t legally require any mention of caloric content. However, AAFCO has since voted to make the inclusion of caloric content mandatory, so by January of 2017 we should be seeing calories listed not just on pet food labels, but also on pet treats.
So Let’s Get Down To Brass Tacks
What does all this information mean for you and your pet?
Here’s the thing: pet food labels provide a good starting point when it comes to deciding what to feed your pet, but they are just a starting point. Do your research and make the most informed decision possible. Think about what’s important to you when you read labels on the foods you yourself eat. Would you rather eat something naturally preserved with vitamins C and E, or a chemical with a name you can’t pronounce?
A few years ago, a class action lawsuit was filed against Purina’s Beneful brand of dog food. The suit stated that ingredients and contaminants in the food had made thousands of dogs sick, some of whom died. One of the ingredients in Beneful (and several other well-known commercial brands) was propylene glycol, a food additive used in human foods like salad dressing and baked goods to improve texture. However, it’s also used as a component of antifreeze, and has been found to be extremely toxic to cats. If an ingredient is deemed “safe when used appropriately” by the FDA, but still has the potential to cause harm, why risk it? There are many other commercial pet foods to choose from that don’t use artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.
If you have questions about the information on a pet food label, contact the manufacturer of the food and don’t be afraid to ask questions until you receive the information you’re looking for. For more information on pet food labels, you can also visit the FDA website.
So what’s the best food to feed your dog or cat? The truth is, there is no one “best” food for all dogs or cats. Some pets do well on a raw diet, some thrive on a rotational diet of different types of foods, while others eat commercial pet food for their entire lives and live to ripe old ages.
If your dog or cat is healthy and has no medical conditions that require a special diet, the only two hard and fast recommendations that I’m aware of are these: puppies and kittens need food especially formulated for their rapidly growing bodies, and cats do best on a diet of either exclusively canned commercial food or a mixture of canned food and kibble (due to their need for the amino acid taurine and a high amount of water in their food). Beyond that, if you want to make sure you’re feeding a healthy diet to your pet, read pet food labels carefully, do your research, and ask lots of questions if something isn’t clear. Your pets will thank you for it!
Do you feed your pet commercial pet food? If so, how did you choose what you’re feeding? Please share with us in the comments below!