How to Make Sense of Pet Food Labeling
Pet foods have undergone enormous changes in the last 10 years. There are more choices than ever before. Some companies cater to the size, life stage and even the breed of our pets. At the other end of the spectrum are those who claim their food is appropriate for all life stages. It’s confusing and when you add in the scares caused by the constant stream of recalls. So how can we decide what is best for our pet?
Pet food standards are set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Using these guidelines the nutritional adequacy of pet food is determined by either
Formulation: With this method, the diet is not actually fed to animals so there is no guarantee of pet acceptance or the bioavailability of nutrients.
Feeding Trial: This method substantiates that a given food used as the sole source of nutrition provides a complete and balanced diet for the life stage of that animal.
Let’s look at a few other definitions.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Not so when it comes to pet food labels. If the label says:
- Chicken, beef, seafood and there are no other modifying terms like entrée etc…it must contain at least 95% of that ingredient.
- When dinner, entrée, platter are added it need only contain 25% of that ingredient
- If the label says “with” chicken etc… it need only contain 3% of that ingredient
- If it simply says flavor it doesn’t even have to have a % it just needs to disclose the source of the flavor.
There has been an explosion pet food labeled as natural, organic or holistic. Let’s look at exactly what that means.
- Organic: Grown with only animal or vegetable fertilizers, such as bone meal, compost, manure etc… Only pet foods which meet these requirements may be labeled as such. However, keep in mind that this does not stop a company from putting the term organic in the name or making a big deal out of using one or two organic ingredients without having a wholly organic food. Look for the USDA organic label. That means that at least 95% of the food is organic. A diet labeled made with organic must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.
- Natural: According to AFFCO (American Feed Control Officials) this label applies to food that consists of all natural (what is found in nature) without any chemical alterations.
- Holistic: Who knows? This term has no legal definition and any manufacturer can label their food holistic regardless of the ingredients.
By-Products are not all created equal. We have a tendency to see the term By-Products as bad. A by-product is really just an ingredient that is produced while making something else. Vegetable oils, liver, beet pulp and Vitamin E are all by-products. Both animals and humans include by-products in their diet. The key is quality.
Preservatives can be natural such as vitamin E, spice extracts or citric acid or synthetic such as BHA and BHT. Both types of preservatives are found in human and animal foods. They help keep food from spoiling as fast.
Guaranteed Analysis: This number gives the maximum and minimum amount of each an item such as protein. Protein is simply measured as a % of Nitrates. This does not tell us what the actual nutrient content of protein really is. Make sure you know the difference. The manufacturer is not required to put the actual nutrient content on the bag. You should be able to get this by calling and asking for that information. Just be sure that is what you actually are given.
Ingredient Statement: This is a list of ingredients by weight. Again, it does not tell you anything about the quality of those ingredients.
Ash: Ash is not really ash. It is a combination of calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium sodium and other minerals that remain after a food has been processed. Ash content can affect urinary health in cats.
Dry Matter Basis: Comparing dry and canned foods can be very difficult if we look at only the “as fed” numbers. This is because canned food can contain up to 75% or more in moisture. Learn to compare all diets on a dry matter basis. To do this you will need to do a little math.
- Subtract the moisture content from 100%
- X diet has 75% moisture: subtract 75% from 100% = 25% dry matter basis
- If the label states the diet contains 10% protein “as fed”
- Divide 10% by 25= 40% dry matter basis.
Finally who’s a carnivore? Not your dog. In spite of all the colorful ads on TV which hint otherwise and in spite of our desire to see the wolf in our dog. When it comes to food dogs are omnivores just like us and coyotes. Cats are true carnivores in the house.
- Much of the information for this blog was derived from the Nutrition Manual published by Hills Science Diet.