How to Decode Pet Food Labels



Just as human foods have gone organic, local, and natural, so has pet food. But what does it all mean? While the pet food industry is largely unregulated, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) do oversee some of the manufacturing, mainly ensuring food is safe to eat. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a self-regulated, voluntary organization, which includes representatives from major pet food manufacturers, monitors ingredient requirements and definitions, among other things. Here’s what these groups have to say about what’s in our pets’ food.

Nutritional claims

Pet foods often claim to be “complete,” “balanced,” or “100 percent nutritious.” However, it’s important to look beyond marketing claims to determine what’s really in the bag. According to AAFCO, “complete and balanced” pet food must be substantiated for nutritional adequacy in one of two ways:

• Product must contain ingredients formulated to provide levels of proven essential nutrients that meet AAFCO dog or cat food nutrient profiles determining a healthy pet food.

• Product must be tested using the appropriate AAFCO feeding trial protocols. Once the product has been fed to dogs or cats under strict guidelines and been found to provide proper nutrition, AAFCO may determine the product to be a source of “complete and balanced nutrition.”

Products are often labeled for a more specific use or life stage, such as “senior,” or for a specific size or breed. While these terms may be used as general guidelines, there is little information as to the true dietary needs of these specific categories, and currently there are no official rules governing these types of statements.

Making sense of labels

Premium, Super Premium, Gourmet. These words are simply marketing terms and companies do not need any proof of their claim.

Natural. Under AAFCO guidelines, natural ingredients must not have been produced by or subjected to a chemically synthetic process, and must not contain synthetic additives. Simply put, there should be no chemically-synthetic additives or processing aids in natural pet food.

Organic. According to the FDA, there are no official rules governing the labeling of organic pet food. However, the USDA’s National Organic Program offers a few guidelines in determining organic quality, such as plant ingredients grown without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, genetic modifications, irradiation, or sewage sludge. Organic meat must come from animals raised on organic feed, and who are given access to the outdoors and not treated with antibiotics or

Grain-Free. Made without wheat, soy, barley, oats, or corn. While these foods may be good for pets with specific allergies, grain-free foods are not necessarily low in carbohydrates. They still contain starch, which is what your pet converts to sugar, and which some experts say contributes to pet obesity, diabetes, dental problems, and other health issues.

Human Grade. According to the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine pet food may be considered human grade “if every ingredient in a product is edible, meaning that it was processed according to rules of sanitation required of food sold to people.” In other words, if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for your pet.

Weight-Loss Formula. Some weight-loss formulas have added fiber, which can be hard on an animal’s system, particularly if you’re at work all day and Fido can’t relieve himself when he feels the need. Other weight-loss formulas have reduced fat or carbohydrates. In general, diet pet food tends to have fewer preservatives, artificial ingredients, and starches while offering leaner cuts of meat.

Hip-Health or Joint-Care Formulas. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, which are added to pet foods, have been shown to help slow deterioration of cartilage. Another additive, methyl-sulfonyl-methane (MSM powder), is said to improve arthritis symptoms while also helping with allergies and digestion. There are no guidelines about how much of the supplement must be added to make this claim. In most cases, it is well below the recommended daily intake for animals.

Additional label requirements per the AAFCO

• Any product naming a specific ingredient such as “chicken for dogs” or ”salmon for cats” must be made up of at least 95% of that named ingredient (or 70%, excluding water).

• If the label uses a descriptor like “chicken dinner” or “seafood formula” the named ingredient must make up 25% of the product.

• Products bearing the word “flavored” are not required to have a specified amount of the protein that makes up that particular product. So chicken-flavored kibble or tuna-flavored treats will likely contain mostly fillers and additives.

• Products that use the word “with” for the protein or flavor, for example, “puppy food with lamb,” are only required to have 3% of that ingredient.

There are high-quality commercial pet foods available—you just have to know what to look for. Look at the label and evaluate what’s really in your pet’s food. And as always, discuss any dietary changes you wish to make with your vet.


Getting to the meat of the matter

Do you know what actually goes into your pet’s food? Here are some FDA descriptions of common ingredients found in your dog or cat’s favorite meals:

The clean flesh of slaughtered animals. May include striated skeletal muscle, tongue, diaphragm, heart, esophagus, overlying fat and skin, sinew, nerves, and blood vessels.

Meat by-products
The clean parts of slaughtered animals, not including meat. May include lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, fatty tissue, and emptied stomach and intestines. Meat by-products do not include hair, horns, teeth, or hooves.

Poultry by-products
The clean parts of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, and internal organs, i.e. heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and intestines. Poultry by-products do not contain feathers.

Chicken meal
A dry-rendered product made from a combination of clean chicken flesh and skin, which may contain bones as well.  Does not contain feathers, heads, feet, or entrails. Because water is removed in the rendering process, chicken meal has more protein than chicken meat alone.

Fish meal
The clean ground tissue of un-decomposed whole fish or fish cuttings, with or without the oil extracted.

Ground corn
The entire corn kernel ground or chopped.

Corn gluten meal
The dried residue after the removal of bran, germ, and starch from the manufacturing of corn syrup or corn starch.

Brewers rice
The small fragment of rice kernels that have been separated from larger kernels of milled rice.

Brown rice
The unpolished rice left over after the kernels have been removed.

Soybean meal
A by-product of the production of soybean oil.

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
A fat preservative.

A chemical preservative used to prevent spoilage in dog food.

Naturally occurring compounds used as preservatives.

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