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The Devil Is In The Details - How to Compare Dog Food Ingredients

Comparing dog food ingredients, once you look at the paragraph on the side of the bag, may seem like it requires a PHD to decipher.  Protein meals, by-products and tocopherols abound.  Many authorities on dog food and nutrition recommend that buyers avoid any dog food containing by-products while others eschew grain based products.  Understanding dog food ingredients and their legal definitions as well as the guaranteed analysis will help you to better compare dog foods and find the best value and nutritious diet for your four legged companion.

Dog Food Ingredients Comparison 101:

The ingredients are listed on the food packaging by their weight, in descending order.  Ingredients are listed on an “as fed basis,” which can make interpretation of ingredient lists difficult, as key ingredients are regularly added with differing moisture contents. Meats contain more moisture which results in greater weight per volume, and therefore they may be listed first on the ingredient list.  Furthermore, while we are pleased to see the protein listed as the first ingredient, it may in actuality be third or lower on the least.  Manufacturers can mislead consumers through the process of “splitting” ingredients.  A label that reads:

“Turkey (natural source of glucosamine), brewers rice, corn gluten meal, poultry by-product meal (natural source of glucosamine), oat meal, whole grain wheat, corn germ meal, soy flakes, whole grain corn, soybean germ meal, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), soybean meal...”

may actually have corn as the number one ingredient.  The manufacturer has split corn into 3 ingredients: corn gluten meal, corn germ meal and whole grain corn.  In addition, many other carbohydrates follow the first ingredient, Turkey, without any additional animal meats, meals or byproducts.  We can suspect that this food’s protein level falls in the lower range of the 25-95% AAFCO protein requirement for pet food Formulas and Recipes.

Ingredient Definitions:

Animal Meat: AAFCO defines meat on an ingredient label as any combination of skeletal muscle meat or muscle meat found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, and esophagus. The meat may or may not include fat, skin, sinew, nerves, and blood vessels that normally accompany muscle. Meat as an ingredient excludes feathers, hair, hooves, horns, teeth, heads, feet, and entrails.

Animal by-products: By-products are proteins that have not been heat process (unrendered) and may contain heads, feet, lungs and organ meats such as kidneys and liver.  Hooves, hair, horns, teeth and feathers may not be included in this category.  While many people avoid products with by-products in the ingredient list, they can be more nutritious than the muscle-meat form of the protein.  Kidneys, lungs and liver are members of the by-products list and are high in nutritive value.  Udders, bone and connective tissue, which may be included are relatively low in nutritive value.  The ingredient list generally does not contain information on the quality of the ingredients used.

Animal Meal: You will frequently find Fish or Chicken meal listed in the first 4 ingredients of a pet food. Meal is derived from heat rendering the by-products to remove the moisture and fats from the by-product.  Here is an example where the rendering process reduces the moisture and weight of this ingredient, allowing for greater actual volume of meal to meat in the formula, although the meat remains a higher level ingredient on the label.

Dried Whey: An inexpensive form of dried cow’s milk which adds protein, and has been linked with some digestive allergies.

Glutens, Brans and Hulls:  Fillers that add fiber and bulk to the formula and are poor sources of protein, which may cause digestive upset.

Fruits and Vegetables:  Always a rich source of natural vitamins and antioxidants, these are a big plus on the label!
Preservatives:  Tocopherols are preservatives made from either Vitamin E or C or a combination of the two.  They are preferred to chemical preservatives such as Ethoxyquin, BHA and BHT, which are suspect to cause chronic disease and cancer.  Tocopherols are not as effective at preserving food for extended periods of time as are their chemical counterparts, especially once the seal has been broken on the packaging.  Be sure to store dry food in an air tight container after opening, if your pet food is preserved with Tocopherals.
Food Additives: The following ingredients fall into the food additive category: Vitamins, Minerals, Antioxidant preservatives, Humectants (additives that retain moisture), Antimicrobial preservatives, Coloring agents (Red Dye 40 and 3, Blue dye 2 and Yellow5 are suspected carcinogens), Flavors, Palatability enhancers and Emulsifying agents.

Guaranteed Analysis:
The FDA required that manufacturers provide a guaranteed analysis on the package.  The guaranteed analysis on the information panel of a pet food label lists the minimum levels of crude protein and fat (those ingredients that we would like to see more of) and the maximum levels of fiber and moisture (water) that will be found in the food (those fillers that we would like to see less of as they reduce the nutritive value of the food on a per cup basis). The protein and fat are listed as crude sources rather than as digestible sources, which can vary widely depending on whether they are from animal meats or meals. Double check the ingredient list to determine the sources of the protein and fat.

Generally speaking, foods high in fiber and lower in fat content make good choices for pets that need to lose weight.  Large percentages of carbohydrates and corn in particular will cause pets to gain weight, and highly active dogs will require more protein and fat to support their increased energy levels.

How Do I Know Where These Ingredients Came From?
The US requires that the name and address of the pet food manufacturer, distributor, or dealer listed on the label. When one sees phrases such as “Distributed by…” or “Manufactured for…” or “Imported by…” we can expect that a company other than the company selling the product is the actual manufacturer of the pet food. Frequently the manufacturer is listed as a co-packer.  In the US, products manufactured outside of the United States also require “Product of (country of origin).”  Also required is the date of manufacture and “Expiry Date” or “Best Before Date” the date beyond which it is recommended to feed the product.  Often retailers will discount products with fast approaching expiry dates.  So double check those when purchasing pet food discounted on a “Manager’s Special.”

What does it all mean?

When researching ingredient lists on pet food labels, look to see at least two meat based protein sources in the first 4 ingredients on the list.  Avoid pet foods that are in the practice of splitting ingredients, with individual ingredients broken down into whole grain corn, corn gluten meal, corn meal etc…Don’t pass-up products simply because they contain animal by-products.  While by-products are not appetizing to most humans, they can be a rich source of nutrition.

Many vets and the FDA recommend changing or rotating your pet’s diet between several foods every 3 or 4 months; gradually swapping over to the new food over the course on one week.  This can prevent deficiencies caused by dietary requirements as yet not fully known, as well as prevent the onset of allergies that can develop with overexposure to a particular ingredient in a single pet food.   As you rotate your pet through several products, pay attention to weight gain or undesired weight loss as well as coat shine and skin condition.  Dull coats and flakey skin indicate your pet is not getting adequate nutrition or may be developing an allergy.  Remove any food creating the undesired effect from the rotation, noting which ingredients differ in that product from the more successful foods in your pets diet.  By keeping track of those dietary ingredients on which your pet thrives and those that should be eliminated, you can sculpt the perfect diet for your pet’s individual needs.

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