Most of us know that food labels – for dogs or humans – are listed in order of predominance by weight (including water) before processing. Manufacturers try to confuse purchasers with “creative advertising” to sell inferior products. You need to be a nutritionist and a mathematician to figure out what is actually in the bag of dog food you are purchasing and how much you should feed your dog. This article will focus on dry dog foods.
All dog food labels mention that the product “is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.” According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the “Association of American Feed Control Officials” regulates the food industry, by “covering aspects of labeling such as the product name, the guaranteed analysis, the nutritional adequacy, feeding directions, and calorie statements.” BUT AAFCO is not a government agency, and its representatives can include people who profit from the sale and manufacture of feed.
Consumer be-aware is all-important in your decision process. For-profit companies are motivated to give misleading names to their products — including “healthy,” “natural,” or “premium” in the brand name.
Most of us see red flags if animal by-products, corn gluten meal, un-pronounceable ingredients, food additives and colorings are listed, but slick companies use loopholes in the standards to make foods appear to be of better quality than they are. If different kinds of corn or rice appear in the first 6 ingredients, although “chicken meal” might be listed first, the total weight of the listed carbohydrates actually weigh more than the first ingredient.
According to Canine Care and Nutrition Consultant, Sabine Contreras, fat is the energy source in dog food, so the content list up to the “first named source of fat” will include the major ingredients in the bag of dog food. The rest are usually present in much smaller amounts, like flavorings, preservatives and minerals.
According to federal regulations, enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, pet food manufacturers must follow certain guidelines. If beef, chicken or fish is the first ingredient, it must be no less than 95% of the product, or 70% if water is included. Combo foods like “beef and liver” must make up the 95% (70% with water), and they must still follow the descending order rule. Usually, canned foods use this kind of labeling.
The product-named foods must contain at least 25% of the total product. Therefore, dry foods, with much less water content, usually add something to the title like “formula, nuggets or dinner.” Thus, a “beef and rice formula” means those two ingredients must make up 25% of the total. If the wording used is “includes ingredient (whatever),” that ingredient only needs to be 3% of the product to make the list.
Look for the actual meat content of a food. If it is listed as chicken or beef meal, it should be better quality – from the actual animal – than if it is listed as “meat and bone meal,” “digest of poultry byproducts and beef,” “beef and bone meal,” “digest of chicken byproducts,” or “poultry byproduct meal.” If the description doesn’t sound good to you, it probably is not good for your pet either.
Dog foods list the “product as fed,” which includes minimum levels of protein and fat, and maximum levels of fiber and moisture. The more moisture, the fewer nutrients are included per pound. If it has 10% moisture, it has 90% dry matter. This fact helps you to decide how much quality food you are actually getting for your money.
Note that if a food lists meat as the first item, such as lamb, chicken or beef, it will include up to 75% water so the actual amount of meat is much less. By comparison, even though the second listed product might be “chicken meal” or “beef meal,” since it is already dehydrated, there is probably more of the actual product. One final note: “fish meal” not meant for human consumption must contain the preservative called “Ethoxyquin,” which does not need to be listed because it is sold that way by suppliers and was not added. Manufacturers are always looking to create a better-sounding product that will fool many buyers. Buyers need to be educated.
Of course, fat and protein sources differ in digestibility, specifically in the percentages of the product that can be utilized. Better sources include muscle and organ meats (animal parts or organs) and fish, which rank higher than rice, oats, yeast, wheat and corn.
The original statement that dog food must meet the minimum standards of the AAFCO is not a reassuring one since, in studies done over 6 months, the test dogs must simply survive on the food, not thrive. Although a product can state it “provides complete and balanced nutrition,” that only means it met the standards tested on lab animals under controlled conditions. The test animals aren’t controlled for sex or breed and a test group can be as small as eight dogs.
New regulations allow dog food manufacturers to list calorie statements on their products and most manufacturers who take pride in their products do. In the past, owners have been expected to guesstimate how much to feed their dogs based on age, size and activity levels. Now, many quality products are listing Kcal/kg, which means “kilocalories per kilogram.” Kilocalories are comparable to human calories. A “kilogram” is the metric equivalent of 2.2 pounds. Some U.S. manufacturers list Kcal/lb.
The caloric statements can be listed three ways: as gross energy, digestible energy or metabolizable energy (ME). Gross is the amount “as fed”; digestible is the net, after some is lost in feces; and metabolized is after all losses from urine, gas and feces are deducted. ME is the most meaningful, and the most commonly used, value.
The manufacturer should list a suggested amount for a dog’s given weight, such as 1 to 1.5 cup for 10-20 pound dogs. (You shouldn’t cater to an overweight dog by overfeeding; feed less for gradual weight loss.)
Some foods list Kcal/cup, which means a standard kitchen measuring cup, but foods have different volumes so you should calculate the Kcals per pound (or kilogram) of food. (Actually, an 8-ounce cup can hold less than 3 oz. to over 4 oz. depending on the size and density of the kibble.) If it’s not listed, you can contact the manufacturer for it.
You might need a calculator for this, if you are trying to compare brands, but you can start with the package recommendations for your dog’s weight in pounds, and increase or decrease according to weight loss or gain. Suggested amounts for puppies are always more than that for adult dogs.
Don’t fall for slick advertising terms that are meaningless, such as “premium,” “gourmet,” or “natural.” Even “organic” has questionable meaning, because the term lacks an official definition, although it refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or how the animals were raised. Quality products might readily highlight terms like “made with hormone- free” animal products or “contains pesticide-free” grains.
Companies that back their products are usually quite upfront with their list of ingredients and their labels don’t require second-guessing as to content.
For most people, cost is a practical consideration in the final decision. Do some online research before shopping. By comparing brands for quality ingredients, you should be able to find a quality dog food that is affordable. Dog foods are dated and should be stored in a cool, dark, and dry area. Don’t buy huge quantities that you can’t use before the expiration date. If you have a vacuum food sealer, you can buy in bulk and divide the contents into smaller containers.
Most vets do not have in-depth experience with necessary pet nutrition and often rely on some “good enough” brands to offer their clients. Unless your vet has taken extra courses in pet nutrition, you might need to rely on your own research to choose the best food for your dog.
Pet owners who know how to interpret dog food labels–while keeping their dogs in mind for age, size, breed, and special health conditions–should be able to make wise decisions about the best pet food for their dogs.
1. Sabine Contreras, Canine Care and Nutrition Consultant certified in Animal Care from the U. of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. “The Dog Food Project – Dog Food Label information 101.” http://www.dogfoodproject.com/index.php?page=labelinfo101 . Interpreting Pet Food Labels.” Retrieved 11-10-10.
2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Pet Food Labels – General.” Updated March 2010. Http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/ucm047113.htm. Retrieved 11-10-10.