How to read a pet food label?
how to read a pet food label
It’s essential to pay attention to your pet food label

Do you question the reliability of the information found on a pet food label? After all, they seem legitimate, and surely an AAFCO statement counts for something?

Guaranteed analysis foods promise to meet the daily nutritional needs of our four-legged friends in pet food, but what does the information on that dog food nutritional label mean?

How does a dog food label or cat food label represent information? How do we interpret that information to ensure that our four-legged ones receive a proper diet? You may want to take a closer look at that dog food ingredients list before entrusting your pet's diet to a pet food company.

Who makes the rules for pet food labels?

a display of Butcher's pet food labels
What nutritional information can you glean from a pet food label?

The pet food industry is worth an estimated USD 29.03 Billion. That means big business, along with its many pitfalls.

We trust that there are regulatory bodies that look out for the well-being of our four-legged family members. And, to an extent, there are.

To get an accurate idea of just how rigorous and thorough such entities might be, we need to learn more about them. The simple answer goes a little something like this:

FDA and Pet Food Labels

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the guidelines that pet food companies must follow. These guidelines rely on the Association of American Feed Control Officials' (AAFCO) own set of guidelines.

The keyword is guidelines because there is no requirement that pet food products have pre-market approval by the FDA.

AAFCO and Pet Food Labels

AAFCO is not a government entity. They are a private, nonprofit, voluntary membership association. So, they can't technically enforce any regulations. Instead, their task is to propose regulations based on their findings.

This all seems above board. In general, AAFCO is responsible for overseeing state-wide laws and regulations and the protocols that inform these laws.

Put in their own words, they are the "authority whose counsel can be sought to interpret the intent and spirit of the established models and standards'. This is unconventional.

According to the FDA, AAFCO is vital in this role. The FDA does not have the resources to enforce its regulations on a nationwide scale. It's a strange setup for sure, but not necessarily cause for concern.

However, AAFCO advisors and committee members include representatives from major feed manufacturers and ingredient suppliers, including Nestle Purina, Hills Pet Nutrition, Nutro Products, and Cargill Animal Nutrition. These are some of the mega-corporations that produce most of North America's pet food.

AAFCO PROTOCOLS

A vet checking dog's blood pressure like they would for an AAFCO feeding trial that regulates what can be put on a pet food label
After an eight-week feeding trial vets conduct a physical examination on the pets

AAFCO also does not directly conduct any tests on pet foods. Still, they do outline the required protocols to qualify for AAFCO approval.

  1. These protocols consist of feeding trials and laboratory tests. Criteria for the feeding trials include the minimum number of eight animals in the trial, and how long the trial should last, which can be up to twenty-six weeks.

AAFCO's laboratory testing guidelines are mainly about ensuring that what a company says is in a pet food product, is actually in the product through chemical testing.

AAFCO also installs protocols for physical exams that must be performed by veterinarians, and clinical observations and measurements, such as weight and blood tests. If the eight animals are still healthy after the trial, the food passes and it can labeled ‘complete and balanced.’

The FDA accepts AAFCO's criteria for what constitutes a 'complete and balanced’ pet food.

Reading a pet food label: Understanding how ingredients are listed

A French Bulldog standing next to a food bowl
All pets deserve good nutrition

Companies list ingredients on a pet food label in order according to their weight before processing. Depending on the brand, this can have a huge impact on how much of the actual main ingredient is in the product, since rendering and extrusion reduce the initial ingredient essentially to powder.

But the name of the product can tell you a lot. Here are some tips:

  • If there is only one ingredient listed, such as “chicken” or “beef”, then the FDA asserts that at least 95% of the total weight of the product should be that ingredient. But this does not account for water in processing.
  • Counting any added water from the processing, the main ingredient should then comprise 70% of the total product.
  • But, if the word “beef” or other main ingredient is followed by something else such as “dinner,” or platter, then only about 10% of the entire product needs to be beef.
  • A label that reads something like “with salmon” or “with chicken” only needs to have a total of 3% of that ingredient be in their product.
  • A label that reads “salmon flavor” or any other ingredient, possibly has even less of the actual ingredient in the food, since it is usually only a flavoring. Flavorings can also be artificial palatants. So it can taste like salmon but not actually be salmon.

If this all seems like too much information, don’t worry. The point is that a product labeled “salmon cat food” is required by the FDA to be at least 70% salmon. But, if it says “with salmon,” it only has to be around 3% actual Salmon.

Because the order of the ingredients goes by weight, the first five to seven ingredients are the most important. In general, these make up the majority of the food, and too many ingredients can be a huge red flag. But we’ll get to that later.

First, we need to look at some nasty tricks of the trade that can make the ingredient list misleading.

How to spot misleading labels:

Ingredient splitting

A pet food company may want to rearrange the order of its ingredients to make its list look better. For example, they may want their first ingredient to be chicken, even though there is far more corn in their food.

So what do they do?

They subdivide the corn into different ingredients. So they divide corn into cornmeal and cornflour. Separately, these will be less than the chicken, so they can then pretend chicken is their main ingredient.

The takeaway here is to look out for a single ingredient that may be passed off as two or three separate ingredients.

Likewise, pet food manufacturers can also be misleading about their main source proteins By using plant proteins, such as soy, to reach their advertised level of protein, they use less costly animal proteins in their food. However, they can still give the impression that most of the protein comes from a quality animal source.

This is particularly problematic in the surge of grain-free diets where the main source of starch in the diet is legumes like peas and lentils. By using peas and lentils, which are high in protein, they can use less actual animal protein. This may be a contributing factor to the link between heart disease and grain-free diets.

The salt divider

AAFCO guidelines state that cat food should have a minimum of 0.2% sodium and that dog food should have at least 0.3% sodium for maintaining proper biological functions such as nerves and muscles.

According to Dr. Marion Nestlé, the pet food industry uses salt as a marker. Any ingredient that follows salt on the label has to be less than 1% of the total product. This is called the salt divider.

Many of the ingredients that follow salt, such as certain vitamins and minerals, will naturally be there because they are required in lower quantities. However, as in the case of most dry food, the longer the list of ingredients after salt, the more nutrients had to be replaced after the cooking process.

This means that the pet food was so highly processed, that many of the naturally occurring vitamins and amino acids were destroyed and then had to be replaced artificially.

This destruction of amino acids during the heat processing of food is known as the Maillard effect. Essentially, if the pet food label contains a long list of ingredients, especially vitamins and amino acids such as methionine, lysine, and tryptophan, then the food processing stripped the original food of all its original nutrients.

What to look for in a pet food label

brown peanuts in blue plastic bowl
Photographer: Mathew Coulton | Source: Unsplash

Keeping in mind how pet food labels may be misleading, and that assuming your dog or cat has no specific medical problems such as pancreatitis, allergies, liver shunts, or age-related issues, some simple general rules to follow when reading a pet food label are:

  • Protein from a named animal protein source (such as beef, lamb, or chicken) rather than something non-specific such as “meat,” or poultry.
  • AAFCO guarantee of minimal standards.
  • Whole grains and vegetables (try to check that they are fit for human consumption where possible).
  • No more than ten ingredients
  • A product name that clearly states what animal is the main ingredient, for instance, “chicken for cats”. It should not state “with chicken”, “chicken dinner”, or “chicken flavoring.”
  • No ingredient splitting. Therefore, if corn is an ingredient it should be listed once, not as both corn meal and corn flour.
  • Guaranteed analysis
  • Nutritional adequacy statement
  • Caloric value
  • Manufacturer’s address and contact details
  • Feeding guidelines

What to avoid in a pet food label

In pet food, the term 'by-products' refers to a variety of leftover products that are added to pet foods. These are leftovers, or secondary products from meat for human manufacturers.

It may be meat remains or low-grade, damaged, or moldy grain kernels. This is why it is essential to check that your label has a maximum of ten ingredients and to pay attention to the first seven.

Meat should always be named, never something vague like "meat meal" and grains should be listed as consumer-grade one. This means it is likely the grains are damaged or moldy.

Added by-products are often justified by their nutritional value. This may be true for some by-products, but the majority are repurposed for profit.

The practice is generally framed in a positive light. The companies who make a profit doing this try to piggyback on the importance of sustainability and preventing food waste. But in some cases, these by-products can include items such as ground down feathers or hooves.

The flaw in this reasoning is that we are talking about waste that is not considered fit for human consumption. Yet we must entrust the nutritional wellbeing of our pets to defective products.

These by-products can also pose a real health risk to our pets. A 2007 study found deadly mycotoxin contamination in pet foods. The study found that cereal by-products may be a primary source of these toxins in pet food.

More recently, a number of animals died because of food contaminated by aflatoxins, another result of using moldy, substandard grains in pet food.

There is a lot of scientific evidence to suggest that it is best to avoid pet foods that contain any traces of cereal by-products. So always look for named meat and quality grains on your pet food label.

Chemicals to look out for

Dangerous chemical contamination has become a growing concern for many pet owners. Pet food recalls conducted by the FDA have included an alarming number of cases involving deadly chemicals.

When it comes to these chemicals, the FDA and AAFCO have worryingly relaxed regulations for the maximum allowances in pet food.

While they may claim to have high standards, a quick comparison with the FDA regulations that govern standards for food for human consumption tells a different story.

There are a number of chemicals present in most pet foods, but there are a few that you should avoid at all costs.

  • Ethoxyquin is a preservative used in pet foods that is illegal for use in foods intended for human consumption in the US, and outright banned in any products in many other countries. It is often used in fish meals to keep it from exploding during transportation. Pet food manufacturers try to disguise it on their list of ingredients by referring to it as fish meal and simply not mentioning it. Therefore, beware of fish meal as a byproduct.
  • BHA and BHT are chemical preservatives initially developed to protect petroleum against oxidative gum. Both are potentially carcinogenic and both are regularly used in pet food as preservatives.
  • While BHA and BHT are on a shortlist to be banned for use as an additive in pet foods, it is best to be vigilant, and avoid pet foods containing either.

Better preservatives to look for in your pet food are natural ones such as vitamin E, C, citric acid, and Rosemary.

What do "natural", "holistic" and "organic" mean on a pet food label? Are these just gimmicks?

In a nutshell, yes, with 'organic' being a possible exception.

1.Natural

It is one of the most popular claims slapped onto pet food packaging: 'All natural ingredients. AAFCO currently defines 'all natural' as the following:

'...a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.'

In other words, this is probably not what you have in mind when you look for an 'all natural' food for your pet.

2. Holistic

'Holistic' pet food plays into the idea of holistic healing. This is the belief that one benefits more from treating the person or animal as a whole, taking into account mental and social factors.

Putting the word before the term 'pet food' is entirely meaningless.

There is no definition for holistic food in the pet food industry.

Without any guidelines, there is no way to measure or compare so-called holistic pet foods, or what it is exactly that makes them 'holistic'. It is simply a marketing term used to play on our emotions, knowing that we want the best for our pets.

3.Organic

A 2019 study showed that consumers were more likely to purchase pet food labelled as 'natural' or 'organic'. Interestingly, it seems that for many, there is no difference between the two words.

This is a shame, because while we have discussed why 'natural' pet food is a misleading standard, there is at least some credibility to the idea of 'organic' pet food.

This is assuming that you have concerns that can be addressed by organic foods. If so, the good news is that there are standards and guidelines set by AAFCO that help define what qualifies as organic pet food.

AAFCO's guidelines state that organic pet foods must adhere to the USDA's National Organic Program regulations.

4. Other Labels

It’s also important to note that pet food labeled as “premium”, “gourmet,” “super premium or ultra premium are not required by the FDA or AAFCO to have any additional nutritional requirements than any other food that can be labeled as “complete and balanced.”

What is a guaranteed analysis of pet food?

Many state regulations require a pet food manufacturer to provide a guarantee of specific values. These include a minimum percentage of crude protein and crude fat. They may also have maximum percentages for crude fiber and moisture.

The regulations use the term 'crude' in the most general way possible. It doesn't guarantee anything regarding the quality or the digestibility of the ingredients. Chicken feathers can just as easily be considered crude protein as actual chicken.

Manufacturers can choose to include guarantees for additional nutrient values. These guarantees refer to the amount present 'as-is'. This leads to a very confusing problem when comparing wet and dry pet foods.

Put simply, the guaranteed values for canned and wet pet foods will be far lower than those for their dry counterparts. The minimum requirements are offset by moisture content, so to really compare the two, one must account for all the moisture in wet foods.

The easiest way to calculate for the additional moisture is to multiply the guaranteed values of wet foods by four. This will give you a general idea of the comparative values.

The maximum percentage of moisture allowed for by AAFCO regulations is 78%. Pet food manufacturers can circumvent this by labelling their product as 'stew', 'in sauce' or 'gravy'.

These products are only required to contain half the regulated guaranteed values of those required for ordinary wet food.

In Closing

While we would like to trust in our favorite pet food brands, delving into the industry and its practices reveals an unfortunate truth: Pet food is big business. That means that corporate interest will inevitably overshadow any genuine concern for the consumer.

These pet food companies are not solely to blame. Vague regulations and unenforceable guidelines allow for loopholes. These loopholes directly affect the products marketed to us, products that impact the health of our pets.

Without extensive scale reform in the way that the pet food industry is allowed to operate, it falls to us to make sure we are informed. Awareness is the best way for us to ensure the wellbeing of our four legged loved ones.

Take the time to scrutinize pet food labels. Read what your pet is really getting in their diet. Seek the advice of your vet in making an informed decision about your pet's nutrition.

FoodNutritionPet foodPet fooled