How to Interpret Pet Food Labels

Stumped by the confusing keywords that litter the ingredient lists of your companion’s kibble? Learn common pet food terms and which ingredients to avoid to keep your furry friend healthy and happy.

| May / June 2018

  • Armed with the right knowledge, you can put as much conscientious care into choosing your pet's diet as you do your own.
    Photo by Getty Images/debibishop
  • Commerical pet foods are formulated to meet the needs of the advertised species, which is why dogs should never eat too much cat food, or vice versa.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Milles Studio
  • The nutritional adequacy statement on bags of pet food indicates whether the food is a supplement, snack, or specified for a certain stage of an animal's life.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/AntonioDiaz
  • Colorful pet food is a marketing ploy; pets need a well-balanced, tasty meal regardless of the color or shape of the kibble.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Comugnero Silvana
  • Pet food advertised as "natural" shouldn't include artificial colors or flavors, or BHA or BHT preservatives, according to the AAFCO.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/otsphoto

I’m a label reader. I pause in grocery store aisles and in front of drug store displays to puzzle my way through ingredient lists on everything from yogurt (sugar added?) to Q-tips (organic cotton?). However, the labels on my pets’ food bags have led to more confusion than clarity. Is “human-grade” really better? And what exactly is the difference between “meat byproducts” and “beef meal”? The following primer on common pet food labeling requirements, ingredient definitions, and marketing terms will answer those questions and more, empowering conscientious pet owners to put as much consideration into their companions’ diets as they do into their own.

Pet Food Label Basics

Pet food is regulated on both a state and federal level, while labeling requirements and ingredient definitions are created by the nonprofit Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the same organization that oversees livestock feed. According to the AAFCO’s website, every pet food container must include eight designations. The first requirement — the brand and product name — provides one of the biggest clues about the ingredients within. The AAFCO has strict guidelines that a product’s name must accurately reflect how much of the key ingredient is included in that particular recipe. According to Marion Nestle and Malden C. Nesheim’s book Feed Your Pet Right, a meal labeled “all-tuna cat food” must contain 100 percent tuna (except for the water used in processing and minor additives). A bag labeled “tuna cat food” without the “all” precursor must contain 95 percent tuna (70 percent if water is used for processing). Titles such as “chicken dinner” or “chicken entrée” imply that chicken is at least 25 percent of the ingredients’ weight. Bags that claim that a pet food “contains tuna” or is “made with beef” need to contain only 3 percent of the advertised ingredient. Foods labeled “meat-flavored” must simply include the flavoring agent somewhere in the ingredient list.

If you’re rushing through the store and want to grab a pet food based on the name alone, skip labels such as “dinners,” “entrées,” and “flavored with,” and opt instead for foods that include higher percentages of the advertised ingredient that caught your eye in the first place. Always double-check that the ingredient list verifies the label’s claim.

The AAFCO also requires that pet food containers clearly state the species for which the meal is intended. Commercial pet foods are carefully formulated to meet each species’ unique nutrient needs, which is why you shouldn’t regularly feed cat food to dogs or vice versa. For example, cats, but not dogs, need a supplement of the amino sulfonic acid taurine for vision and heart health.

The third labeling requirement is a quantity statement, such as “10 lbs.,” so consumers know the net weight of the product they’re purchasing. The fourth obligatory statement is a guaranteed analysis, which conveys the mixture’s minimum percentage of crude protein and fat, and its maximum percentage of fiber and moisture. Lab analysis determines the amount of each nutrient. Claims on the label may necessitate other guarantees. Brands can list vitamins and minerals voluntarily, but are required to include them if they’re part of the advertising claim.

A nutritional adequacy statement indicates that food is “complete and balanced” for a certain life stage — such as adult, growth, or reproduction — or is meant as a supplement or snack. Feeding directions are required for any food that’s labeled “complete and balanced,” and the directions should organize the feeding frequency and amount of product to feed by the weight of the pet. The name and address of the manufacturer or distributor must be present, and the final (and arguably most important) requirement is the ingredient list.

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