How to Read & Understand Pet Food Labels
Pet food labels are confusing. They are hard to understand, include all kinds of unfamiliar terms, and can often be misleading to make it seem like a food is “all-natural” or “holistic” when, in fact, it is highly processed, contains low quality ingredients, and is deficient in many essential nutrients. So how do you know what you are really feeding your dog?
The first thing is to know how to read the ingredient list and “decode” any tricky marketing tactics.
• The first ingredient may not be the main ingredient. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, which is determined before processing. Meat is about 75% water, so when the moisture is removed, the meat would be much further down on the list. That’s why claims of “meat as the #1 ingredient” are deceptive.
• Meat meals can be a high-quality ingredient because the water has already been removed. However, be sure that it is a named animal meal, like chicken meal or lamb meal. When the source of meat protein is not specified – like poultry meal, fish meal, or meat meal - it likely comes from rendered meats, which can be sourced from dead, diseased, dying, or destroyed animals (4-D meat).
• Look for high quality oils like olive oil or salmon oil rather than vegetable oils like canola or soybean oil.
• Avoid soy, corn, and wheat.
• Grain-free is not necessarily any healthier or better than those with grains. It’s often just a marketing term and the grain is replaced with potatoes, chickpeas, lentils, peas etc.
• Certain dog food ingredients should NEVER be in pet food. These include: BHA/BHT, artificial colors & flavors, animal digest, carrageenan, cellulose and caramel color.
• Ingredient splitting is the deceptive practice of dividing a more abundant, yet inferior quality, ingredient into different categories. For example, a label might list peas, pea flour, pea fiber and pea protein. If all of these pea ingredients were combined, it might be the #1 ingredient instead of meat.
• The guaranteed analysis panel shows the percentages of protein, fat, moisture and fiber. Realize that the protein percentage is made up of all sources of protein. Many pet foods include cheap, inferior ingredients, such as pea protein, to boost the protein percentage. However, most dogs and cats do best when the majority of their protein is from animal meat.
• The carbohydrate percentage is not listed on the label – so you have to figure it out yourself by subtracting the protein, fat, moisture and ash (usually 8%) from 100%. Most dry dog foods are made up of 40–60% carbohydrates, even though dogs are carnivores and have very little need for carbohydrates.
• Found at the bottom of the ingredient list is a long list of vitamins and minerals. These nutrients have usually been “cooked out” of dry pet food, so they need to be added back in synthetically. Minerals added back in should be chelated so they can be absorbed by your pet’s body.
• The label does not tell you the quality of the ingredients. For example, “chicken” could be the same as chicken in human food, or it could be condemned chicken that is inedible for human food.