Thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), you can trust that all pet food manufacturers indicate the nutritional value and ingredient profiles of their products. All pet food labeling should have proper identification of the product, the name of the manufacturer, address, net quantity, and of course, the complete listing of ingredients. However, the FDA guidelines are just one of the organizations that control all animal food. There are also the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulations adopted by most States. Under AAFCO guidelines, all pet foods should have the product name, the nutritional levels established, calorie guidelines, feeding directions, and the guaranteed analysis of the product.
Understanding Pet Food Labels
If you understand dog nutrition, you probably want to know exactly how to read dog food nutrition labels just as well. Unfortunately, just because you can read the dog food label doesn’t mean you can understand the information and put it to good use. Fortunately, there are legal guidelines that compel manufacturers to present pet food ingredients in a logical way.
High Quantity Come First
As a rule, the label must list ingredients from highest to lowest in quantity. It’s not surprising that the first item in pet food products is animal protein products because this is the highest component of the meat meal. The last few ingredients in the list are the ones with the smallest amount and are usually the vitamins and minerals added on for supplements. Fresh dog food brands like The Farmer’s Dog brand usually label their products in such a way.
Decoding the Pet Food Label
The name itself is a good indicator of the meat meal’s content of animal feeds. Under AAFCO standards, if the name directly indicates the protein source, then it must contain at least 95% of the stated protein. For example, if the label says “turkey for dogs” or “tuna cat food” then the composition of the meal should be at least 95% of the stated protein after drying. However, it gets a little more complicated for meals with water. Prior to being dried, the indicated protein must make up at least 70% of the total ingredients. If you want to know how much protein a dog needs and want to stick to it, knowing these indications on pet foods helps a lot.
Labels that indicate the protein but with a qualifier indicate that the protein source is around 25% of the total composition. A good example would be “chicken meal’ or “lamb meal” which means that the food contains just 25% of the stated protein. Other qualifiers typically used include “entree” or “dinner”.
If the name indicated “canned cat food with tuna”, the amount of tuna only needs to be 3% of the total ingredient list . A “beef flavor dog food” on the other hand means that the recipe only needs enough beef to be detectable.
Organic pet food labels are generally recognized in the same way as organic human food. This means that “organic foods” should have zero artificial preservatives, zero coloring, zero antibiotics, and with zero fillers.
Guaranteed Analysis and Nutritional Adequacy Statement
This is where things get a bit more complicated. For some States, a statement of specific nutrients must be displayed on the label as a “guarantee” of its contents. Hence, the percent of water, crude fat, fiber, and crude protein in dog food should be clearly indicated.
Nutritional Adequacy refers to the recommended life phase of the dog or cat that eventually eats the meal. For example, canned dog food can indicate if it’s for puppies, adult maintenance, or for senior dogs. It can also indicate if the food is for pregnant dogs or lactating dogs, or if it is generally friendly to all life stages. Meals that passed this test usually have a label stating that tests performed using AAFCO procedures substantiate that the product provides complete and balanced nutrition for “life stage” of cat/dog.
Additives are usually added as minor ingredients and are designed to maintain the stability of wet or dry dog foods. These include emulsifiers, stabilizers, essential amino acids, antioxidants, and even coloring agents. You’d want to make sure that the additives includes in the food are among the approved food additives by the FDA. Find out the difference between fresh dog food vs dry kibble when it comes to additives.
Feedings suggestions of pet food companies are just that—suggestions. These can influence food intake but an expert in veterinary medicine is still the best source of information when determining serving size.
You might also encounter dog food labels like “human-grade” and “new proteins”. In order to justify a “human grade” label, all ingredients in the list must be consumable by humans. Plus, the packaging of dry or canned foods must comply with the requirements set for packaging human foodstuff.
New proteins refer to meat sources that you ordinarily don’t see in dog or cat food nutrient profiles. This can refer to kangaroo, bison, rabbit, and other exotic sources.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you read a dog food chart?
The simplest way is to look at the order of the ingredients on the label. Protein should always take the top spot and for dogs with allergies, there should be none of the allergy triggers on the list. Pet owners should also look at the percentage of each ingredient. The percent refers to the weight of the ingredient in relation to the overall weight of the food.
What labels should I look for on dog food?
Ideally, the labels should indicate animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures. This allows for more extensive information including the amount of protein, fiber, fat, and additives included in the meal. Don’t forget to look at the sell-by-date label too!
How do you decode a nutrition label?
The closest way you can achieve a complete and balanced diet is by properly decoding the nutrition label on the dry or canned food. To do this, you need to remember the minimum nutritional needs set by AAFCO. Specifically, daily protein for adult dogs should be around 18% of the meal and around 5.5% of fat. If the numbers are lower than these essential nutrients, you might want to switch meat meals.
What is the 3% rule in dog food?
The 3% Rule refers to the use of the word “with” when labeling dog and cat food labels. If the label states “entree with chicken” then the meal should have at least 3% chicken in its overall composition.