The pet food business is certainly booming today, and there are so many different options to choose from. There’s everything from Walmart’s cheap Ol’ Roy to the super-premium, super-expensive holistic foods. How on earth do you begin to evaluate what is on all those shelves and pick something that will be good for your pet as well as your wallet? In this week’s blog post, I hope to give you some of the basic information you need to read pet food labels in the hopes that it will help you be able to choose more wisely based on information instead of marketing and attractive packaging.
Before the mid-1800s, pets were generally fed whatever scraps were left over after the humans ate. It wasn’t until a man named James Spratt came along and invented the first dry dog food, completely revolutionizing how pets in this country are fed, that pet food manufacturing became an industry. These days, pet food is a big, complicated, profit-driven business. Everybody is out to attract consumers with what they think will be the most appealing. “Now with chicken!” “Holistic!” “Gluten free!” Cute happy puppies and catchy jingles on tv! But what does any of this really mean, and what is truly important?
The first thing to look for on the packaging of a food is the AAFCO statement. AAFCO is an organization which analyzes pet foods and guarantees that they meet a certain nutrient profile that is deemed to be acceptable for either adult pets or for growth and reproduction. This can be done in one of two ways– either simply by analysis of the ingredients, or analysis done with the addition of actual feeding trials. It is easy to tell which method was used because one of two statements will be printed on the packaging: ““(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles” or “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition”. Is one better than the other? Potentially. Just because something looks good on paper, so to say, doesn’t mean that it will function as expected when it’s actually ingested. Feeding trials will prove in a real life situation that a formulation really works.
The next thing we’re going to look at is ingredients.
Ingredients are complicated. There are so many games that food manufacturers can play to make their foods look better than what they actually are.
The first thing you need to understand is that ingredients are listed in order of weight. When you look at the meat content of a certain food, and you see that “chicken” is the first ingredient on the list, what you need to remember is that fresh meat is approximately 70% moisture. When you suck all that moisture out during the kibble manufacturing process, the actual nutritional part that is left is going to fall signficantly lower on the list.
However, if you see the words “chicken meal” instead, you’re looking at an ingredient that has already been dehydrated and concentrated. If that is at the top of the list, it’s going to stay there. A named meat meal (chicken, turkey, lamb, whatever) is a great ingredient and something you want to see at the top of the list. Meal is going to offer the highest amount of protein and nutrients.
And the naming of a specific meat source matters. You want to see “Chicken meal”. You do not want to see “Meat meal” or “Meat and bone meal”. Products that list a generalized “meat” ingredient tend to be using whatever they can get the cheapest, and that may change from day to day, from bag to bag. This is especially important if your pet has any food sensitivities.
Another thing to pay attention to is ingredient splitting. Manufacturers will split ingredients (especially grains or carbohydrates) into their individual components, which will move them down the list weight-wise and make them look like less than they really are. Here’s the beginning of an ingredient list from a grain-free dry dog food. Grain-free foods are often marketed as being “better”, but in truth some of them are still relying on carbs, not meat protein, as the bulk of the diet.
Chicken, Potatoes, Yellow Peas, Pea Protein Concentrate, Potato Starch, Chicken Meal, Chicken Fat,
So here we have Chicken as the first ingredient. Remember, though, that chicken is 70% water weight, all of which will disappear during processing. Then come potatoes. Also with a fair bit of water weight to them. But look– down the list– more potato, in the form of starch, and there after that is the coveted Chicken Meal that we should be looking for, because that is where the bulk of your meat-based protein is going to come from. In the middle? Yellow peas, followed by Pea Protein Concentrate. You have to wonder where on the list that chicken would actually fall if the potatoes and the peas were not split up into individual components. Maybe not first, in the spotlight, where people are going to see and and say “oh! This food has lots of chicken in it!”
What about by-products? By-products are looked down upon by some as inferior ingredients, but I think we need to think about what “by-product” really means and what an animal would eat in the wild. Here’s the AAFCO definition for Chicken By-Product Meal: “Chicken By-Product Meal – consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practice.”
Sounds kind of gross, but in reality, if left alone with a fresh chicken, a dog is going to eat those squeamish bits too. Chicken feet, for example, are an excellent source of glucosamine, a joint supplement. So while it isn’t what I personally would want to be eating, it is not without nutritional value for an animal. Again, in “meal” form, you have a concentrated source of nutrients.
What it comes down to, at least for me, is that I want a food that gets most of its protein from meat, not grains or carbs. Cats are obligate carnivores. They need to eat meat. Dogs are technically opportunistic scavengers who will eat just about anything, but if you look at their teeth, those are the teeth of a meat-eater. With protein, the source matters when it comes to what the animal’s body is best able to use. Eggs offer the highest and most easily digestible quality of protein, followed by meat, and then followed by grains. Yes, you are going to pay a bit more for a food that is heavy in meat-based protein, but the food will be more nourishing, and you will likely have to feed less of it in order to give your pet all of what he needs. (Which will also result in less poop! Yay!)
At the end of the day, there is no one perfect food. There is no one “best” food. Every cat, every dog, is an individual. What works well for one dog may cause itchy skin in another. What works great for one cat may cause another to lose weight and look unkempt. So there is a little bit of experimentation that goes on in finding the best food to feed your pet. It is ok to switch foods. We always recommend that you do so gradually– start adding small amounts of the new food to the old food, and gradually change the ratio until you’re feeding all the new food. The speed at which you will need to do this depends greatly on your indivual pet. The goal is a healthy, active pet in good weight, with a healthy coat, little odor, and a smoothly-running GI system. The right food can do amazing things.
I hope this helps a little bit in the decoding of food labels. It’s a confusing process, and there are so many games that food manufacturers like to play to make their foods more appealing. A little information about the tricks of the trade will go a long way toward helping pet owners be more savvy consumers.