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Shopping For A New Pet Food? How to Decipher Pet Food Labels

According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent an estimated $52 billion dollars on their pets in 2012, with an estimated $19 billion of that being spent of pet food.  Clearly Americans love their pets, and as pet food recalls have heightened pet owners’ concerns about pet food safety and nutrition, many “Premium” foods have entered the market, competing for those dollars.  With the typical pet super market containing 6-8 aisles of dog food and 4-5 aisles of cat food, how is the health conscious pet owner to decipher the labels and choose the best food for their pet with a reasonable price tag?

The Cover Story: Food, Recipes and Flavors – What’s in The Bag?
The FDA and the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) have regulated guidelines for how pet foods products may be labeled and marketed.  Many so called premium dog foods have found creative marketing tactics for dodging these regulations while luring consumers with promises of holistic or evolutionary diets. 

When I first learned that FDA requirements stated that a dog food labeled as “Salmon for Dogs” must contain at least 95% salmon (by weight percentage), I was stuck by the fact that my premium dry dog kibble barely even smells like seafood. I went to double check the label.  My premium food calls itself a “Life Protection Formula,” later defined in smaller print as a “Fish and Sweet Potato Recipe.”  Many other ingredients follow on the side of the package so what gives?

Recipes, Dinners and Formulas fall under different rules with regards to FDA and AAFCO labeling regulations.  A pet food using one of these monikers need only contain between 25% and 95% of the main ingredient listed on the front label.  The food must contain more of the first listed ingredient on the label than the following label ingredients.  So my fish and sweet potato formula, by AAFCO regulations, might only contain 13% fish and 12% sweet potato.  If it said “Fish, Sweet Potato and Oatmeal Recipe,” I might expect the food to contain perhaps 10% fish, 8% sweet potato and 7% oatmeal. Other terms used under this rule include entrée, platter, pate or shreds.

Trickier still is the word “With”  Pet food bags that market ingredients using the term “with” need only contain 3% of the additional ingredient. For example, if my food bag read “sweet potatoes with fish recipe,” then the manufacturer would only be required to put 3% fish in the product.  Products with names like “TurDucKen” and “Shepherds Pie” fall completely outside of regulation.  You will have to delve deeper and check the ingredient list on the side or bottom of the package to know what the manufacturer is actually selling in that bag or can.

Finally, there is the packaging descriptor “Flavor.”  Foods that are flavored with beef, chicken or fish, have no strict percentage requirements other than it should contain a sufficient amount that the flavor be detectable by the pet. Interestingly, the product need not contain the actual product that is “flavoring” the dinner.  Manufacturers may use other ingredients that simulate the flavor, so a beef flavored dinner may not contain any beef at all.  Professional dog food taste testers determine if the flavor can be detected.  These dogs are trained to respond to the presence of a scent in order to indicate that the food possesses that essence or flavor.

Gravy, Sauce and Aspic – Purchasing Cans of Water
Moisture, the amount of water in the dog food, ranges from about 8-10% in dry Kibble to 78% in canned pet food.  AAFCO limits the amount of moisture to 78% of weight, but manufactures can add more liquid, 79%+ moisture as a percent of weight, to the overall meal by adding phrases such as “in sauce,” “in gravy” or “with aspic.”  79% or more of moisture seems like a waste of money, although for animals with kidney disease needing to increase their water intake, high moisture foods may be of value.

“Grain-free” foods do not contain wheat, soy or corn; three ingredients that animals frequently have trouble digesting.  It is interesting to note that these are three crops that have undergone substantial genetic engineering over the last few decades.  “Gluten-Free” products can include corn, but not wheat, rye or soy.  Most “sensitive stomach” formulas are based on rice, oatmeal or potato for the bulk of their carbohydrates.

Life Stages Labeling
Frequently manufacturers will divide their product lines in a series of life stages formulas.  Puppy or Kitten, Adult and senior are typical stages.  AAFCO has established two nutrient profiles each for dogs and cats—growth/lactation and maintenance—to fit their life stages.  Through feeding trials, the manufacturer tests the product on dogs or cats under strict guidelines. Products found to provide proper nutrition based on these feeding trials may carry a statement such as: "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that “This Product” provides complete and balanced nutrition for (specific life stage)."  Products found to be suitable for an adult are referred to as maintenance diets, which may or may not provide adequate nutrition for animals in the lactating or growth phase, or hard working animals.  Large Breed, Small Breed and Senior formulas mean that they meet the requirements of a maintenance, adult diet and nothing more.  “All Life Stages” diets meet both the requirements for maintenance and the higher nutritional requirements of the growth diet.

Holistic, Natural, Premium and Organic Labeling
The terms Holistic and Premium are not defined by AAFCO or the FDA and therefore have no legal meaning.  These labels are “sales puffs,” and are defined by the individual consumer’s imagination.  “Natural,” however does have a legal definition in the pet food industry.  Natural products are defined by AAFCO as:
 “A food or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis, or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts which might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

Natural products may not contain synthetic additives (which include certain dyes, preservatives and chemically produced flavor enhancers), as well as many trace elements such as taurine and vitamins which are synthetically derived. Manufacturers choosing to add vitamins or other nutrients to a “Natural” product must label their products with a disclaimer such as, “Natural ingredients with vitamins added.”

Organic foods also have a legal definition and must follow strict growing, harvesting and processing procedures. Under the current FDA standard the term organic is applied to human foods, and can only be applied to pet foods if the human standards have been met. Organic on the label indicates that the food has been produced through methods that promote cycling of resources, ecological balance and biodiversity. Furthermore organic protiens must be raised without the use of drugs such as hormones and antibiotics.
A Pet food wherein more than 95% of the ingredients meet the human standard may display the USDA organic seal. When organic contents, after moisture has been removed, are between 70%+ and 95%, the label may say, “Made with organic ingredients.” And those foods with 70% or fewer organic ingredients, may list the organic ingredients in the ingredient list, but cannot make mention of organic anywhere else on the labeling.

What does all of this mean when you are perusing the pet food aisles?  Don’t expect to find a pet food that meets the 95% rule and in order to be able to call itself a “beef” or “lamb” pet food.  Even Nature’s Variety Instinct Raw frozen food, which guarantees a minimum of 95% meat and bone meal, promotes itself as a formula. 

If you are concerned about additives and the processing of your pet’s food, you will want to see “Natural” on the label.  If hormones, antibiotics and sustainability concern you, then you will need to seek out those pet foods that proudly display the USDA Organic seal.  You will find that the manufacturers of organic pet foods are very proud of their foods and price them accordingly.  $60 for a 30 pound bag of food would be the average going price for a certified organic dog food.  And if you’re just looking for a food with a good protein balance, you will have to flip the bag or can and investigate the ingredient list further.

Once you have identified three or four pet food brands of interest, it’s time to compare the ingredient lists to see which provides the optimal value and nutritional content.

High End Dog Foods That Deliver Healthy Skin, Coat and Firm Stools


These dog foods have scored high on antioxidants and probiotics that produce firm stools and healthy, shiny coats. Consider rotating your dog through these foods on a quarterly basis to prevent food allergies from developing.

  • Castor and Pollux has freeze dried bits of vegetables and fruits that are recognizable when you are feeding your dog.  Our test dogs did very well on this foods with ultra shiny coats and small firm stools (that indicates they are easily absorbing the nutrients present in the food).
  • Taste of the Wild is the number one selling natural dog food online and a big favorite on the Dog Show Circuit. (Owned by Diamond)
  • Diamond Naturals left the Show Afghans with amazing coats and excellent muscle tone. Made in the USA
  • Canidae produced ultra shiny coats; made with all natural human grade ingredients.
Is your dog experiencing digestive issues, runny eyes or itchy skin? Check out The 5 Best Probiotics for Dogs Reviewed.

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