How To Read Their Hidden Message
Dog food labels are important as dog foods come in all sorts of packaging. Practically every kibble and can displays a happy, healthy animal or brags about the quality ingredients.
But while you can sometimes glean helpful information from the front of the package (more about that later), the food label is the place to look if you want to find out what you’re feeding your dog. Pool Team Name
Unfortunately, even reading the dog food label isn’t particularly helpful unless you know what to look for.
This part is designed to help you gain an understanding of what different terms mean, how to interpret an ingredients list (it’s really not as straightforward as it sounds)
and what sort of regulations govern the different claims made on dog food labels and packaging.
Here is what you can find on this page:
How Dog Food Labels Are Regulated?
What’s in a Name?
How to Read the Ingredients Section on Dog Food Labels
How The Dog Food Labels Can Be Manipulated?
Guaranteed Analysis – What Does This Mean?
1 – How Dog Food Labels Are Regulated
Before you start perusing the ingredients list of prospective dog foods, it’s worth knowing exactly what regulatory bodies govern dog food labels and how they operate (for US).
There are two groups that oversee dog food labels and packaging, the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and the Association of American Feed Control Office (AAFCO).
The CVM is part of the FDA and possesses legally binding authority. Their primary purpose is to evaluate “the safety and effectiveness of drugs used to treat more than 100 million companion animals.”
With regard to dog food labels, however, they only require that each dog food label contains the following:
The AAFCO has more specific guidelines. It’s important to note exactly what the AAFCO is.
The AAFCO is a quasi-governmental agency including both federal and state officials as well as members of the industry. They have no direct enforcement power,
but most states have adopted the AAFCO standards.
Because no dog food company wants to (or would find it cost effective) to make different products for different states, AAFCO standards essentially govern the labeling of dog and other pet foods.
AAFCO standards govern the following:
While AAFCO standards are certainly better than nothing, they are worded in a way that allows lower quality food manufacturers to make their products look better than they really are.
At least to those who haven’t yet mastered the art of interpreting dog food labels.
For those who have mastered the art, however, these labeling standards can provide a great deal of valuable information.
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2 – What’s in a Name?
Remember I said you could tell some things from the front of the package? Believe it or not, the product’s name often indicates what minimum standards a given food must meet.
Take the example of the following hypothetical dog foods, respectively named:
Astounding Chicken and Rice Dog Food
Astounding Chicken and Rice Dinner for Dogs
Astounding Dog Food with Chicken
Astounding Dog Food with Real Chicken Flavor
These foods must meet completely different requirements based solely on their names:
The 95% standard. Foods named “Chicken Dog Food” or “Beef for Dogs” must contain a wet weight of 95% and a dry weight of 70% of the named ingredient.
If you look carefully, you will notice that practically no dog foods are named this way. And yes, very small variations suddenly put the food in an entirely different category.
For purposes of this standard, ignore phrases such as “and rice.” Named non-meat ingredients are not covered by this standard, though they are required to be a detectable presence in the dog food.
The 25% standard. Most dog foods fall into this category. If you see a food called “Chicken and Rice Formula” or “Beef Dinner” or “Roast Duck Entree” or any similar variation including the words “formula,” “dinner,” “recipe,” or “entree,” you know that the wet weight of the named meat falls somewhere between 25% and 95% of the total product weight.
In dry dog foods, the actual weight after cooking or dehydrating could be considerably less.
The 3% standard. You’ve just bought the newly released product named “Astounding Dog Food, Now with Real Chicken!” Congratulations! You are feeding your dog a food with a guaranteed weight of at least 3% chicken! Though if you are only looking for a small amount of a product for flavoring purposes, you can be assured that “Astounding Chicken Formula with Cheese” will contain 3% cheese and not just cheese flavoring. And speaking of flavoring . . .
The “flavor” standard. No percentage of an ingredient is required by this standard, so long as a detectable trace of the product exists.
If you buy a food that says “with beef and cheese flavoring,” you are probably buying something with a few specks of beef and cheese,
while some other ingredients, possibly artificial, provide the flavoring.
Finally, a few words about the terms “stew,” “in sauce,” and “in gravy.” Normally, the maximum allowable moisture content for pet food is 78%.
But when these phrases are used in the name, the food may contain up to 87.5% moisture.
Also, foods in the “stew” or “in gravy” category have had a higher than normal rate of recall in the past.
If you choose to buy these foods, it might be wise to make the extra effort to find out if the manufacturing plants they were produced at were involved in a recall.
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3 – How to Read the Ingredients Section on Dog Food Labels
In some ways, the dog food label ingredients list is a useful, straightforward tool for determining what is in a given food.
Dog food manufacturers are required to list every ingredient in order of weight.
The ingredient comprising the greatest percentage of the dog food by weight is listed first, and so on down to the added vitamins and minerals and preservatives at the bottom.
A couple of tips will help you get even more out of the ingredients list.
The first ten listed ingredients typically make up more than 80% of the total content of dry dog foods.
Even more reliable as far as indicators go is the advice to look for the first named source of fat on the ingredient list. Whatever ingredients are listed before this fat,
along with the fat itself, usually make up the majority of the dog food.
Ingredients listed after the first fat source tend to be present only in small amounts.
In the case of flavoring, preservatives, and various supplements, it is to be expected that they are near the bottom of the list, because only very small amounts of these ingredients are needed.
But if you see a supposed meat source listed after “chicken fat,” you can safely assume there isn’t enough of this meat to matter for nutritional purposes.
In a quality dog food, the first listed item should be meat. Ideally, you would expect the first two, or at least two of the first four ingredients to be quality meat sources.
By quality meat sources I mean either a whole food fresh meat source such as “beef” or “turkey,” or a meat meal from a specific animal species such as “chicken meal” or “lamb meal” .
Meat by-products, on the other hand, vary greatly in quality and content.
You may wish to avoid dog foods with meat by-products altogether. At the very least, they should never be a primary source of meat protein.
If your dog’s food does contain by-products, make sure they are derived from named meat sources, not generics such as “meat and bone meal” or “poultry by-products.” “Chicken by-products” include feet, beaks, and other less desirable parts of the bird.
Sadly, by-products can also include much more undesirable items like tumors, which is why you might wish to avoid foods containing them.
Finally, natural preservatives are of course preferable to artificial ones. Look for vitamin E (frequently listed as “mixed tocopherols”),
and avoid foods preserved with potential health hazards such as BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin.
Unfortunately dog food manufacturers are required to list only the preservatives they have added themselves.
It is possible that a food contains chemical preservatives although none are listed on the label, because the dog food manufacturer purchased meat or fish meals that were synthetically preserved by their supplier.
For instance, nearly all fish meal is preserved with ethoxyquin due to US Coast Guard regulations requiring preservation with ethoxyquin unless a company has a special permit allowing them to use a different antioxidant.
If this concerns you, I suggest you contact the manufacturer of your naturally preserved dog food and ask them if they guarantee that none of the included meat and fish meals were synthetically preserved by their suppliers.
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4 – How The Dog Food Labels Can Be Manipulated
As mentioned earlier, the AAFCO standards allow room for deceptive practices when it comes to dog food labels.
A food may list “chicken meal” or “lamb meal” as the first named ingredient, yet still be made up primarily of grains and grain fractions.
For example, if a dog food label reads “chicken meal, ground wheat, wheat gluten, brewer’s rice, wheat bran, ground corn, corn gluten, poultry fat,
” you can be certain that you are looking at a grain-based food, and one using poor quality grain sources at that.
Wheat would be the primary ingredient, followed by chicken meal, but because the manufacturer split the wheat up into three separate items, they were able to list the chicken meal first.
This practice is known as ingredient splitting.
Another thing to watch out for is that ingredients are listed in order by weight, but it’s the pre-processing weight that is used.
Fresh meat contains about 70% water, while grains and meat meals contain very little moisture.
When kibble is processed, nearly all the moisture is removed, so a dry dog food with an ingredient list that reads
“chicken, corn meal, chicken by-product meal” will actually contain more corn and chicken by-products than chicken muscle meat.
This is not to say that fresh meats are bad ingredients.
On the contrary, fresh meats are less processed and provide higher quality protein than meats in meal form.
However, since fresh meats are primarily water, look for kibbles that either contain multiple fresh meat sources
at the top of the ingredient list or that combine fresh meats with high quality meat meals (i.e., meat meals derived from whole meat sources, not by-products).
Dog food manufacturers know that consumers have learned to look for foods that list a meat source as the first ingredient,
and they’re constantly coming up with clever ways to disguise their grain-based foods to make them appear meat-based.
Don’t fall for their tricks!
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5 – Guaranteed Analysis – What Does This Mean?
In the guaranteed analysis panel of your dog food label, the law requires the dog food manufacturer to list the minimum levels of crude protein and fat and the maximum levels of fiber and water.
While this information is a start, it means less than you might expect.
Because protein and fat levels are expressed as minimums, foods may contain significantly more protein and especially fat than stated on the dog food label.
This can be a problem for dogs who need a diet with reduced protein or fat content for health reasons.
Canned foods are more likely than kibbles to contain significantly more fat than their guaranteed analysis leads you to believe due to the fact that they consist primarily of fresh meats.
Some canned dog foods–including some sold as “reduced fat” formulas–actually contain double the amount of fat listed on their guaranteed analysis!
How much of those amounts are actually available to your dog depends on the quality of the ingredients and, to a slightly lesser extent, the processing method.
There is no requirement that the protein and fat be from digestible sources.
To make a point about how unreliable current labeling requirements are, a pet food manufacturer once made a mock canned product with a guaranteed analysis of 10% protein, 6.5% fat, 2.4% fiber, and 68% moisture,
The ingredients used to produce this guaranteed analysis consisted of old leather work boots, used motor oil, crushed coal, and water!
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6 – Feeding Recommendations
These recommendations can give you a rough idea of how much you will need to feed compared to other products. This can give you a general idea of the quality of the food.
Unfortunately feeding recommendations are also subject to manufacturer manipulation.
Depending on whether a manufacturer is trying to sell more product or make their product appear more economical and of higher quality,
feeding recommendations may be higher or lower than they should be.
Most manufacturers seem to err on the side of selling more product, which means that many dogs need less food than the guidelines recommend.
A few may need more.
It’s a good idea to start out feeding somewhat less than what the manufacturer recommends and see how your dog fares. You can adjust amounts based on whether your dog seems to be gaining or losing weight.
If you start out feeding very close to the recommended guideline, you will probably have to adjust downward.
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