How to Read Dog Food Labels Properly

Most of us dog owners recognize the importance of reading food labels when picking out their next meal, but we don't always know exactly what it all means. If you've ever found reading food labels to be a bit of a headache, you're not alone.

Understanding what sort of ingredients your dog is consuming, the content levels, and where it's all coming from is so important in making sure they're getting all the proper nutrients they need. Taking time to read over labels is the best way to make sure you're investing in your dog's nutrition - but it doesn't have to be a time sucker if you know how to navigate a label.

In this article, we'll give you the rundown on how to read and understand dog food labels, what to look for and what to look out for, so you can feel confident on what food might be a good fit for your dog.

Pet Food Regulations

While pet food labels are strictly regulated in the United States, the pet food industry as a whole is largely unregulated. This means that the labels on the packaging are fitted to meet certain qualifications, but ultimately the contents of what goes inside the product your dog (or cat) is consuming is left unregulated and could be vastly different from one pet food formula to another.

This can be scary news for pet owners that just want an easy way to make sure their pets are getting the right nutrients to lead strong and healthy lives - thats why staying educated on where ingredients are sourced and establishing label laws are both so important. You deserve to know what exactly is in your pet's food so you are equipped to make the best decision possible.

Ultimately, the FDA regulates the manufacturing of pet food in the US, partnering with the State Department of Agriculture to carry out quality control on a state by state level.

Regulations from the AAFCO can also impact the ingredients (especially meat) going into pet food. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (or AAFCO) is a private organization that provides model regulations of the sale and distribution of animal feeds and drug remedies that many states have adopted. There are certain ingredient definitions that labels have to fit in order to meet the AAFCO's stamp of approval. Even so, some companies who's formula meets these requirements may not be up to par on the nutrition value your dog deserves. Or, most importantly, it may not be clearly stated.

Understanding Different Parts of a Label

First things first: when you're reading over a food label, it's helpful to understand the basic layout of dog food packaging and the different parts that make up the label.

The main parts that are required to be on all FDA approved dog food labels are as follows:

  • Ingredient list: ingredients are listed in order of predominance by weight, including inherent water content. This is important when comparing quantity claims.
  • Guaranteed Analysis: Provides a guarantee of minimum percentages of crude proteins and crude fat, as well as maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture ("crude" referring to the method of testing rather than the quality).
  • AAFCO or nutritional adequacy statement: States that the product has been formulated to fit the the nutritional levels established by AAFCO.
  • Net Quantity Statement: Tells you how much of the product is in each bag or container.
  • Calorie Statement: Also known as "Calorie Content" which tells you the calorie measurements by weight (kilocalories per kilogram) and volume (kilocalories per cup/can).
  • Feeding Directions: Focuses on portion control and who the product is for (puppies, seniors, all breeds, etc.).
  • Manufacturer's name and number: Identifies what party is responsible for the quality and safety of the product - there may be an outside party used to manufacture the product, but the name on the bag is still held responsible.

Deciphering the Label - What Does It All Mean?

One of the most confusing aspects of dog food labels is deciphering what it all means. The information is at your fingertips, but there are a few helpful things you should note when picking out your pup's next meal.

Product name

The product name is one of the first things we see when reading a label. Most of us would expect the title to be clear on what is truly inside the container. However, you want to be able to know the right questions to ask to see if it's a food that will fit your dog’s needs rather than blindly trusting a company's marketing work. In other words, the wording of the product name does matter.

In her Pet Food Label Seminar, Dr. Karen Becker shares the different wordings on food labels and what it all means:

  • "&": If you see the word "and" on a food label (as in "chicken & veggies"), that means that 70% of the contents within that bag have to be a combination of both.
  • "Entree": Products including the words "entree", "dinner", or "formula", require a minimum of 10% of the ingredients listed in the title to be in the bag.
  • "With": The word "with" means 3% of the ingredients listed afterward are included.
  • "Flavor": Product names containing the word "flavor" have almost 0% of the indicated ingredient, and instead use a flavor additive.

That being said, don't get freaked out if you see any of these words but rather keep these definitions in mind so you know what to look for when you continue reading the back of the product label.

Ingredient Splitting

Ingredient splitting is extremely common in dog food, and while it's not inherently a bad thing, you should be aware of what it means. By definition, ingredient splitting is the subdivision of an ingredient, typically a lesser one, into multiple smaller portions. This allows for that particular ingredient to become more abundant than the one labeled as first.

Ingredients are measured and listed by weight before any dehydration or compression takes place. Because the high water content in meats contributes to most of their weight, this allows meats to be often placed first on a food label. Ingredient splitting could mean that there is actually less meat and more of another ingredient listed further down that has just been divided into different forms.

Another tip when deciphering ingredient lists is to pay attention to where salt is listed - everything listed below it is typically less than 1%.

What Should You Look For on a Label?

Every ingredient in pet food is either feed grade or food grade. Food grade refers to products suitable for human consumption, while feed grade includes products destined for animal consumption. Gravitating towards products made with human-grade ingredients is always advised, as you know the product is formulated safely enough for even yourself to eat.

Cheaper ingredients and potentially synthetic minerals such as oxides and sulfates can be filtered into feed-grade products. Because of this, there are a few things you should try to avoid seeing in your dog's food.

What to avoid:

Products that use an unspecified term for an ingredient such as "meat" or "poultry" are generally not an ideal protein source that your dog will get sufficient nutrients from. Often these will be labeled as a "meal" or "digest".

Why should you avoid it?

For one, it's a vague term for where the meat is coming from and two, it's always a good idea to know what proteins your dog is ingesting for identifying allergens if any food sensitivities happen develop in the future.

Another thing to watch out for is ingredients specifically labelled with the term by-product. If a label states something like "beef by-product", you'll want to avoid that. However if it's a much more specific term such as "beef liver", that would be considered safe to eat. While some by-products such as liver or pancreas are wonderful for dogs, the problem lies with a lack of regulation over the term - with the liver and pancreas, tumors and diseased tissues or other harmful ingredients could also be included under this umbrella term of "by-products".

Finding Quality Pet Food With Raw Bistro

Opting for a raw diet is always our top suggestion, as our frozen raw dog foods are formulated as true rotational diets with real, ethically sourced ingredients. Additionally, there are tons of fabulous home recipes out there to try out.

Whatever meal option you decide is the best fit for you and your dog, know that it does not have to be an all or nothing choice. Mixing raw food into their current diet can help rotate a plethora of nutrients they might be missing out on from just one singular food form. Some is better than none!

The best way to stay on top of what your dog needs is to stay informed. Now that you've got a good idea on how to navigate the confusing world of pet food labels, you are prepared to evaluate like an expert!

Here at Raw Bistro, we strive to make sourcing nutritious meals easy and stress-free. Check out our complete and balanced raw food for a meal your dog will love.

Remember, the best decision when it comes to sourcing your dog's next meal is the one that fits you and your dog's personal needs.