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How to Read a Pet Food Label?

We all want the best for our companion and that includes healthy nutrition. There are hundreds of brands with innumerable ingredients; wet, dry, and raw food; life stage specific food; restricted diets and more are available on the market.

The label is the best tool to use when you make a choice, but it can be hard to understand.

What can be found on the pet food label?

All pet food labels must include the following information:

  • Product and brand name
  • Quantity in terms of product weight
  • Guaranteed analysis
  • Ingredients
  • Declaration of nutritional adequacy such as the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standard
  • Feeding directions 
  • Best before date 
  • Manufacturer’s name and address 

Product name

In certain cases, the product name can give you an idea of the ingredients used to make the food. 

Here are the four AAFCO rules on product names: 

  • The 95 Percent Rule:
    When you see products named “Chicken for Dogs”, they must include at least 95% chicken. In addition, this main ingredient must be at least 70% of the total product when counting the added water.
     
  • The 25 Percent Rule:
    When you see products named “Chicken Dinner for Dogs”, the named ingredients must be at least 25%, but less than 95% of the total ingredients (not including the water). In this case, the product name must include a qualifying term such as “dinner”, “entrée” or “platter”. Including the added water, the named ingredients must still represent 10% of the product. If more than one ingredient is included in a “dinner”, the combination of named ingredients must comprise at least 25% of the product, each ingredient must be at least 3% of the total product, and they must be listed in the same order as on the ingredient list.
  • The “With” Rule:
    When you see products named “Dog food With Chicken”, the “With” ingredient needs only to be at least 3% of the product.

The Flavor Rule: 

  • According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), if the label says, “Chicken Flavor Dog Food”, then a specific percentage (of chicken) is not required. However, the product must contain a sufficient amount of chicken to be detected.

Quantity 

The quantity listed on the label tells you how much of the food is in the bag/box. This may be measured by weight, liquid measure or by count.

Guaranteed analysis

Pet food labels must display the percentage of minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber and maximum moisture (water).

Ingredients

The ingredients section is the most important part of the label to read. It will give you an excellent idea on the quality of the food. Ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight. Each ingredient must be listed individually and according to AAFCO regulations, ingredients must be listed by their “common or usual name”. The AAFCO regulation has a detailed list of ingredients, their common names and what they contain.

Protein content is one of the most important parameters to examine and is the most expensive nutrient in a pet food formula. Protein from animal sources is generally more expensive than protein from vegetable sources. Chicken is more expensive than corn gluten meal or soybean meal (plant-based protein sources). So, it is obvious that seeing meat as the first ingredient generally indicates a higher quality of protein used.


Chicken fat, vegetable oil and various sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil and flaxseed are the main sources of fat to use. It is always better to be able to clearly identify the source of the fat or oil. For example, animal fat may be a combination of different fat sources that are difficult to identify.

A complete pet food should also provide carbohydrates. As a source of fiber, we can find beet pulp, pea fiber, dried tomatoes, alfalfa, miscanthus grass, cellulose, etc. Grains such as rice, corn, barley, and oats are an excellent source of starch. However, in grain-free formulas, cereals are replaced by other sources of starch such as peas, lentils, chickpeas or potatoes. They play an identical role in providing energy to the animal.

Nutritional adequacy statement

The pet food should meet specific government standards and provide complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages of adult dogs/cats, as determined by AAFCO: ‘’ The food has to contain the proper amount and ratio of essential nutrients for the needs of a healthy pet’’.

Often the declaration of nutritional adequacy identifies the life stage for which the food is appropriate. Here are the recognized stages:

  • Gestation/lactation
  • Growth
  • Maintenance
  • All life stages

Feeding directions 

The label tells you how much food you should feed your pet on a daily basis depending on their weight and/or activity level. This information is given either by weight of food per gram/pound or by amount of food per cup. It also includes an indication of calories per kg/cup. However, breed, temperament, environment and many other factors can influence the amount of food intake.

Best Before Date

On every pet food bag or box, you should be able to find the ‘’best before’’ date or date of manufacturing, which guarantees the freshness of the food. Due to the nature of the ingredients used in all pet foods, fat can go rancid. Expired pet foods offer less nutritional value and, beside the rancidity, can also develop harmful bacteria or moulds that can make your companion sick.

Manufacturer’s contact details

On every pet food bag or box, you should be able to find the manufacturer’s name, the address and maybe a website address if you need to reach the manufacturer for any questions or concerns regarding the food.

What are the new trends in the pet food industry?

Here are some trends that you can find in the pet food industry:

  • Organic 
  • Natural
  • Grain-free
  • No Corn, no wheat, no soy 
  • Lite, low-calorie, low-fat
  • No artificial preservatives, coloring, or artificial flavoring


Organic

There are currently no formal regulations specific to the labelling of organic pet foods. For the moment, organic pet food is defined in the same way as organic human food.

Is organic pet food better? We must say that making organic pet food is quite difficult because of the rarity of the ingredients. Those ingredients are in competition with human food and make those pet food formula very expensive. It is possible that some pets with sensitive stomachs may do better with organic food but in general it is not necessary.

Natural

For the most part, the term “natural” can be considered equivalent to the non-use of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives in the product. It should not include any artificial chemicals at the exception of the vitamins and microminerals that are essential for the health of the animal but cannot be synthesized. A logo on the bag should specify the addition of vitamins and microminerals.


Grain-free 

There is no real scientific evidence that supports the benefits of grain-free pet food. The grain-free diet is simply using other sources of starch.

Pets need a source of various essential nutrients in their diet, such as protein, fat, fiber, minerals, vitamins and carbohydrates (such as starch, a sugar that provides energy for dogs and cats). Usually, pet food manufacturers use different sources of carbohydrates, such as corn, barley, rice and oats. Grains provide not only starch but also fiber and certain minerals and vitamins.

However, for various reasons, some pet food companies have decided to use peas, potatoes, lentils, chickpeas, tapioca starch, pea starch or potato starch instead of using grains as a source of starch.

Starch is starch, whether it comes from grains or not!

No Corn, no Wheat, no Soy

The claim ‘’No corn, no wheat, no soy’’ is more of a marketing one and directed to people who want to avoid those ingredients. Some pets might have some allergic reaction or discomfort to those ingredients, but this it is not common among pets.

Lite, Low-calorie, and Low-fat

To use one of these terms, the food must have a significant reduction in calories or fats compared to the standard pet food. The AAFCO requires that labels making these claims must show the percentage reduction in calories or fats and reference a comparison product. For example: The Lite formula X is 10% lower in energy on comparison with the Adult maintenance formula Y.

No artificial preservatives, coloring, or artificial flavoring

Some pet foods claim that they do not add any artificial components. This has a marketing impact but also an impact on the health of the pet.Some pet owners do not want to buy foods that contain the synthetic preservatives such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), or ethoxyquin. Some companies still use those chemical components, and it is up to the pet owner to decide if they fit with their nutritional philosophy.

  1. AAFCO regulations
  2. The American Kennel Club
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Pet Food Labels: General.”
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Pet Food: The Lowdown on Labels.”
  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Feed Ban Enhancement: Implementation Questions and Answers.”
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