Decoding Your Pet's Nutrition Label!

Updated: Jan 13

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.

AAFCO Requirements (or lack there of)

The restrictions and regulations, determined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), of what is and is not acceptable to place on your dog’s bag of food, often make it too easy for big 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 is 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 ingredients equal between 25% and 95% of the total food, it can be labeled as a “Recipe” per the AAFCO. Other descriptive terms 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 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 ingredients list, the guaranteed analysis, and the manufacturers stamp.

Ingredients List

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.

Guaranteed Analysis

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 g