How to Read Dog Food Labels
We dog care givers are now somewhat protected against misleading dog food labels. That’s because of the oversight, rules, regulations and requirements of AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). But, unless we know what these rules are and how they are applied to the wording on labels they’re of no use to us.
Some dog food manufacturers can be quite devious and will often use very clever nuances in the title and also in arrangement of words on the label that can be very different to what the dog food actually contains. Also, there is an important component to this, these rules relate just to solid material in the dog food and do not address the moisture levels.
It should be noted that pet food labeling is regulated on a federal and state-by-state basis, with only „limited“ guidance from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Please be aware of the fact that pet food producers often use terms that are undefined by the regulations to communicate more effectively with consumers and to enhance their product’s image in the market. The AAFCO warns on their website that „it is not rare at all that labeling and marketing information is designed to appeal to the latest trend in marketing human products.“
WHAT ARE THE RULES FOR WORDING?
*Chicken for Dogs: If chicken is the first word in this label, and is not combined with any other words like „dinner“ or „flavor“, etc.; in order to meet the AAFCO regulations, this product must actually contain at least 95% chicken.
*Turkey and Chicken Dog Food: By labeling it“ Turkey and Chicken Dog Food“, and nothing else, you can be relatively certain that this product is made up of 95% turkey and chicken combined, with the chicken content being slightly less than the turkey, since turkey is listed as the first ingredient.
*Chicken Nuggets for Dogs: By using the word „nuggets“ (a qualifier that many dog food companies can legally use) and since this name has the word „nuggets“ in its title, the chicken in the food is going to be less than 95% of the total ingredients, but must be at least 25%. Some of the other words manufacturers can use to get away with using less meat are „dinner“, „formula“, and „platter“. A food having this name doesn’t even have chicken in the top three ingredients!
*Chicken Flavor Dog Food: The word „flavor“ is the key to this one. AAFCO rules require that there must only be enough „chicken“ to add an actual flavor to the food. It could be chicken fat, or chicken broth, or chicken by-products, and it could be a very small amount.
*Dog Food with Chicken: A food listed as „with“ anything is required to contain only 3% of that ingredient. Dog food „with“ chicken, or „with“ beef, must contain only 3% of chicken or beef.
Now you can see what a difference the order of words makes!
Your dogs health and longevity greatly depends on feeding him or her a safe and healthy diet. But figuring out how to read and interpret dog food labels can be perplexing. If you adhere to the following guidelines you should be able to read labels and understand them well enough to compare different products with confidence.
* The labeling of all pet food is regulated on a federal and state-by-state basis, with guidance from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). However, AAFCO provides only minimum requirements. So, be aware that dog food manufacturers often use terms that are not defined by AAFCO regulations so they can make their product more appealing and enhance their brand and or product’s image to consumers. On their website the AAFCO cautions, „it is not rare at all that labeling and marketing information is designed to appeal to the latest trend in marketing human products.“
DOG FOOD LABELS – GUARANTEED ANALYSIS
* The „Guaranteed Analysis“ on the dog food label at the back of the bag is a chart that lists the percentages of various ingredients contained in that food (see an example below). The percentages listed for protein, fat, and fiber are measurements of the food in its current state. However, because different foods have varying amounts of moisture, you can only reasonably compare dog foods “on a dry matter basis“. However, the numbers given in the Guaranteed Analysis are on an „as fed“ basis and do not take into account the amount of moisture in that food. To determine the actual amount of an ingredient in a food, or to compare between brands or between wet and dry foods, the numbers need to be converted to what is called Dry Matter (DM) basis.
* Please note that the moisture content can range anywhere from as little as 6% for dry foods to as much as 80% for canned foods. and it’s obvious that canned food contains more moisture than dry kibble. However, ironically, it may not contain as much protein. It’s hard to know which food contains the most protein, fat or fiber before converting both to a dry matter basis.
* Here’s how: First, (using the example below) determine the amount of dry matter by deducting the percentage listed for moisture from 100%. As you see, the moisture accounts for 10% of the food. So, we see that the dry matter content is (100% – 10% = ) 90% of the food.
*Next, convert the protein, fat and fiber percentages to a dry matter basis by dividing the percentage amounts listed on the label by the amount of dry matter (from the previous step). In our example, the 26% protein on the label converts to 28% on a dry matter basis by dividing 26% by 90%. (Notice that in our example the dry matter calculation is only slightly different than the labeled percentage. The reason for this is the moisture level was only 10% per the label. If the moisture level had been, say, 40%, then the dry matter content would have only been 60% and protein on a dry matter basis would have been calculated as (26% divided by 60% =) or 43%.
* Now compare the new protein level of 28% on a dry matter basis to other dog foods after converting the other labels in the same manner. You can also perform comparisons for fat and fiber after converting them to a dry matter basis.
* You should realize that considering only percentages won’t tell the whole story. Your dog food may have 28% protein on a dry matter basis, but what is the source of that protein? Pet food manufacturers can get protein from sources that are NOT good nutritionally for your pet and can even be harmful! BE CAREFUL!
* Next, let’s take a look next at the ingredients list. Pet foods must list ingredients in order of weight and the first five ingredients will usually make up the majority of the pet food formula. Look for meat as one of the first ingredients on a pet food label. Grains, such as corn, corn meal, whole wheat, barley, rice are fillers used to provide energy for the dog and appealing texture to the kibble.
Actually, the AAFCO website admits that „Economics plays a part in any ingredient selection“ and „protein is not simply protein. Ingredients providing protein have specific amino acids which may or may not match the amino acid profile required by a dog.“ Dog food manufacturers are known to routinely combine multiple protein sources to provide for all the amino acids required for a healthy life.
* You need to be aware that manufacturers can manipulate the information on labels (and some do) e.g. by breaking an ingredient down into components and then listing each one individually so that a recognized undesirable ingredient too near the top of the list is not noticed by the consumer (pretty sneaky, huh!).
* There are more and more dog care givers who are now searching for dog foods that use only human grade ingredients without any animal „by-products“. They steer clear of foods that use any artificial colors, flavors, sugars and chemical preservatives ( BHA and BHT). However, there are some animal by-products like liver and other internal organs are excellent sources of the amino acids and other nutrients that dogs need. Additionally, dry dog foods require preservatives to prevent spoilage and deterioration of essential nutrients.
*Here’s an example of the guaranteed analysis section of a pet food label:
*Crude Protein, not less than…………..26.0%
*Crude Fat, not less than……………….16.0%
*Crude Fiber, not more than………………4.0%
*Moisture, not more than……………….10.0%
Once you learn how to read a label, you gain a great deal of information about the food you are feeding your dog. You’ll know how to compare one food to another and choose the one best suited for your dog.
As with human food labels, dog food labels are strictly regulated by the federal government, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture, and must follow stringent guidelines. Dog food labels are typically divided into several separate sections: the principal product display and information about the food.
DOG FOOD LABELS DIVIDED INTO SECTIONS
Principal Product Display – Dog Food Product Name
This area of the label includes the brand name of the food along with the specific food or formula contained in the bag or can. It names the meat or protein that is essentially used in the food and may also state the age group the particular food is formulated for ie: puppy, adult, senior, etc. The actual weight is also listed as is the species of animal the formula is geared toward.
Just how the contents are listed on the label is strictly regulated. In order to be able to call a product „Beef Dog Food,“ at least 95 percent must be the named meat, not counting the moisture content. If the moisture content is counted, then at least 70 percent must be the meat listed. If the food’s name has a combination of meats, such as „Beef and Lamb,“ the two products together must be 95 percent of the product with the first ingredient listed more plentiful.
If the quantity of the meat is over 25 percent but less than 95 percent, a modification to the name must be added. The word „Meal“ is a frequently added modifier but platter, entree, dinner, nuggets and formula are also used frequently. Simply because this product name says „beef dinner“, it doesn’t mean lamb or chicken are not added. You need to check the ingredient list to find out what other meats are also included.
Dog food product names now have a newly approved rule; they can use the word „with“ in the food names ie: „Dog Food with Chicken,“ since the word „chicken“ is followed with the word „with,“ that particular food must have at least three percent of the ingredients as chicken. This wording can fool some people. „Chicken Dog Food“ is completely different than „Dog Food with Chicken.“ The first name has to have at least 95 percent chicken and the second only needs three percent chicken.
Information Section Of Dog Food Labels
Also, plus the display of the the product name, brand name, weight and intended species, the label must contain an area that’s difficult for care givers to understand. This area includes a list of the ingredients, guaranteed analysis, feeding instructions and the nutritional claim. This section of the label is the most important when you compare different dog foods analyze and decide what nutrients are in the food.
Dog Food Ingredients
These must be listed in descending order. Meaning, the predominant component of the food is listed at the top and then each ingredient is named in consecutive order by it’s weight. If your dog needs a diet low in protein, look for a product having carbohydrates listed in the top four or five ingredients. Alternatively, if your dog requires a diet that’s high in protein, look for a food with the first two ingredients as meat products.
Listed in this area of the label are the amounts of each ingredient that’s contained in the food. The minimum amounts of the ingredients is normally listed and is not always the exact amount. When comparing one dog food to another, you must consider „moisture content“. All of the ingredients should be compared on a dry matter basis. This means that if 80 percent moisture is present in the food, the remaining items comprise 20 percent of the diet. The minimum values listed for each ingredient, excluding water, should be divided by 0.20 to get a dry matter amount. Once you do that, two different foods can be compared side by side, equally to determine which one is best for your dog.
The product will list how much of the food to feed daily. It is up to each care giver to decide whether to feed that amount as one meal or to divide it into a few meals throughout the day. These feeding instructions should be considered only as suggestions and not hard rules. There are a variety of factors that will decide whether your dog requires more or less food.
Nutritional Adequacy Claim
This area lists the particular life stage that the food is made for, ie: „for maintenance,“ „for growth“ or „for all life stages.“ If the dog food follows the guidelines set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the label will include a section stating that the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for a particular life stage. Also, it will state whether the food is meant as a treat or a supplement and whether it should be fed in combination with other foods.
Note: Dog Food Labels Can Be Misleading
Because of this, we hope the above information has been helpful to you and that it clarifies much of the confusing and misleading manufacturers advertising claims. Our goal is to provide answers to some of the questions you may have had regarding how to read dog food labels, so that you can provide the most nutritious commercial dog food diet for your best friend.