Many people are starting to look beyond fancy packaging and healthy-sounding add-ons such as sage and quinoa when choosing the best dog food for their fur babies. Learn how to read the ingredient list to understand what they actually mean for your pet’s health.
We are becoming more aware of the value of checking the label before buying food products for our consumption and our pets. More dog owners are more conscious about what their four-legged friends eat to keep them healthy and happy. But do you really understand what you are reading?
To help you understand these labels better, we have come up with a list of the most common terms included in commercially available pet food products. We briefly explain what they mean and their relevance to your primary concern, your pet’s health.
AAFCO and USDA
First, let’s understand how these labels are produced by understanding the basic guidelines pet food manufacturers need to follow.
Two major organizations regulate the ingredients of dog food products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the institution that checks on the federal level. On the state level, most follow the guidelines set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a private non-profit organization, to study, determine and quantify the ingredients animal feeds. The two organizations constantly update their guidelines by regularly conducting safety reviews.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will also come into play if a dog food product claims to be Organic. For these instances, The National Organic Program of the USDA will check if the product meets their standards for organic products.
Words and Phrases
Reading through the labels can be challenging to understand as the language on these dog food products. The word used on the labels can be very confusing for many consumers. We listed and categorized the most commonly used words and phrases plus vital information to help you figure out what is good and what is not so good for your pet.
The words and phrases listed here are regulated and must pass specific standards to allow the manufacturer to use them. If these words or phrases are on the label, they meet the standards set by their corresponding regulating body.
Organic – Under NOP guidelines, pet foods that are Certified Organic must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The process of growing and handling organic ingredients must also be satisfied. Manufacturers of pet foods may use the term “organic” if they satisfy the manufacturing and handling requirements of the NOP.
Human Grade – According to the AAFCO, dog foods can be labeled “Human-Grade” if the ingredients are fit for human consumption and the production process follows regulations suitable for human consumption. In other words, the facilities, procedures, and materials used must pass the same requirements when producing food products for human consumption. This is actually rare and not even necessary as food requirements for a dog are different from humans.
Any third party does not regulate the words and phrases listed below. This means that manufacturers describe their products using these words and phrases without having to prove it is true or not.
Holistic or Wholesome – it is supposed to denote a complete and balanced approach to health. In most cases, such claims can be tough to prove, especially since most pet foods cannot exhaustively list the source, production process, and quality of their ingredients to prove that they are holistic.
All-Natural, 100% Natural or Natural – Stating this means that the source of the ingredients must be all-natural, and the production process must be done by natural means as well. If such claims are accurate, all-natural products may lack critical vitamins and minerals needed by dogs since most are synthetic hence not naturally manufactured.
Amino Acids – Dogs need certain amino acids as part of their daily food intake to maintain their health. Most of these amino acids can be found in many protein-rich foods such as meat. Many dog food manufacturers include a list of amino acids included in their products. Here is a list of the essential amino acids for dogs that you might want to look for on your dog foods label.
Animal (Meat) Products – Dogs need sufficient protein in their diet, which they usually get from animal products. Listed here are the different categories as defined by the AAFCO.
- Animal By-Product Meal –composed of animal tissues
- Animal Digest –by-products of the degradation of animal tissue
- Dried Egg Product- as the phrase implies, it comes from dried eggs removed from eggshells
- Meat – Any muscle from mammals, including the blood vessels, diaphragm, esophagus, fat, heart, nerves, tongue, and skin
- Meat and Bone Meal- Any bone and other tissue from mammals
- Meat By-Products –any unprocessed body parts of mammals, which include bones, blood, and other organs
- Meat Meal – all mammal tissue
- Poultry – Any muscle from domesticated birds, which may include the blood vessels, diaphragm, esophagus, fat, heart, nerves, tongue, and skin
- Poultry By-Product – Whole poultry carcass, which includes feet, head, and organs
- Poultry By-Product Meal – tissue from poultry, which includes undeveloped eggs, feet, neck, and other organs
- Poultry Meal – any poultry tissue that does not include the feathers, feet, head, and organs
Plant Products –These products are the primary sources of carbohydrates, fiber, and even some protein in dog food. Here are some of typical plant products found in dog food.
- Cellulose – Fiber source that also prevents your dog from overeating
- Grains – Refers to any grains such as barley, corn, oats, rice, rye, or wheat
- Grain By-Products – This may refer to any of the following:
- Bran – Contains fiber, Omega-3, minerals, and vitamins
- Endosperm– Contains starch and gluten, sources of energy and protein
- Hull– Roughage
- Meal and flour or ground grain – Contains high starch levels for energy
- Middling – By-product of milling grain; Good source of fiber, protein, and phosphorous
- Whole Grain – No part of the grain is removed.; bran, germ, and endosperm of the grain are intact
- Refined Grain – bran and germ are removed; retains only the endosperm
- Corn – This can be any of the following:
- Corn flour, cornmeal, whole corn, or ground corn – Source of carbohydrates for energy
- Cornstarch –Hypoallergenic product used as a thickening agent
- Corn gluten – Source of protein
Fats and Oils – These are necessary to your pet’s health since they give energy and other health benefits. Fats and oils also have the added benefits of making dog food more palatable and fun to eat. Listed below are some of the essential fats and oil.
- Omega-3 and Omega-6 – antioxidants that help prevent inflammation and promote healthier hair, skin, and joints
- Animal fat – the primary source of Omega 6 fatty acids. It may also come out as chicken, beef, or pork fat on the product labels.
- Coconut or Palm Kernel Oil – This may help improve cognitive function in senior dogs
- Fish Oils – This is a primary source of Omega 3 fatty acids. Also called salmon oil.
- Glycerin – has no health value; used mainly to keep the food soft and moist.
- Vegetable Oils – Also a source of Omega 6 fatty acids; may also present as canola oil or sunflower oil
Hydrolyzed Protein – This type of protein is hypoallergenic, easy to absorb, and digest extracted from vegetables and poultry feathers.
Legumes – A variety of beans or lentils used as an alternative to grains, it may include any of the following:
- Pea fiber – Insoluble fiber derived from ground pea hulls
- Pea protein – Source of iron and lysine to promote healthy muscles and build immunity
- Soybean flour – Source of various vitamins and minerals such as essential amino acids, fiber, fatty acids, B vitamins, potassium, and protein.
Minerals – Mineral supplements are usually added to dog food. For example, sodium chloride is typically added to stimulate increased water consumption. The most common minerals added to dog food in varying amounts are Calcium, Chloride, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium, Sulfur, etc. Other
Natural Flavors – Typically in the form of broth or spices, this can be a combination of any ingredient to enhance the flavor of the food that must comply with AAFCO’s standard for natural ingredients.
Gums – These help keep your dog’s colon and intestinal system healthy. The most common types of gum used on dog food are carrageenan, cassia, guar, and xanthan.
Preservatives – These are ingredients used to preserve food longer and increase its shelf-life. Common natural preservatives include ascorbic acid, calcium propionate, and mixed tocopherols, while artificial preservatives, which tend to be more effective, include BHA, BHT, and Ethoxyquin.
Probiotics – These are beneficial bacteria introduced to the GI tract. They promote a healthier digestive system. They also help prevent inflammatory bowel disease and gastroenteritis and decrease the effects of food allergies. Examples of probiotic formulas are bifidobacteria, enterococcus, and lactobacillus.
Root Vegetables – This may include any of the following:
- Beet pulp – Contains fiber
- Cassava root flour –Contains carbohydrates for energy and minerals such as iron, manganese, and zinc
- Potato protein – May be added for prescription pet foods
- Potato starch – Used as a substitute for grain
- Potatoes – Contains carbohydrates for energy
Vitamins – Vitamin supplements are also usually added to the label and are typically shown by their popular names such as Vitamin B, C, or Biotin.
If you want to dig deeper, check the Guaranteed Analysis, which you will find on all commercially available dog food labels. Look for the AAFCO Nutrient Requirements for Dogs and compare it with the label’s Guaranteed Analysis. If the percentages in the Guaranteed Analysis are within the AAFCO standards, then the dog food is probably a good choice.
Special Diet for Disabled Dogs
The recommended nutrient values for dogs typically hold true across all breeds. The difference is the amount of food you give based on their size. Smaller dogs tend to have a higher metabolism, so they need relatively more calories than large ones.
Most commercial dog food would provide the recommended quantities per weight range right on the label. Your dog might want more or less than the suggested amount, depending on individual peculiarities. You will be able to tell either way if your dog is gaining or losing too much weight. Check out the typical weight range according to breed and gender here.
But another factor that might come into consideration is the activity level. Dogs with high activity levels will require more fat than sedentary dogs, so pay special attention to the fat content in the Guaranteed Analysis. Disabled dogs typically qualify as sedentary because of their limited mobility, unless they regularly use dog wheelchairs, in which case they should do fine with the regular diet for a dog their size.
Knowing what is written on the label and understanding what they mean and their purpose will definitely help, but there is a faster and shorter way of finding out if the dog food you are checking is safe and healthy for your dog. Look for the following phrase “This product is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.” If you see this, you have the assurance that a specific dog food product is safe and healthy, providing a complete and balanced meal.
As always, when in doubt, consult with your vet. Your dog might have special needs you don’t know that would affect your choice of dog food ingredients.