There is so much information on the web about pet nutrition that it can become quite confusing, making it very difficult to know how to read ingredient labels. I am going to try to give the basic information in layman terms and at the end I am going to put a quiz for you to test your knowledge. When you’re done post a message and let us know how you did and if the information you got here was helpful.
While people make the occasional decision to eat highly processed or poor quality foods, this isn’t an issue for their overall health due to the variety of ingredients in their diet. Unfortunately, if a pet is being fed a poor quality diet, they will be exposed to those ingredients, chemicals and additives every single day.
Dogs and cats are carnivores, and do best on a meat-based diet. Ingredients on a pet food label must be listed in descending order (by weight) based on FDA and AAFCO regulations. Most often this means the first five to seven ingredients are the major ingredients in the food. These ingredients should be real named meat, whole grains and vegetables to ensure a pet is getting excellent nutrition from the best ingredients. Avoid foods that list by-products, unnamed meat meals or partial grains (for example “poultry by-product meal”, “meat meal”, or “corn-gluten meal“, etc.) in the top ingredients, as these are sub-standard sources of protein used instead of real meat that holds more nutritional value. “Meat meal” may sound like something you might serve your own family instead this ingredient may contain a variety of animal parts other than meat including 4-D animals (dead, diseased, disabled or dying prior to slaughter). Meats that are cooked (usually through heat or steam) create meat meals. The quality of the product can vary depending on how and where the meat was sourced.
A specific meat is what you want to see first on the label, but what you want to see second and third is also specific meat or specific meat meal or animal protein.
Many artificial preservatives are suspected of causing cancer (aka carcinogens) in humans. Used in the production of pet food, artificial preservatives will limit the growth of bacteria or inhibit oxidation of food. Common preservatives that should be avoided include BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, sodium nitrite and propylene glycol. Natural alternatives for preserving food includes a mixture of varying forms of vitamin E called mixed tocopherols, rosemary extract and even the process of freeze-drying.
Artificial flavors and colorings (e.g. corn syrup, propylene glycol, molasses and MSG/ FD&C Blue No. 1, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5) are frequently used in pet food manufacturing to disguise inferior food quality and some of these additives give dampness and flexibility to semi-moist foods and treats.
Filler, an ingredient added to a pet food that provides dietary fiber and has no particular nutritional value. Filler is used to “bulk up” the bag of pet food cheaply. While pets do require a source of fiber in their diet, it is best that this fiber is provided by whole grains and vegetables. Ingredients such as wheat mill run, rice bran, corn, hulls and certain pulps are examples of fillers that should be avoided or at least not be present in the main ingredient list. Another type of filler is more correctly called a plant-based protein booster. Many pet food companies use cheap grains as the base of their recipes because they are an inexpensive way to meet nutritional requirements for protein and fat. Cats and dogs should be getting the majority of their protein from real meat and high quality named meat meals, instead of plants. These protein fillers used as main ingredients such as corn, corn gluten or corn germ meal, and soybean meal should be avoided. Corn gluten meal is a high allergen and causes gastrointestinal fermentation and other GI upsets.
Basically, when meat is processed for human consumption, all the left over pieces go into some bags of pet food, labeled as meat by-products, or meat by-product meal. When you see something like, “chicken by-product meal” on a bag of pet food, the by-product meal is made from heads, beaks, feet, feathers, and entrails, all the stuff that would be too hard to sell.
When there’s no meat specified such as chicken, beef, turkey, etc. – the unspecified meat might be chicken or it could be rendered horse meat. All this garbage can be added to pet food as ‘crude protein.’ Unspecified meat or bone meal is also to be avoided. Meal is fine, as long as a type of meat is specified such as chicken meal or beef meal. ‘Meat meal’ gives you no idea of the content. It could be bird beaks or feathers, or pig snouts.
Chicken liver is a by-product, yet a bag of pet food that simply says “chicken by-product” on the label, or even worse, “animal,” or “meat by-products” are not using a specific by-product, but a mix of them that could be any part of the animal. These companies are using by-products to replace actual meat and meat meal ingredients. A company that uses by-product meals in their formulas almost always put corn or wheat gluten into the formula to get the protein levels back to where they should be. Corn and wheat gluten are some of the most common causes of allergies in pets.
Semi-moist foods are some of the most toxic pet foods on the market. They contain propylene glycol, ethoxyquin, BHA and BHG, they also contain high fructose corn syrup and a large amount of carbs. These are used all in an effort to create palatability.
Treats should be tiny morsels of food you use to reward your pet for good behavior and for training and reinforcement of positive behavior. Be careful as tiny amounts of treats can add up over time. It is recommended to feed healthful meat-based treats like dried salmon, turkey jerky, or a fish-based treat. Any type of dehydrated real meat is a good choice because it’s grain and carb-free, with no added salt, fats or sugar. The package or label should say 100 percent natural and pure, USDA inspected. It should also say Made in the USA. In summation here is a list of things to look for:
1) Look for ingredients on the list that you recognize: beef, chicken, duck, lamb, brown rice, vegetables. These are high-quality ingredients and are readily digestible nutrient sources your pet’s body can use.
2) Look for carbohydrate fillers like cornmeal, wheat, soy and white rice. Stay away from foods loaded with these fillers because they are indigestible to your pet and provide no nutrients. Wheat and soy are also known allergens. Instead choose higher quality grains, such as barley, brown rice, and oatmeal, or a preferable alternative starch/carbohydrate such as potatoes or sweet potatoes.
3) Look for animal by-products. It’s a common pet food filler made from the feet, feathers, hooves, beaks and hair of other animals. Animal by-product is commonly used to boost the protein content on the guaranteed analysis, but it is indigestible to your pet and they cannot absorb any protein from these materials.
4) Look for foods that use meat meal, which is meat without its water content. Meat meal is a highly concentrated protein source that pet’s bodies can absorb readily. Meal is simply the meat with the moisture removed.
5) Look out for chemical additives and steer clear of foods that contain them and artificial food colorings and preservatives like BHA, BHT and other long chemical words you cannot pronounce. Instead, look for natural sources of preservatives like antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, Rosemary extract and no colorings at all.
6) Look at the guaranteed analysis chart to make sure certain minerals have been included in the food. Dogs need a daily supply of calcium, magnesium, sodium and phosphorous, and cats need taurine and magnesium for optimal health. You can find this information in the ingredients list as well as the guaranteed analysis chart.
7) Look for an indication of how the food is made. High-quality foods are always proud of their nutrient-preserving processing methods and will usually state that somewhere on the bag.
Once you find the food that suits your pet you may be concerned about problems with diarrhea when they switch pet foods. If you switch to a new food too quickly after your dog or cat has been eating the same thing every day for years, your pet will probably develop diarrhea. But if you provide nutritional variety on a regular basis, your pet’s digestive system will adjust and will ultimately function better and become more resilient.
When you switch foods, do it gradually. Do this over about a two-week time span:
25% food A, 75% food B
50% food A, 50% food B
75% food A, 25% food B
100% food A
Now please take the time to click on the link and take the quiz, no peeking at the answers and let me know how you did and if the information was helpful.
Label Test Final