How to Interpret Pet Food Labels

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Armed with the right knowledge, you can put as much conscientious care into choosing your pet's diet as you do your own.
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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.
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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.
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Colorful pet food is a marketing ploy; pets need a well-balanced, tasty meal regardless of the color or shape of the kibble.
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Pet food advertised as "natural" shouldn't include artificial colors or flavors, or BHA or BHT preservatives, according to the AAFCO.

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.

Decoding Ingredient Lists

Just like products made for human consumption, the ingredient list for pet foods is where you can glean the most accurate information about the contents of your companion’s kibble. The AAFCO requires that all ingredients for pet food be listed in order by percentage of total weight (highest to lowest), and that all ingredients are either “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), are approved food additives, or are authorized for use in animal foods. Foods certified as GRAS, such as peas, oats, or potatoes, are easy to recognize and understand. However, the unique formulations specifically approved for animal foods and defined by the AAFCO, such as meat byproduct or poultry meal, are a bit murkier. 

As a rule of thumb, favor pet foods that list whole, fresh meats or single-source meat meals, such as beef or lamb meal, at the top of their ingredient lists. Obscure terms, such as “meat,” may include a number of animal species that you won’t be able to track back to their sources. This rule applies to labels for fat as well: “Beef fat” is preferable to vague “animal fat.”

According to the Whole Dog Journal, research has revealed that whole ingredients in dry dog foods tend to be processed and stored more carefully (kept clean and cold) than the lower-cost byproducts.

Let’s compare two ingredient labels to review the terminology: Taste of the Wild’s Wetlands Canine Formula with Roasted Fowl lists duck and duck meal as the first two ingredients. Its species-specific terminology, which doesn’t include the word “byproduct,” indicates that it’s a higher-quality item than what’s available from Whiskas’ Meaty Selections: Chicken and Turkey Flavor (note the word “flavor”). This chicken-flavored, dry cat food lists the more convoluted poultry byproduct meal as its first ingredient, followed by ground yellow corn.

Another dubious ingredient that appears on pet food labels — especially in lines designed for pets with allergies — is feather meal. Highly processed feather meal (sometimes listed as “hydrolyzed poultry byproducts aggregate”) is added as a cheap protein replacement. Feather meal does contain more nutritionally available amino acids than feathers in their true form, but it’s a highly processed ingredient that many folks prefer to avoid.

Other red-flag additives include artificial preservatives, such as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin. Look instead for vitamin E and rosemary extract, both of which are healthful preservative choices. Avoid artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners, just as you would when shopping for yourself. Bone-shaped kibble in various bright colors is created as a marketing ploy for buyers’ enjoyment; your pet will appreciate a well-balanced, tasty meal regardless of its shape or color. Read the AAFCO’s definitions for a number of other common pet food ingredients, including “animal byproduct meal” and more.

Meaningful Marketing Terms

Pet food companies pay big bucks to target consumers, but you can avoid greenwashing attempts and artificially spiked prices by keeping the following pointers in mind. If a labeling term isn’t defined by the AAFCO, then it’s little more than a marketing term, and the AAFCO prefers that it not be used. Words that fall into this category are “premium,” “human-grade,” and “holistic.” A company can put “veterinarian recommended” on its product if it surveyed a “statistically sound” number of veterinarians for their opinions. It only takes one veterinarian, however, to support the claim “veterinarian formulated” or “veterinarian developed.” “Veterinarian approved” isn’t allowed because only state regulatory agencies can approve pet food. 

Unfortunately, clear organic regulations for pet foods don’t exist. According to authors Nestle and Nesheim, the AAFCO basically states that pet food companies should do the best they can to follow the standards for human foods, and if they do, then they’ll avoid scrutiny. Following those guidelines, pet food products that display the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic seal should contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. If a pet food product claims it’s “made with organic ingredients,” then it should be 70 percent organic ingredients — if it’s following the National Organic Program’s rules, which it’s not required to do. In a deceitful twist, pet food brands can insert the word “organic” into their brand names even if they don’t include a single organic ingredient in their products. If you find organic pet food labeling guidelines confusing — in which case, you’re not alone — your best bet will be to refer to the product’s ingredient list rather than its unregulated labeling claims.

Interestingly, one of the few labeling terms that the AAFCO does define is the word “natural.” According to the AAFCO website, “natural” is a loose term, but pet foods labeled as natural shouldn’t include artificial flavors or colors, or BHA or BHT preservatives. In contrast with foods meant for human consumption, the term “natural” on dog food packages does hold some weight.

To provide your pets with first-rate fare that won’t break the bank, look past catchy names and showy packaging to analyze the ingredient list yourself. High-quality food, combined with enough activity and plenty of love, can help your companions — and you! — live fuller, happier lives.

Reading Labels

Follow these guidelines from Petco to determine whether a product will be good for your pet.

Start with the guaranteed analysis. Much like human food, the guaranteed analysis on any package or can of pet food will tell you the overall fat, protein, fiber, and moisture content of the food. Look for a healthy balance of nutrients and moisture.

Look for a balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and other nutrient sources that is right for your pet and its life stage. For example, puppies require more protein than adult dogs for healthy growth, while senior dogs need more fiber and moisture to help with digestion and joint health. 

Don’t guess the quality by the package. Just because a package is covered with wholesome-looking ingredients doesn’t mean the food is nutritious. Read the small print on the ingredient list and nutrition label instead of depending on illustrations or advertising.

Don’t assume that what’s good for you is good for your pet. While we’re trained to eat a low-fat diet, dogs and cats get most of their energy from fat and need fat, which should account for at least 20 percent of their overall diet. 

Determine primary ingredients and protein sources. Ingredients on pet food labels are listed by weight, but whole meats contain a lot of water, so they weigh more than other ingredients. For that reason, it’s important to look beyond the first two or three ingredients listed. Look at the first five to eight ingredients and ensure there is a healthy combination of high-quality protein sources. 

The combination of ingredients is more important than any single ingredient. Food can contain more than one form of the same ingredient, so read the entire label for a healthy balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrate sources with natural names you recognize.

Paleo Pets & Other Unconventional Options

In today’s pet food market, we have the option to choose a number of specialty diets for our pets, including vegetarian, grain-free, raw, and even homemade. But are we doing our pets a favor by removing certain ingredients from their meals?

Dogs are omnivores and have evolved eating humans’ leftover or unwanted edibles. Although many dogs do prefer animal-based protein, they can thrive on a vegetarian diet that includes at least 10 percent calories from protein. Cats, however, are carnivorous animals that should derive most of their protein from meat, fish, and other animal products. The Humane Society of the United States says, “It’s unfair and unrealistic to impose human ethical standards on cats. And forcing a cat to eat a diet that isn’t based on meat imperils its health and its life.” Vegetarian cat food brands claim to supplement their feed with the mandatory nutrients typically found in meat products, including B-12 and taurine, but it’s difficult to know whether the products truly contain as much as they claim. If you insist on feeding your cat a vegetarian diet, consider personally adding vitamin and mineral supplements to its food. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum are grain-free diets, which are based on cats’ and dogs’ evolution from meat-eating ancestors. However, when our pets’ ancestors were eating carcasses of wild animals, including the organs and intestines, they inadvertently ate what their meal ate — including wild grains and grasses. Similar to a vegetarian diet, a feeding regimen for modern cats and dogs that’s based solely on meat must be supplemented with essential nutrients from other food groups.

Also from an evolutionary perspective, our pets’ ancient ancestors would have subsisted on an entirely raw diet. Raw diets, such as the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet, should provide adequate levels of fat, protein, and calories, along with other essential nutrients if supplemented properly. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) concern with raw pet food diets, however, is the sanitation issue they create in the owner’s home because of the potential introduction of salmonella, which isn’t as harmful to cats and dogs as it is to humans. 

Pet owners with a little extra time and kitchen know-how may want to consider providing their pets with homemade pet food. As with human diets, it’s important to introduce variety into our pets’ meals, and homemade meal plans offer the widest array of options, from pumpkin and sweet potatoes to oatmeal, turkey, and probiotic-rich yogurt. Make sure you feed your pet the correct proportion of grains, meat, fat, vegetables, and more; don’t skip the supplements.

Hannah Kincaid is the editor-in-chief of Mother Earth Living magazine. She feeds her two dogs Taste of the Wild dog food mixed with squash, beef, and other healthful tidbits.

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