As a loving pet parent, there’s a good chance you’ve stood in front of a pet food aisle for far longer than you had time for, looking at bag after bag of food and wondering … just what exactly am I supposed to get? What is the difference between premium, super premium, natural, gourmet, and just plain dog food?
Food quality is one of the key elements in keeping our pets healthy. Reading the label – rather than just the product name – is how we ensure we’re getting the quality our pets need. And when we know what to look for, reading the labels lets us know the difference between marketing and facts.
Here’s what you need to know in order to make that distinction.
Who Determines What Is Safe for a Dog to Eat?
In the United States, there are two organizations that oversee pet food: the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the non-governmental Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
Although pet food brands are not required to have pre-market approval from the FDA, the ingredients used in the food must have been approved as safe by the agency and must have an appropriate function in the food. The FDA will also occasionally conduct audits of manufacturing facilities and issue recalls when necessary.
The AAFCO, on the other hand, does not have regulatory authority and so cannot force manufacturers to meet their standards. It does, however, set nutritional guidelines that brands must meet to claim their product is adequately nutritious. If a product has been formulated to meet those guidelines, the label will include "(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Proﬁles."
Some products are tested using a feeding trial protocol established by the AAFCO - that is, the product has been fed to dogs or cats and found to provide adequate nutrition. These will include the statement "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition."
Note that the standards set by AAFCO are the bare minimum levels at which a nutrient should be included to keep an animal healthy. They do not require that a product meet optimal levels of nutrition, nor does it mean that the ingredients used meet any quality standards.
Decoding the Dog Food Ingredient List
Many pet owners already know that, since ingredients are listed in order of their weight relative to the other ingredients, it’s preferable that a named meat or fish be at the top of the list.
However, reading the rest of the label remains just as important, not only because could there be harmful ingredients further down the list, but because of the practice known as “splitting.”
Using this practice, food manufacturers can “split” undesirable ingredients by listing them as their different parts, thus artificially driving down their weight compared to the meat.
For example, a brand might list their top ingredients as chicken meal, ground rice, rice bran, wheat flour, and ground whole wheat. With a careful reading of the label we can see that, although chicken meal is listed first, adding all the wheat parts and rice parts together would be enough to put those first on the list. This would make that particular product more grains than actual meat.
As to the meat ingredients themselves, there are a few things to note about how meats are used in pet food, especially the mysterious “meat meal” used by almost all brands in the market.
Simply put, meat meal is the dry product of a process called rendering. This process intentionally overcooks the meat, taking out almost all its moisture until all that’s left is a highly concentrated powder.
This powder can be a great source of protein. However, because the intense heat of the rendering process also kills bacteria, viruses, parasites and other organisms, manufacturers are allowed to include meat from so-called 4D livestock animals (dead, dying, diseased or disabled). Not all manufacturers use this type of meat to make their meal, but if a manufacturer doesn’t list the name of the meat used or is vague about the source of its ingredients, it should be considered a red flag.
Another common and controversial meat ingredient is the by-product. Unless the brand states that it uses human-grade ingredients, pet food is usually made from the parts of the animal carcass that are left over after the edible (by human standards) meat is sold for consumption. These remains can include the lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, blood, bone, fatty tissue, as well as the stomach and intestines that have been cleaned of their contents.
It’s good to remember that your pet is not as picky as you are when it comes to the parts of the animal they eat, and by-products are not necessarily harmful. But just like with the “meat meal” above, the question is the quality of the protein source. If the manufacturer is using 4D meat, these by-products can be a poor choice of meat to feed your dog.
With these products, it is essential to make sure that every source of meat is named. Ingredients generically labeled “meat meal” or “meat by-products” are very possibly coming from a variety of animals that can include diseased zoo animals or even euthanized dogs and cats.
Further down the ingredient list we start running into the “unpronounceables,” that is, the ingredients with chemical-sounding names. Most of these ingredients are generally preservatives, vitamins, minerals, or other types of supplements needed to achieve what the AAFCO considers acceptable nutrition for the type of pet.
Although these ingredients have to be approved by the FDA, some have caused a lot of controversy.
One example is ethoxyquin, which was approved by the FDA for use as a chemical antioxidant and a pesticide. During the 1990s, the FDA received complaints of the chemical being linked to cancer, allergic reactions, skin issues, and organ failure in pets. Although the agency didn’t believe there was enough evidence to support the claims, the manufacturer eventually conducted another study that showed ethoxyquin could accumulate in the liver and raise liver-related enzymes. This led the FDA to ask the pet food industry to voluntarily lower the levels in dog foods from 150 ppm to 75 ppm, which it considers benign levels.
It’s worth noting, however, that the study cited by the FDA was conducted by the chemical’s manufacturer and not by independent, unbiased sources.
The Hidden Messages on the Dog Food Bag
Although product names are largely created for marketing purposes, they are also regulated to keep companies from misleading the public. Knowing what to look for can save you time and money by letting you rule out undesirable choices very quickly.
AAFCO has five main rules for labeling, known as the 100%, 95%, 25%, “with” and “flavor” rules.
The 100% rule says that a product named “All-Chicken” or “All-Beef” - or really anything promising to be 100% made of one protein source - must be 100% composed of that ingredient, except for the water needed to process it and any color needed to differentiate it from human food.
The 95% rule applies to food with few ingredients and states that, for a food to use that source in its name (e.g. Chicken Food for Dogs), the product must be at least 95% composed of that food source, not counting the water needed for processing. (Counting the water, the product must be at least 70% of the contents.)
The 25% rule states that, if the protein source makes up less than 95% of the food but more than 25%, it can appear in the product name but with a qualifying term like “Dinner”, “Entrée”, or “Formula.” And, if the label lists more than one protein source, then that combination must add up to 25% of the product and be listed in order of how much of it is present. If there is more chicken than tuna, for example, then the dinner should be named “Chicken and Tuna Dinner.”
Under the "3%" or "with" rule, AAFCO allows the term “with” in the product name to point out ingredients that are at least 3% of the product.
This means that something called Awesomely Paw Lickin’ Dinner with Chicken for Dogs is only required to be 3% chicken, while the not-so-flamboyantly marketed “Chicken Food for Dogs” must be 95% or more chicken, leaving little space for fillers or other ingredients that you might not want to feed your pet.
Under the “flavor” rule, a product can claim to have, for example, chicken flavor without adding any actual chicken. It simply needs an amount sufficient to be detected. This is often done with meat meal, meat by-products, stocks or broth. To avoid misleading labels, the AAFCO requires manufacturers to add the word “flavor” in the same style, size and color as the rest of the name. So, note that Awesomely Paw Lickin’ Dinner with Chicken Flavor could possibly contain very little chicken, if at all.
With the guaranteed analysis, the manufacturer certifies that the basic needed ingredients are included at minimum levels for the type of food, whether dry or canned. For example, crude protein (the “crude” refers to the method of testing, not to the nutrient) and crude fat should reach a minimum level established by the AAFCO since those are essential nutrients the dog needs. Crude fiber and moisture are also essential but should not surpass a specific threshold since the food would be diluted or cause stomach problems from an excess of fiber. In fact, the maximum percentage moisture content for a pet food is 78%, except for products labeled as a "stew," "in sauce," "in gravy," which need more water to keep their texture.
At the very minimum, the feeding directions should include how much to feed your pets according to their weight in this format: “feed___ cups per ___ pounds of body weight daily.” These are meant to be starting guidelines, since all pets are different. It’s wise to start with these and then adjust according to your pets’ needs, activity level, and metabolism.
Calories are listed as “kilocalories per kilogram” but they are the same as the calories that appear on food labels meant for humans. If you and your vet have agreed on a weight loss goal for your pet, talk to her about the optimal caloric content and how to compare calories between canned and dry food.
Other Dog Food Claims
Unfortunately, the Premium, Super Premium, Ultra-Premium, Gourmet and similar labels, do not mean much at all. Manufacturers are not required to use higher quality ingredients in order to label their food premium, although some brands might choose to do so and will certainly charge accordingly.
The terms “natural” or “organic” are not strictly regulated either and buyers often mistakenly believe they are interchangeable. Legally, “natural” is understood to mean that the food does not contain artificial preservatives, colors or flavors, and has not undergone chemical alterations except for the addition of vitamins and minerals. However, there are no rules defining what organic means in terms of pet food. Some brands might manufacture their food to the same standards as organic food for humans, but there is no guarantee.
The Bottom Line on Dog Food Labels
The good news is that although we might not have control over our pets’ breeds and temperaments, we do have control over one of the crucial factors to their longevity and wellbeing – the food they eat. While it might seem tempting to save by going for cheaper brands, investing in higher quality food can help us save on vet visits and even lead to a longer, happier life for our loved ones.