Nutrition plays an extremely important role in your pet’s overall health and well being. But how do you know if you’re feeding them a nutritionally balanced diet? Reading nutrition labels is difficult enough when it comes to your own food, but trying to decode what’s on your pet’s food label is an entirely different story.
Where Should I Begin?!
AAFCO Requirements (or lack thereof)
The Association of American Feed Control Officials, also known as, AAFCO, is a private non-profit corporation that processes the definition of ingredients used in animal feed and pet food. The restrictions and regulations, determined by AAFCO, of what is and is not acceptable to place in your dog or cat’s bag of food, often make it too easy for big name corporate owned companies to hide poorly processed ingredients with questionable sourcing.
For example, did you know that there are different requirements for pet food that are labeled as; “Chicken Dog Food”, “Chicken Recipe Dog Food”, “Dog Food with Chicken”, and “Chicken Flavor Dog Food”?!
“Chicken Dog Food”
According to the AAFCO, a food can be labeled as “Chicken Dog Food” as long as “Chicken” makes up 95% of the ingredients. If two ingredients are used as 95% of a food (ie: chicken and liver), the label MUST be named in order of their pre-cooking weight (ie: “Chicken and Liver For Dogs”).
“Chicken Recipe Dog Food”
If the named ingredient equals between 25% and 95% of the total food, it can be labeled as a “Recipe” per the AAFCO. Other descriptive terms could include: “Dinner”, “Nuggets”, or “Formula”.
“Dog Food with Chicken”
The AAFCO requires that the word “with” must be used if the named ingredients contain between 3% and 25% of said ingredient. So “Dog Food with Chicken”, must contain at least 3% chicken.
“Chicken Flavor Dog Food”
If there is less than 3% of an ingredient, according to the AAFCO, it must be labeled as “flavor”. So a “Chicken Flavor Dog Food” actually requires NO chicken at all in order to be labeled as such!
So the question now is, how can you ensure that your pet’s food is nutritionally balanced? There are three different areas that you should examine on your pet’s food bag to determine the quality of the product: the ingredient list, the guaranteed analysis, and the manufacturer’s stamp.
The ingredients list can tell you a lot of information regarding the nutritional value of your food by just a quick glance. Ingredients are required to be listed by weight in descending order before the food is cooked (take a look at the table below comparing four different brands of food).
Foods that contain a named meat source as the first ingredient sound like a good product, but it’s important that you take a look at the next 4-5 following ingredients. Is it followed by additional named meats, or is it followed by multiple plant-based ingredients?
Corporate owned companies like to split cheap, plant-based ingredients to make them lighter thus moving them lower down the ingredients list. For example, corn can be split into: ground yellow corn, corn bran, corn meal, corn gluten meal, corn flour… you get the point! If the majority of the first five ingredients listed is some form of corn, or other plant-based ingredient, you’re really paying for a diet that consists of cheap fillers with a small amount of meat-based protein!
There can also be a lot of confusion between meat, meat meal, and meat by-products. Meat is inclusive of moisture. Because the ingredient panel is based on weight, named meats often appear higher on the ingredient list. Moisture is removed during the cooking process, causing the nutritional value of the named meat to diminish greatly. Meat meal, on the other hand, is exclusive of water and therefore more nutritionally dense. Meat by-product can be a range of body parts from organs to beaks, feathers, and snouts. Because these parts are not named, you cannot be sure of their quality or digestibility. Avoid by-products in favor of named parts like “beef hearts” or “chicken liver”. Most importantly, all meats should be specifically named on your pet’s bag of food whether it is meat or meat meal. The term “poultry” can refer to multiple species and allows companies to change which form of poultry they use from batch to batch.
One other key ingredient to note is salt. The amount of salt (if any) used in a bag of food is quite minimal, and is located on the ingredient panel after the main ingredients. With the exception of vitamins and minerals, and probiotics and supplements, anything listed after salt is not likely to affect the nutritional quality of the food. You will often find that corporate owned companies will boast about the inclusion of fruits and vegetables in their “nutritious” recipe. More times than not, the fruits and vegetables are listed after salt.
The guaranteed analysis is the pet food version of our “Nutritional Facts” panel. It will tell you essential information about four key elements of the food: protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. With this information, you can understand most of the nutritional properties of the food. However, there is one major flaw in the guaranteed analysis. The system used to report the percentages fails to consider water content. This makes it impossible to compare kibble to canned or raw diets without converting the foods from an “as fed” basis (which is how it is listed on packages) to a “dry matter” basis. At first glance, most kibbles appear to have a much higher protein content than canned or raw diets, this is untrue! There is however, a simple equation you can use to make comparing foods easier. First you will need to calculate the dry matter percentage:
100% - Moisture % = Dry Matter %
After you have discovered the dry matter content of each food, you can now compare the true protein amounts with the following formula:
Protein % / Dry Matter % = Protein % on a Dry Matter Basis
This formula can be used to discover the dry matter basis for the other guaranteed analysis ingredients. Our pets daily calories come from three main sources: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Because they rely heavily on protein for their main source of calories, it is important that you choose a diet that is rich in high quality animal protein.
It can be hard to determine the quality of the product just by reading the nutritional information off of the back of the bag. How do you tell where the food is made and who is making it? This information can be determined by looking for the manufacturer's stamp. It’s often found near the bottom of the bag either on the back or the side. The wording can be extremely misleading. If the statement reads: “Made By…” or “Manufactured By…” you know that the company manufactures their own product and often has better control over the quality of their ingredients and testing their product for safety before shipping it out for distribution. If the statement reads: “Manufactured For…” you know that the company’s product is being made in a facility that is not privately owned and manufactures other pet food or even other products not related to the pet industry at all! For example, Nestle is a manufacturing plant that produces dog food (Purina), bottled water, cereal, pizza, ice cream, candy bars, etc. By checking those three areas on your pet’s bag of food, you can rest assured that your pet is eating a healthy and nutritionally balanced diet.
In 1956, the first dry kibble was produced through a process called extrusion. Extrusion is a method used for manufacturing large quantities of shelf-stable foods. It works like this: wet and dry ingredients are mixed together to form a dough-like consistency, which is then fed into a machine called an expander. The dough is then cooked under extreme pressurized steam and high temperatures before being pushed through a die cut machine and forming the small shapes we recognize as kibble today.
While this process optimizes product shelf-life, it can also significantly impact the nutrient composition of the food, and poses many other health risks. Additionally, much of the commercial pet food landscape has become increasingly unregulated and is marked by frequent recalls and health controversies.
For cats and dogs, carbohydrates are completely unnecessary and are therefore not required to be listed on the bag of food. Dry kibble foods are high in carbohydrates! Some pet parents leave a bowl out for grazing- but because the moisture has been removed through the extrusion processes, it takes up little room in bowls and bellies but contributes a ton of calories when compared to other formulas of food like wet or raw.
Dry food can cause chronic dehydration, which overworks the organs like the bladder and kidneys, and contributes to crystals, stones, and feline lower urinary tract disease, and feline lower urinary tract disease. Both cats and dogs, (but especially cats!) are at higher risk for diabetes and other disorders of the kidneys and bladder from chronic dehydration. Very few kibble-fed dogs and virtually no kibble-fed cats make up enough water at the water bowl to properly hydrate themselves.
Here is how you can calculate how much carbohydrates are in your pet’s food!
100% - Protein% - Fat% - Fiber% - Moisture% - *Ash% = Carbohydrate % (not of dry matter)
*Ash, sometimes noted on pet food labels as “crude ash”, is a term used to describe the mineral content (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, etc.) of the given recipe. These minerals are crucial to your pet’s health, contributing to bones, teeth, fluid balance, immune system function, blood clotting, muscle and nerve function, and more throughout your cat or dog’s body!
Ash content does give some idea of the quality of a pet food, but as long as it is not too high you won’t need to worry about the specific ash content number.
If you are interested in switching your pet’s current diet, I invite you to stop by any of our five locations and talk with one of our employees. Our philosophy is to carry the best in healthy, holistic, and all-natural food and treats for your pets. We take the guesswork out of picking a high quality kibble, canned, or raw diet. Our pets mean the world to us, so we understand how much your pets mean to you! They are our inspiration when choosing new products and deciding what to carry. There isn’t anything in our stores that we wouldn’t feed to our crew!