We understand that deciphering a pet food label can be tricky, but we’ll try to make it a little bit easier for you!
First, it’s important to note that pet food labels read much like human food labels – the ingredients are listed in order of weight before processing – so what’s listed first makes up the largest part of the food or treat, followed by what’s listed second, and so on. There are a couple of tricks pet food companies use which might trip you up, but we’ll cover those in a moment.
Dogs and cats are carnivorous by nature, and their digestive tracts are built to utilize meat and fat most efficiently, so you want to make sure the first ingredient – if not the first few ingredients – is protein from quality named meat sources.
Most pet foods also include some kind of carbohydrate source. Very few carbs are present in a dog or cat’s natural diet, so while lower carb foods are typically healthier and more biologically appropriate for them, a moderate amount of quality grains can contribute many nutrients as well as fiber. Grains like whole ground brown rice, barley, or oats are healthier than grain by-products like brewer’s rice, corn gluten meal, or wheat middlings which have most of the nutritional value in them removed.
Here are the tricks that you should be aware of. Some companies will list an ingredient like “chicken” first, and then follow it with a lot of grains and no other meat-based proteins. When a label lists the ingredient as the whole meat source, it means that it was weighed with the natural water content included. Once that water is removed for processing, it loses the majority of its weight, and thus is really much lower on the list of ingredients than it appears. If the ingredient was listed as “chicken meal” that indicates that particular ingredient was weighed after it was processed and the natural water content was removed, so it contributes a much more concentrated amount of animal protein to a product. You either want to see several whole meat sources, or at least one named meat meal in your pet’s food.
One last trick to watch out for is ingredient splitting. Look at these first few ingredients in this popular pet food:
Lamb Meal, Ground Rice, Rice Flour, Rice Bran, Poultry Fat, Natural Flavors, Soybean Oil, Sunflower Oil, Whole Brown Rice
It starts off nice (lamb meal), but then has rice, rice, rice, fats, and more rice! By the time you add all the rice up, it very likely makes up more to the food than the meat does. What you’re left with is a deceptive label and a low meat protein, high grain food.
That’s all for now. There’s much more to pet food (it’s a topic we love and could go on and on about), but next time we’ll cover what ingredients you should try to avoid and why.