How do I read the label on a bag of dog food?

Last Updated 28 OCT 2018

The names of some pet foods sound so delicious that you might be tempted to dive in and taste them yourself! However, it is important to avoid purchasing a product solely due to the name or brief description on the front of the bag. Just like human food, it is easy to be enticed by exotic descriptions like 'gourmet' or 'prime-cut', but these descriptions may not accurately depict the content of the food you are about to feed your pooch.

Why is the order of ingredients important?

It is always important to check the ingredients on the back of your bag of food and the order in which they appear. The order will tell you the proportion of each of the ingredients in descending order (by weight prior to cooking). This means that at the time of manufacture, the first ingredient in the list contributed the largest amount and the last ingredient contributed the least. For example, if corn starch is listed as one of the first ingredients, the product will contain a greater amount of this ingredient compared to any of the ingredients listed afterwards.

So, for those products that are advertised as being premium and containing high quality ingredients such as 'smoked salmon' or 'roasted turkey', make sure you look at the order of ingredients to determine the actual proportion of those ingredients. If they appear way down the list, you will know that there is only a very small percentage of that ingredient and you may be overpaying for, or giving your pooch, a substandard product.

It is important to note that due to water weight, dehydrated meat or 'meat meal' can appear further down the list than other ingredients, due to being lighter in weight than other ingredients. This means that while reading the order of ingredients is important, it should always be taken with a grain of salt.

What is the difference between meat and meat meal, and which is better?

Uncooked meat has a high water content (approximately 75% of total weight), most of which is lost during cooking. In comparison, meat meal has a significantly lower water content (usually around 5-10% of total weight) so the end weight of meat meal does not differ greatly from its original, uncooked weight.

Meat meals are highly concentrated, dehydrated meats which come in varying levels of quality. Most premium pet foods use meat meals in conjunction with or instead of raw meats to produce a diet high in meat proteins rather than just cereals.

As mentioned, the order of the list of ingredients will be based on the weights of the ingredients prior to being cooked. As meat has a high water content, it will be heavier compared to other ingredients like grains prior to being cooked, but not after. During the cooking process, most of the water content in the meat is lost, which may result in the food not being as 'meat based' as consumers have been led to believe. Manufacturers may therefore choose to use meat meal to ensure the finished pet food is a true meat based formula.

What are cereals in dog food?

'Cereals' refers to combinations of grains such as rice, wheat, barley, rye, oats. These grains can be very beneficial to your dog if included in balance with optimum levels of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. However excess quantities of grains in your pet's food act as 'fillers' which do not provide nourishment and end up being excreted as waste. Cereals are much cheaper to source than meat, so cheaper foods often use cereals to form the bulk of the food to save on costs.

Be wary of ambiguous ingredients

Be wary of labels that do not immediately refer to which meat protein they use and state "and/or" in the ingredients section. For example, if the ingredients read "meat and meat by-products (beef, poultry and/or lamb)" this means that the manufacturer can use any of those three proteins, either by themselves OR a combination of two OR all three.

Why would they do this? You might ask. Budget pet food brands can save a lot of money by opportunistically seeking whatever meat is available at the time of manufacture. It might be pork one month, and then chicken the next.

The same goes for cereals. If the grains are listed collectively as 'cereals' rather than individually listed, it is impossible to know what types and proportions of grains are actually in your pet's food.

Ambiguous descriptions of ingredients means that you won't know what is in your dog's food and the formula may change between each batch depending on which ingredient is currently cheapest on the market. Sudden changes in your dog's diet as a result of changes in formulations can cause your dog to have stomach upsets, commonly diarrhoea or vomiting.

Check it meets nutritional requirements

While different pet food brands undergo different levels of scrutiny and scientific testing, there is one overarching set of guidelines set out by AAFCO (Association for the American Food Control Officials). While AAFCO doesn't actually do testing on individual brands, it has released strict minimum requirements, established through years of testing, for all minerals and macronutrients as appropriate for different lifestages (ie puppy, adult, etc).

How to check it meets requirements: If pet food has established it meets requirements, it will have a statement on its label that indicates whether the food is in line with AAFCO guidelines. If this statement is missing from a label, the food may not be balanced to provide all the nutrition your pet needs, and it is best avoided.

Take home message

When it comes to your pet's food, look further than the fancy label on the front of the bag. The order of the ingredients listed is based on their proportion in the formula; lower in the list means less in the mix. Avoid products that group ingredients under a wide umbrella like "cereals" or ones that use "and/or" rather than list each ingredient separately. Try not to get overwhelmed by all the different gourmet names next time you're in the pet food aisle and have a quick check of the back of the bag now that you know what to look for.

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