Pet Food Labels and How to Read Them
By Scott Richardson, DVM
We as veterinarians are constantly asked about pet foods and which one we recommend. Well that all depends. There are a lot of really good pet foods out there and there are even more really bad ones. In general, I rely on only a few brands. Why is that? Well, it is because I trust those companies to produce an excellent product, I trust them to be the actual manufacturer of the product, I trust them because they actually have veterinarians and nutritionists on staff to develop your pets' diet. I cannot say that about many of the companies out there today.
You want to provide the best possible diet for your pet and that is where the label comes in. The label can tell you a wealth of information about the product. It can also be very misleading with a few simple key words. When it comes to the marketing of pet foods there is very little oversight and regulation as to what can be on the bag. There are some thing's on the bag that are required, and this is what we will focus on to help you find the best possible pet food.
So who controls pet food? Well there are two groups: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they establish all standards applicable for all animal feeds, and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO is more specific in nature.
The product name sounds simple right? Well this is where we begin. The biggest way to lure you a consumer' is with a name. Most people will buy a product based on a specific ingredient so AAFCO developed some guidelines regarding a products' name. Also remember that in the following examples we are using "dog", but you could insert "cat" and the same rules would apply.
For example, what is the difference in:
- Beef Dog Food
- Beef Dinner Dog Food
- Dog Food with Beef
- Beef Flavored Dog Food
All sound about the same don't they? Well they aren't. These are actually four very distinctly different categories of food.
In the first example (Beef Dog Food) we have the 95% Rule. This means that 95% of the product must be the named ingredient not counting for water (must be 70% of the product counting the added water). If the product names two ingredients they both must equal 95% with the first listed product being a higher percentage than the second named ingredient (there is an exception, since the 95% rule applies only to animal origin products, if the second named ingredient is not meat, poultry or fish in origin it does not count). An example would be Lamb and Rice. In this example 95% of the product must be lamb origin. This ingredient will also be listed as the first ingredient on the ingredients list. Please note that they are also listed by weight and the weight is the pre-cooked weight.
In the second example we have the "dinner" rule. This is when a product contains at least 25% of the named ingredient but less than 95%. Newer terms being used instead of "dinner" are, "Platter", "Entrée", "Nuggets" and "Formula". In most cases this named ingredient will be listed after the primary (first/largest) ingredient. If the "dinner" lists two ingredients or more, they must combine to be at least 25% of the ingredients with each being no less than 3%.
In our third example we have the "With" rule. In our example of "Dog Food with Beef", only 3% of the dog food needs to actually contain beef. This is a very powerful word. Let me show you. "Beef Dog Food" vs. "Dog Food with Beef". The fist one is 95% beef, the second one is only 3% beef.
Lastly, we have the "Flavor" rule. Under this rule no specific percentage is required, but it must contain enough to have a detectable flavor. The word "Flavor" is also required to be the same size, color and style on the bag of the ingredient that it is supposed to represent.
Bags may also say (misleadingly) that they contain no artificial flavors; well most pet foods do not use artificial flavors anyway. Stocks and broths can be used to add the flavor. The milk protein whey is often used to make something taste like milk. None of these are the definition of artificial.
There are other terms that need to be noted as well, "Stew", "in Sauce", and "in Gravy". So what does this mean, well normally dog food has a maximum moisture content of 78% (that is 78% water), when these terms are used they can have 87.5% water.
The terms "Complete", "Balanced" and "100% Nutritious":
If your pets' food contains these on the label then they had to be proven and verified. Unlike the terms "Premium", "Super Premium", "Ultra Premium" or "Gourmet", these terms are meaningless buzzwords used by manufacturers to lure you in.
Net Quality Statement:
This just tells you how much is in the bag and mandated by the FDA. The size of the bag is not mandated, only quantity.
Manufacturer's Name and Address:
The "manufactured by…" statement lists the party responsible for the quality and safety of the product. If your pet's food label says "manufactured for…." or "distributed by…", then the food was manufactured by an outside company. Manufacturers are only required to list city, state and zip code.
Ingredient List/Guaranteed Analysis:
All manufacturers are required to list all ingredients in order of predominance by weight. This weight includes the water content. This is the hardest one to determine, as many competitors will say that Brand X lists corn first so our product Brand Y is better. This is not necessarily true. Once the water is removed maybe Brand X contains the more meat protein in it.
With regard to analysis many state regulations require a pet food to guarantee the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. The "crude" term refers to a specific method of testing and NOT the quality of the nutrient itself. When trying to compare products one will need to convert the guarantees to a dry matter basis. To do this, the percent guarantee should be divided by the percentage of dry matter, and then multiplied by 100.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement:
This is also called the AAFCO statement and it tells us two important things. It tells us if the manufacturer "formulated" this food (cook book method) or did a feeding trial. Both are acceptable, but feeding trials are better. It also tells us who the food was really designed for, meaning what life stage. Is this food designed "for maintenance" or "for growth". A product listed "for all life stages" must be considered nutritious for a puppy as well as an adult. A product that does not meet either standard must state "this product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only", unless the product is clearly identified as a "snack", "treat" or "supplement".
This is one of the most important items on the bag. Preferably all products should have feeding trials done, but most importantly they MUST state the life stage design the food is intended for.
This is not required to be on a label. However as pet food varies in calories, it is important to take into consideration. If your pet's food has this, then AAFCO has required the manufacturer to prove its claim. For a food to claim "Light", it must have proven to fall below an established caloric threshold. So a food that says "weight management" may not necessarily fall below the caloric requirement, and may actually contain more calories than its "maintenance" counterpart.
Other Label Claims:
As far as the FDA is concerned, the term "natural" does not have an official definition when it comes to pet foods. AAFCO has developed a feed term definition for types of ingredients that can be considered natural. For the most part, "natural" simply means a lack of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives. As we said earlier, artificial flavoring is rarely used in pet foods anyway. Artificial colors are only used by the manufacturer to please your eye, not your pets'. To preserve food, especially foods high in fat, preservatives are, and must be, used. There are more natural preservatives, but they have not been found to be very effective.
"Organic" is a different story. "Natural" and "Organic" are not the same thing there are no rules governing the labeling of organic foods for pets at this time. So basically, any manufacturer can claim their pet food is "organic" without having to prove so. At present "organic" is just a buzzword with no meaning behind it.
So in summary, what should you look for in pet food? Who is the manufacturer? Did they make it, or was it "made for" or "distributed by"? Ideally food should be made by the same people that are on the bag. Look at the AAFCO statement. Was the food formulated, or was it done through a feeding trial? Feeding trials are better. What life stage does the AAFCO statement the food is for? If you have a puppy or kitten then you want to be feeding one designed for growth. If you have an adult pet, you want one that is designed to be fed as maintenance. Remember they can trick you on the bag label but not the AAFCO statement. Do not pay for "buzz words", they are meaningless except to the marketing department. So next time you go to buy another bag of pet food, do your research to ensure your pet is getting the best quality nutrition you can provide.
Feel free to contact us if you have other questions with regards to your pet's diet. We will try and help you find the best diet for you and your pets.
Scott Richardson, DVM
Lakewood Animal Hospital