Deconstructing Pet Food Labels

PetMD Editorial
By PetMD Editorial
Published: September 25, 2012
Deconstructing Pet Food Labels

Don't Stop at Just Reading the Pet Food Ingredients

By Vanessa Voltolina

Trying to decipher and compare the multitude of wet and dry pet foods at your local store? While they may be regulated at the national level by the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, “Pet food labels are not very helpful,” says Ashley Gallagher, a DVM at Washington, DC’s Friendship Hospital For Animals.

Confusing pet food labels means owners must be savvy at dissecting packaging claims and opt for trusted pet food brands to ensure pets get the right nutrition, says Dr. Gallagher. Before you shop for your pet’s next meal, keep these label-deciphering ideas in mind — based on American Animal Hospital Association Nutritional Assessment Guidelines — to determine what elements will add to your pet’s overall health.

Natural and Holistic Pet Foods

When a pet food is labeled as “natural,” it means that according to FDA guidelines, food ingredients have not had any chemical alterations, says Dr. Gallagher. (Similarly to human food, organic products must be marked with an official seal from the USDA to qualify). Dr. Gallagher cautions about putting stock in the term “holistic,” though, since there is no legal definition and doesn’t necessarily mean anything on a pet food label.

AAFCO Nutrient Profile (Life Stages)

Notice that pet foods are marked with either “All Life Stages” or “Adult Maintenance”? “'All life stages’ is formulated to meet requirements for a growing puppy or kitten,” says Dr. Gallagher. This usually means it’s higher in calories, calcium and phosphorus. However, brand marketing often use phrases such as “senior medley,” which can be confusing to consumers.

Read the pet food packaging carefully, as Gallagher cautions that more flowery language usually amounts to nothing; the food’s nutrient profile is still “all life stages,” which may not be appropriate for an adult or mature pet. She recommends healthy adult pets stick with “adult maintenance” food that is designed for their appropriate nutritional needs.

Formulated Pet Foods

You will want to ensure that your pet's food is formulated to meet minimum nutrition requirements. The package label should include an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) nutritional adequacy statement that reads: “[Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage(s)]". Meeting this minimal requirement means the food formulation is determined via laboratory analysis versus being actually determined by feeding to animals.

Feeding Trials

While ensuring food is formulated to meet minimum nutrition requirements is the first step, the gold standard among pet foods are those that have conducted an AAFCO feeding trial on real pets. Brands such as Hill’s and Nestle have performed these, says Dr. Gallagher. Pet foods that have conducted feeding trials will tout labels that read: "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate [Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage(s)]."

Protein Check

Pet food label ingredients are listed in order of weight, starting with the heaviest ingredient. This means that consumers should look for one or two quality proteins listed within the first few ingredients. Dr. Gallager says that chicken meal (which is dehydrated and rendered down) actually packs more protein than fresh chicken, which is 80 percent water. Since chicken meal weighs less, a spot in the top three means the pet food is packing more protein.This same concept goes for animal proteins including beef, fish and lamb.

Grain-Free Pet Foods

Just because a pet food is“grain-free” doesn’t mean that it’s carb-free, says Dr. Gallagher. Grain-free products can be loaded with potatoes and veggies that will keep your pet consuming the same, if not more, carbohydrates. Be sure to check the ingredients to see which ones take prominence. Also keep in mind that only an excessive level of carbohydrates is bad, as they provide an excellent source of energy and are an essential part of a balanced diet.

Daily Feeding Recos

Whether you have an active puppy or a geriatric cat, daily feeding recommendations can be good guidelines, says Dr. Gallagher, but they’re really just that. “The pets [on which guidelines are based] are not your average couch potatoes,” she adds. “They’re active and get more exercise than the average pet.” Evaluate daily food portions based on your pet’s age, body condition, and overall health. When in doubt, be sure to consult with your vet.

Supplemental Use Only

If a pet food label says it’s for “intermittent or supplemental use only,” it means that the food isn’t complete and balanced. Translation: “You don’t want to feed it to them for an extended period of time,” says Dr. Gallagher. She says these pet foods are like consuming McDonald’s, in that it’s fine every once in a blue moon, but making a habit of it will deprive pets of vital nutrients they need to stay healthy.

Size-Specific Pet Food Formulas

There are absolute differences between the nutritional needs of small and large breeds, says Dr. Gallagher, citing research conducted by Hill’s. A small breed formula is best for the likes of Chihuahuas and toy dogs, offering tinier pieces of kibble and lower-calorie serving size. Conversely, large breed puppy formulas provide nutrients necessaryfor preventingarthritis down the line.

On the other hand, specific “breed” diets (i.e., a diet made specifically for a Cocker Spaniel, Chihuahua), is not necessarily better than any other small breed specific diet.  Small breeds are small breeds and large breeds are large breeds. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian for their recommendation.

Pet Allergy Concerns

If your pet has an allergy, do a quick scan of the ingredient list and packaging labels to see if the allergen is present. While there is no legal backing to claims such as wheat or gluten-free, “I would trust it,” says Dr. Gallagher. Beef and dairy, she says, are the most common allergies for cats and dogs, with canines more likely to develop wheat allergies and cats likely to have fish allergies. Corn, on the other hand, “is a very useful protein and carb source, as well as one of the least allergenic foods.”

Guaranteed Analysis

This mandatory guarantee means your pet food contains the labeled percentages of crude protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. Be warned, though, that wet and dry pet foods use different standards (8% protein in a wet food isn’t the same as 8% in a dry food). The formula is a bit tricky to memorize, so use a conversion chart online or ask your vet for the low down to be sure your pet is getting the right amounts.

Flavor Ingredients

Some pet foods use ingredients to make smell or taste better for your pet. If possible, opt for foods using less or no flavor ingredients (generally less flavor ingredients mean more actual proteins). As a guide, ingredient-labelingspecifics like “beef flavoring” instead of generic “meat flavoring,” is usually the better pick.

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