Reading Ingredient Labels – A Vet’s Advice on Choosing the Best Pet Food
Do you know what’s REALLY in your pet’s food? Do you know what “all natural” on the label could really mean? What about the terms “recipe” or “dinner” in the title? With so much misinformation and extreme marketing ploys, how do you navigate your options and know the best and worst ingredients for dog food and cat food?
Let’s face it, the pet food industry is immense, confusing, and at times extremely overwhelming. Even as a small animal veterinarian, I can still become overwhelmed with all the pet food options and recommendations on how and what to feed our pets. Add marketing tricks to the mix, and it can be extremely difficult to know exactly what you’re getting.
But if you come equipped with a few tricks up your own sleeve, you can do what is best for your beloved furbabies.
One of the most important things you can do is to learn how to decipher the nutrition label on your pet’s food. So today, we’re going to do just that! I’m going over how to read the pet food nutrition label so you know what is actually in it.
What is a Package Ingredient Label?
The first and most important thing you need to learn to do is to read a pet food nutrition label and decipher what is good for your pet and what is not.
The package label on your pet’s food is the best tool for making the healthiest and best choice for your pet. A pet food label generally includes the following information:
- Product and brand name, including any unique identifiers
- Product weight, liquid measure, or count, depending on the formulation
- Amount of specific nutrients via a guaranteed analysis
- Ingredients in descending order by weight
- Nutritional adequacy statement backed by testing that proves the food provides a certain level of nutrients. It may also include recommended life stages for consumption.
- Feeding directions
- Manufacturer’s name and address
- Calorie content
The immense amount of information on a pet food label can be overwhelming and confusing to interpret. So let’s break it down today and take a closer look at the 2 most important factors to assess: the product name and the ingredients.
So let’s talk start with the product name and what goes into naming pet food. And then we’ll discuss exactly what you want to see or avoid in your pet’s food. I’ll also explain what ingredients for dog and cat food are harmful and what ingredients are actually healthy.
Guidelines for Naming Pet Food: The Product Name
The product name is just as it states – the name of the food as stated on the label.
For example: “Beef Dog Food” or “Tuna Cat Food.”
The product name is generally the number one factor consumers consider when purchasing the product. AAFCO and the FDA regulate the product name with the “95% Rule.”
The 95% Rule states that the ingredients derived from animals, poultry, or fish, must constitute at least 95% of the total weight of the product.
Other Guidelines for Naming Pet Food
If there were strict guidelines ensuring pet food labels state what exactly is included in 95% of the diet, we could feel confident making a decision from the product name.
However, marketers have cleverly gotten around some of this red tape with additional guidelines.
- Look for: Dinner, Formula, Platter, Entrée, or Recipe in the Product Name – This is known as the 25% Rule. If the product name contains one of these words, the main ingredient in the food must equal 25% or more of the diet.
- Look for: With in the Product Name – This is known as the 3% Rule. This rule allows a dog food’s product name to include a relatively minor ingredient constituting only 3% of the total weight.
- Look for: Flavor in the Product Name – This is known as the Flavor Rule. Under this rule, a specific percentage of the ingredient is not necessary. However, the product must contain an amount sufficient for detection. This rule allows pet food companies to claim “beef flavor” without adding any real beef.
These guidelines are a huge distinction from the 95% Rule, and it’s something to take into consideration.
The Ingredients List
Now that you have a better understanding of what to look for in the product name, let’s get down to the most important part of a pet food label: the ingredients.
The ingredients list is one of the most important sections of a pet food label to read and interpret correctly. I feel it’s the most important item to help you make your final choice of pet food. It shows what you are actually feeding your pets.
As mentioned previously, labels show ingredients in descending order by weight. Each ingredient must be listed individually according to AAFCO regulations. Unfortunately, the increased amount of artificial additives, chemicals, preservatives, and flavors are plaguing many pet food diets and causing our pets harm.
By thoroughly reading and assessing the ingredients on a pet food label, you can avoid giving your pet harmful ingredients.
So how do you effectively interpret the ingredients in your pet’s food?
The first step is to look at the first five ingredients. Ingredients appear in descending order by weight. So those first five ingredients ultimately make up the majority of your pet’s diet. However, remember that ALL of the ingredients are significant. Many pet food marketers have cleverly designed their diets.
A dog food supplier can list healthier ingredients in the first five items, but how healthy is that pet food if the remaining ingredients are all synthetics?
The last five ingredients are just as important as the first five ingredients!
What ingredients do you want to see on your pet’s food label?
Ideally, the first two ingredients should be high quality animal protein products such as salmon, beef hearts, or beef liver.
Whole food ingredients
You want to see whole food nutrition ingredients that you recognize and do not look like they could be a science project (e.g., carrots, apples, green beans, kale, celery, sunflower seeds, quinoa).
Organ meat is a great ingredient to provide minerals and vitamins, such as taurine and calcium, that your pet requires (e.g., beef hearts, beef liver).
What should you NOT see listed on a pet food label?
Unhealthy animal byproducts
- Undeveloped eggs
Did you know not all meat byproducts are a bad addition to your pets’ diet?
Organ meats, such as liver and heart are extremely healthy meat byproducts for your pet. For instance, liver is rich in vitamin A and is important for normal vision, the immune system, and reproduction. Vitamin A also helps the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs work properly. Heart is rich in taurine, which plays an important role as a basic factor for maintaining cellular integrity in the heart, muscle, retina, and throughout the central nervous system. Other healthy organ meats include kidneys, which are high in vitamins A and B as well as iron, and spleen, which boasts vitamins D, K, A and E, iron and zinc.
Corn or soy meal listed as a top ingredient
While corn and soy are good sources of protein for dogs, they should not be primary protein products. Many pet food companies utilize soy and corn as main protein ingredients to cut costs or create a shelf-stable dry dog food. Make sure that corn or soy meal are not listed as one of the top five ingredients on your pet food label.
Artificial additives, chemicals, preservatives, and flavors
Many pet food companies utilize artificial additives, preservatives, and chemicals. These ingredients replace the nutrients (vitamins and minerals) lost in the cooking process. Many pet food companies also utilize artificial additives, preservatives, and chemicals to cut costs in production while meeting the minimum AAFCO requirements.
What ingredients should NEVER be in your pet’s food?
- D-Calcium Pantothenate – synthetic vitamin supplement
- Pyridoxine Chloride – synthetic vitamin supplement
- Thiamin mononitrate – synthetic vitamin supplement
- Choline Chloride – synthetic vitamin supplement
- Zinc Proteinate – synthetic mineral supplement
- Copper Proteinate – synthetic mineral supplement
- Manganese Proteinate – synthetic mineral supplement
- Ethoxyquin – a synthetic food preservative and an antioxidant that helps prevent fats from turning rancid
My general rule of thumb is if you cannot pronounce or don’t recognize an ingredient, it is probably not healthy for your pet. These synthetic ingredients are generally added to pet food in order to meet the nutritional guidelines of AAFCO.
It is important to understand that there is a much healthier way to provide the nutrients your beloved furbabies need.
Adding Natural Ingredients to Your Pet’s Diet
There are many ways to add natural ingredients to your pet’s diet to supplement for the daily nutritional requirements they need without adding artificial additives.
The body best absorbs essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in the natural structure and combination, not through a pill or powder supplement.
- Organ meats are a natural and healthy way to supplement without the added chemicals and synthetics. Organ meats are a very important ingredient in a dog’s diet. They contain a wealth of vitamins and minerals in the natural form, helping dogs maintain strong muscles, a shiny coat, and a healthy heart.
- Bone meal is an example of a natural calcium supplementation essential to building and maintaining strong bones. Calcium is important for the heart, muscles, and nerves to function properly.
- Fish and liver are great natural sources of vitamin D. Vitamin D, in its pure form, is a great antioxidant that can replace Ethoxyquin.
- Sunflower seeds, pumpkin, tomato, and spinach are great natural sources of vitamin E.
- And red meats, eggs, and liver are natural, healthy sources of vitamin B. B vitamins have a direct impact on energy levels, brain function, and cell metabolism. Vitamin B complex helps prevent infections and helps support or promote cell health.
And these are just a few natural ingredients that can replace artificial supplements found in many pet foods. It is important to read the ingredients on a pet food label. The label shows how that brand provides your pets with these essential nutrients.
I always recommend finding a pet food that provides these essential nutrients in their most pure and natural form.
If a package label reads Choline Chloride, Zinc Proteinate, or d-calcium pantothenate, I hesitate to feed it to my dog. If a package label lists beef liver, sunflower seeds, pumpkin, tomato, and spinach, my choice is clear.
My Experience with Ingredients for Dog Food and Cat Food
In recent years, I have been increasingly frustrated with pet food recalls, the recommended “fad” diets claiming false health benefits, and the overall pet nutrition industry. So this year, I completed my certification in in Eastern Food Therapy (EFT) and nutrition for dogs and cats. My studies were enlightening, and I now feel more confident than ever in being able to recommend the healthiest and best way to feed our pets.
Eastern Food Therapy (EFT) for Pets
Now that you know how to decipher product names and ingredient labels, let’s take it one step further with Eastern Food Therapy (EFT) for pets.
In taking a course in EFT and pet nutrition, I learned so much about the incredible health benefits of individual ingredients.
Essentially, in EFT, food is therapy.
With my EFT training, I now analyze and then translate what I see happening externally as a manifestation of an imbalance in the pet’s body. Whole foods really are the best way to nourish, replenish, and soothe the body to restore balance.
In my practice, I use EFT to categorize your pet as warm, neutral, or cool based on the imbalances in their body. Then, based on that individual classification, I work with you to choose the best ingredients to balance your pet’s body.
For example, if I diagnose a dog with skin disease and allergies, I would classify them as warm. I would then choose ingredients, such as turkey, brown rice, spinach, or broccoli, to cool and balance their body. For pets with underlying heart disease, I would choose ingredients, such as beef heart, Hawthorne berry, asparagus, or sage, to help nourish the heart.
Food really is therapy.
By learning not only what is healthy to feed your pet but also what is best for their health, we are providing them with the longest, healthiest life possible.
About 5 years ago, I started carrying Side by Side Whole Food Nutrition Pet Food in my animal hospital and recommending it to my patients. Side by Side Pet uses the highest quality ingredients with no artificial additives, preservatives, or chemicals. They also utilize EFT to pick the best diet for your pets. Side by Side’s method of freeze drying also allows them to retain the essential nutrients inherent in the whole foods they utilize.
I have seen a remarkable change in my patients’ energy levels and overall health since carrying Side by Side Pet Food in my hospital.
Final Thoughts on the Best Ingredients for Dog Food
I hope you now feel confident reading a pet food label and making the best and healthiest choice for your pet. As always, your pet’s health and wellness is my top priority. And I fully believe that the path to overall wellness starts with the best ingredients for dog and cat food.
*Labeling is regulated on the federal level by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which establishes standards for all animal food. Some states have their own regulations, which are often adopted from the regulations of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).