How To Read a Pet Food Label

by Lucy Postins

Owner, The Honest Kitchen

The dilemma of what to feed your pet can be influenced by many factors. The first might be palatability and your companions taste preferences. Finance may also play a big role, as well as ad campaigns that can bombard the mind and sway the way you shop.

One major factor that is only now becoming widely recognized, is concern for what is actually in the product you feed – ingredient quality, integrity and wholesomeness. Just as we become educated what is healthy for ourselves – carb and calorie counting, natural and organic ingredients and so on – it is very important to become educated on how to interpret what your pet’s food label is really telling you.

Sadly, the way the law is set out means there are a number of ‘tricks’ that some petfood companies use to mislead and confuse consumers – or at the least, make their products look better than they really are.

The ingredients panel is listed in the order of predominance by weight. Those ingredients that make up the majority of the blend come first. Try to look for meat as the number one ingredient unless you are feeding a premix or there are other special circumstances.

Be wary of packages with beautiful illustrations of plump fresh veggies and fruits, but the veggies and fruits actually appear toward the very end of the ingredient list – this means they don’t actually make up much of the final recipe.

Try not to buy food from a manufacturer who indulges in the shady practice of ‘ingredient splitting’. A food might contain 40% corn but if the manufacturer divides the corn into its individual components (corn meal, corn gluten, corn flour, corn germ, corn bran and ground corn cob are just a few of the possibilities), then each of these components might only make up say, 6% of the total formula. This means they can be dispersed throughout the ingredient list, pushing something else up to the ‘number one spot’.

Meat can show up in dog food in a number of different forms. Meat meals are a common ingredient in dry foods and basically mean that the moisture has been removed, so that the finished dried product can be ground into a powdery consistency. Chicken meal, lamb meal or some other specifically named meat in a meal form is OK. ‘Poultry Meal’, ‘Meat Meal’ or worse yet – ‘Meat & Bone Meal’ should be avoided. These are generic terms that encompass a selection of anonymous meats and in some cases might even include road kill, or other meats that are unfit for human consumption.

Labels on dry food (kibble) products that list fresh meat in their ingredient panel can have pros and cons. Fresh meat undergoes less processing than meal, but the fact that the listing is in order of predominance by weight means a fresh meat will invariable be listed as the #1 ingredient. In fact, after kibble processing is complete, the fresh meats moisture will all be removed, so that the actual equivalent amount of meat protein in the finished product is less than if a meal had been used in the first place.

The vitamins and minerals listed in the ingredient panel also provide good insight into the product. The company’s vitamin premix will be listed in the lower portion of the list and shows what the company had to add, in order to make the food ‘nutritionally complete’. A very long list of vitamins and minerals indicates that the raw ingredients the company started off with, were probably pretty devoid of nutrition – or the extreme heat and pressure the food underwent, destroyed them. This is not always the case – but more often than not, a very long list of added vitamins and minerals shows that the real food ingredients are minimal or low in nutritional value. Try to find a food with lots of real, recognizable, food ingredients and a premix with just a few added vitamins & minerals.

The guaranteed analysis consists primarily of protein, fat, fiber, moisture, and sometimes ash. Protein does not always relate to the quantity or quality of meat in the finished product. Some foods contain ingredients such as ‘poultry by-products’ which might include beaks, feet and feathers. These will add to the total protein content of the finished product but will likely be highly un-digestible and of little nutritional value to the pet. They may even put an additional strain on the liver, kidneys and other systems as the body tries to digest them. Try to avoid by-products at all costs. If you see them on the label, put down the bag and move on.

A guaranteed analysis that shows high fat is not a detrimental as it might sound. Dogs are very capable of utilizing quite high levels of fat and do not suffer with cholesterol as humans do. Beware of added animal fat in the ingredient list, which may be loaded with chemical preservatives. Ideally, animal fat should come from the meat.

Conversely, a high fiber content, which humans may seek for themselves, are not necessarily the best option for our animal companions. High fiber may also be indicative of high carbohydrates and a mounting wall of research is showing that high carbs are neither natural nor desirable for pets.

Ash relates to the total mineral content of the food. While it should not be excessively high, it does not in fact mean that the manufacturer added ‘ash’ or burned material to its finished product.

Be wary of pet food labels that tell you never to add any home made or fresh ingredients to you pet’s food. They are trying to ensure you feed their food alone, to make you buy more if it! While it is not advisable to feed excessive amounts of meat along with kibble, many pets will benefit from added healthy extras. The average domesticated canine’s digestive system is not so primitive that it cannot tolerate a variety of ingredients throughout the week, so don’t be brainwashed into thinking you should only feed the same food for every meal, day after day.

A pet food label can be a mine of useful information – and can also be used to cleverly mislead customers about what is in a product, with the use of illustrations, product names (be wary of products marketed by major ‘conventional’ manufacturers touting their wares as ‘natural’ or ‘holistic’. Including carrots and one or two herbs in a formulation, does not constitute a natural product. Always read the ingredients panel and determine how many additives are also included to give a truer picture and view the company’s marketing tactics with caution until you read what’s really in the food.

The Honest Kitchen is a manufacturer of 100% natural, guaranteed human grade foods for dogs and cats. 1-866 4 DRY-RAW.

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