Pet websites and blogs are filled with tips about how to understand pet food labels. A quick search on the internet yielded several articles with suggestions about what should and shouldn’t be in the first three, four, or five ingredients listed on your pet’s food. While such recommendations may be rough starting points to evaluating pet foods, advice to avoid products with “X” in the top few ingredients is too simplistic, given pet food labeling regulations and manufacturing practices. A few other considerations will help pet food shoppers get the best food for their animal companions.
Pet Food Labels
Consumers are increasingly aware that they cannot rely solely on the marketing of pet
food companies, but instead must read the labels of pet foods they are considering. Since ingredients are listed “in order of descending predominance by weight,”¹ there is a lot of attention on the first several ingredients listed. Pet food manufacturers know this and some companies adjust formulas to allow them to make specific claims or manipulate the order in which ingredients are listed. Such changes might achieve marketing objectives, but they don’t necessarily improve the overall nutritional content of the food. So selecting your pet’s food simply based upon whether a particular ingredient is first, or in the top five, doesn’t really accomplish the goal of picking the best food for your pet.
Scenarios Affecting Ingredient Order
Fresh Meat: Some pet food manufacturers claim their food is better because the first ingredient listed is fresh meat, say chicken. Ingredients listed on the label are in order of descending predominance by weight as they initially go into the batch of food. Since fresh chicken is approximately 60% water, once the batch is dried and transformed into dry kibble, other ingredients in the final food you feed are much more predominant than “fresh chicken.” These foods also contain chicken meal, or multiple protein meals, which are needed to reach appropriate protein levels in the final food.
Splitting Ingredients: Pet food manufacturers use unlimited numbers of ingredients, in various combinations, to make their foods. They can change the order in which certain ingredients appear on the labels simply by splitting ingredients from different sources. Changing the number of proteins or carbohydrates will alter the ingredient order, without significantly changing the overall levels of protein, carbohydrate or fat in the food.
For example, let’s say you are watching the fat you feed your pet and want to avoid foods with too much fat. Some in the pet community would advise you avoid foods that have fat in the top four ingredients. But see how this simple rule doesn’t really accomplish the goal:
Pet Food #1 – To make 1,000 pounds of Nature’s Logic dry Chicken Canine Formula, the company uses the following approximate ingredient levels:
1. Chicken Meal (protein) - 600 lbs.
2. Millet (carbohydrate) - 300 lbs.
3. Fat - 66 lbs.
4. All other ingredients - 34 lbs. (natural and whole foods to supply vitamins and minerals)
Because the company uses only one poultry source and one grain source, fat appears as the third ingredient by weight. Yet this formula has a guaranteed analysis of only 15% fat and 36% protein. These are very healthy, carnivore-appropriate levels for cats and dogs.
Now take a look at what happens to the ingredient order in a similar formula, using multiple sources of protein and carbohydrate, but the exact same amounts of each key nutrient:
Pet Food #2 – To make 1,000 pounds of the same quality pet food using more ingredients, a manufacturer might use:
1. Chicken Meal (protein) - 300 lbs.
2. Turkey Meal (protein) - 300 lbs.
3. Millet (carbohydrate) - 150 lbs.
4. Rice (carbohydrate) - 150 lbs.
5. Fat - 66 lbs.
6. All other ingredients - 34 lbs.
This formula contains the exact same amount of poultry, grain, and fat. The guaranteed analysis for this formula would be roughly the same, 36% protein and 15% fat. However, by simply changing the number of sources for protein and carbohydrate, fat appears as the fifth ingredient listed instead of the third. If following advice to avoid foods with fat in the top four ingredients, one might rule out Pet Food #2 even though it is nutritionally the same as Pet Food #1.
Considerations When Evaluating Pet Food
So if the simple “avoid this if in the top X ingredients” advice does not really help you select the best food for your dog or cat, what can you do? Many pet nutrition experts agree on a few basic guidelines to help you select your pet’s food. Here are some things to look for when reading that label:
• Look for 30% or more protein in the guaranteed analysis section. These are levels ideal for natural carnivores, like dogs and cats.
• Check the ingredients section to see the source of that protein. It should come from animal sources, like meat, poultry or fish.
• Select a food lower in carbohydrate. Lower carb dry diets are those that have 30% or more guaranteed protein derived from animal protein ingredients and not from vegetarian sources, such as gluten and soy.
• Avoid products with corn, wheat, gluten or soy in the ingredient panel. These are common allergens in pets.
Nature’s Logic has formulated truly natural pet foods substantiated for all the life stages of dogs and cats. Our high-protein, low carbohydrate diets use natural ingredients and whole foods to provide pets with naturally-occurring nutrients. Nature’s Logic makes the only full-line of commercial pet foods with no chemically-synthesized vitamins, minerals or other nutrients. For more information about our products, visit http://www.natureslogic.com/.
1. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Regulation P5; AAFCO establishes guidelines for dog and cat food labeling that most states adopt in the United States for uniformity. states that ingredients on the label are to be listed