Hi stranger! Signing up for MypetMD is easy, free and puts the most relevant content at your fingertips.

Get Instant Access To

  • 24/7 alerts for pet-related recalls

  • Your own library of articles, blogs, and favorite pet names

  • Tools designed to keep your pets happy and healthy

or Connect with Facebook

By joining petMD, you agree to the Privacy Policy.

petMD Blogs

Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

Your dog's nutrition is important for a healthy & happy life. petMD experts help you to know what to feed your dog, how much food to feed, and the differences in dog foods, so your dog gets optimum nutrition.
Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Are 'Natural' and 'Organic' Just Words on a Dog Food Label?

December 19, 2014 / (1) comments

Take a close look at the front of a few dog food labels the next time you are at the pet supply store. Do you know what’s behind the phraseology that you see there? In some cases, what is written is defined by a regulatory body, but other terms are essentially meaningless. Read on to learn which words and phrases you should look for and which are pure marketing hype.


The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established rules about how the front of a dog food label can reference ingredients. For example:

  • Chicken for Dogs — the product must contain at least 95% chicken, not including water used for processing.
  • Chicken Dinner for Dogs — the term “dinner,” or similar words like “entrée” or “formula,” can only be applied to products that contain 25% or more of the ingredient in question.
  • Dog Food with Chicken — the word “with” implies that at least 3% of the food is made from that ingredient.
  • Chicken Flavoring — “flavoring” indicates that specific tests were able to pick up the presence of the ingredient, but no particular percentage is mandated.


Other terms that have specific definitions include:




The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines “natural” as being derived “solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”




Agricultural products labeled as organic are produced in accordance with the provisions of the Organic Foods Production Act and the regulations of the National Organic Program as outlined by the USDA. The term indicates that an agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.1


Human Grade


Human food safety and sanitation standards are described in regulations adopted by the FDA. Description of a product as human-grade indicates compliance with these standards. For a manufactured pet food, both the ingredients and final product processing must comply with the standards. Thus, unless a pet food manufacturing facility complies with human food safety standards, once ingredients enter the facility they are no longer human-grade and it would not be appropriate to describe the finished pet food or ingredients as human-grade.1


Many of the other terms that you’ll find on dog food labels are really just hype. Simplify your dog food shopping experience and ignore any references to a food being holistic, ancestral, instinctual, premium, super-premium, or containing no fillers.


Dr. Jennifer Coates




1. Awareness and evaluation of natural pet food products in the United States. Carter RA, Bauer JE, Kersey JH, Buff PR. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2014 Dec 1;245(11):1241-8. 


Image: StepanPopov / Shutterstock


Comments  1

Leave Comment
  • Flavoring
    12/19/2014 04:49pm

    If there's an AAFFO display, I'm guessing that even those foods that have flavoring still have to meet nutritional standards, it's just that may not really have chicken in the food.




Photo of Jennifer

... graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian .

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics. Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.