How to Read a Pet Food Label
Written by: Only Natural Pet Team
If you’ve ever found yourself scratching your head while standing in the food section of your local pet store or browsing the internet trying to figure out what the best food is for your pet, you’re not alone! Many major pet food companies assume that the average consumer really doesn’t know one food from the next, and because of this assumed lack of knowledge, these companies expect you to buy a food much the same way we buy a lot of things—with labeling techniques on the front of the product. Unfortunately, this tactic can confuse the consumer at best and create a false belief at worst.
All the eye-catching graphics and buzz words aside, always remember that it’s what’s INSIDE the bag that really counts.
The First Five
“The First Five” is the best (and easiest) rule to follow when deciphering an ingredient panel. Ingredients are listed in descending order by pre-cooked weight, meaning that once you get past the first five ingredients, the percentages of the remaining ingredients drop dramatically.
Because dogs and cats are carnivores, look for a premium food that lists high quality animal protein as one of those first five ingredients. Premium foods will not contain low quality animal ingredients such as animal by-products or unnamed “meat meals”— a named animal meal, e.g. duck meal, is acceptable. The remaining ingredients of the first five should be another high quality animal protein, or a high quality, low glycemic carbohydrate source such as lentils, garbanzo beans or sweet potatoes. These ingredients work as a binder to help keep the food’s consistency and can add extra protein, fiber and vitamins without spiking blood sugar levels.
Just as you’ll find quality ingredients in the “first five” of premium foods, low end and mass market foods are filled with nasty ingredients. Never buy a food with first five ingredients like animal by-product, unnamed meat meal, high glucose grains & cereals (wheat, rice & corn), corn gluten meal, or cellulose. Animal by-product is a dry render product of slaughterhouse waste; basically, this includes everything like beaks, hooves, feet, and any other undesirables. Unnamed meat meal is a collection of unspecified meat sources all mixed together, truly a mystery meat. Grains & cereals like wheat, corn & rice can spike your pet’s blood sugar levels and are not as easily digested, not to mention they lack the essential fatty acids vital to your pet’s health. Corn gluten meal is the starchy residue left after the kernels have been processed and cellulose is made from plant cell walls; both of these are inexpensive fillers with no real nutritional value.
Guaranteed Analysis—Comparing Apples to Oranges
Although pet food labels must state a guaranteed analysis of the minimum and maximum percentages of moisture, fiber, crude protein, and crude fat (the term “crude” refers to the specific method of testing, not the quality of the nutrient), these analyses are stated on an “as fed” basis, which takes in to account the product as it is in the can or bag. When used alone, these percentages can be misleading because of the varying amount of moisture present in different formats of foods.
Moisture content plays a crucial role in correctly understanding the guaranteed analysis in any pet food because wet foods such as frozen raw pet food and canned pet food products typically contain 65-78% moisture whereas dry foods such as kibble, dehydrated, and freeze dried products typically contain 10-12% moisture. Because of this large moisture difference when comparing different formats of food, the most accurate way to determine true percentages of fiber, protein, and fat is not by comparing the food as a whole, but by comparing the food on a solely dry matter basis.
Luckily, dry matter can be determined by a simple formula, but you might need to a pen and paper to remember the steps!
To determine dry matter content:
100 – Moisture Content = Dry Matter
Dry matter is what we’re trying to solve, so, to determine the dry matter content of a can of food with 78% moisture 10% protein 5% fat and 1% fiber:
100 – 78% (the moisture content) = 22% (the dry matter content)
Now that you’ve determined that 22% is the dry matter content of the food, we can forget about the moisture content all together (because it’s really just water and plays no role in the overall nutrition of the food). To determine the true protein, true fat and true fiber of the food in question, simply divide the guaranteed protein, fat, or fiber percent by the dry matter content that you’ve just calculated and multiply it by 100.
To determine the true protein:
10% (the guaranteed protein) ÷ 22% (the dry matter content) x 100 = 45%
After determining the true protein in this can of food, it’s obvious why it’s so important to know how to be able to use and understand this formula. At first glance, this can of food looked like it only contained 10% protein, when it actually contained over 4 times that amount. Be an educated consumer the next time you want to find out what’s really in your pet’s food; just use this formula and you’ll be leaps and bounds above the pack!
But what does it mean to have a particular amount of protein? Protein is arguably the most important nutrient in your pet’s diet because they are carnivores, and if you’re feeding a kibble or canned diet, it’s important to know that you’re giving the right amount.
For a dry kibble dog diet, less than 25% protein would be considered low and only appropriate for a low protein diet. 25%-30% is considered a medium amount, which is good for a less active dog as long as it’s a high quality, animal source. Above 30% is a high protein diet, perfect for any dog. For a dog canned diet, below 5% is going to be low protein, 6%-7% is a medium amount, and 8%-10% is high protein.
Since cats are obligate carnivores, their protein amounts should be a little higher. For dry kibble cat food, less than 30% will be on the lower end, 30%-35% is a medium amount, and 35% and above (even up to 50%) will be a high, healthy amount for any cat. For canned cat food, less than 6% is low, 7%-10% is a medium amount, and 10% and above is a high, healthy amount.
Ingredients Should Stand on Their Own
Don’t quite believe that corn gluten meal is a great source of protein for your carnivorous cat? Neither does your cat! No matter what the front of the bag says, always flip it over to read the ingredient panel. A food touting “High Protein!” doesn’t mean anything to a cat’s biology if the protein is derived from corn and is the first or second ingredient listed. Whenever you’re looking at a bag of food, take the time to read what’s being stated on the front of the bag, and then flip the bag over to look at the ingredient list. If what’s being said on the front of the bag just doesn’t jive with what’s listed on the back of the bag, consider it a red flag and look for a different food.
What’s Best for You Might Not Be What’s Best for Them
Premium, wild caught North Atlantic salmon might strike a chord with you, but what if your dog is sensitive to fish? Remember that our domesticated companions do not have the ability to choose their food in the same way that their ancestors did. It’s up to you to choose a high quality, biologically appropriate food that suits their needs. When in doubt, remember that your furry friend is meant to thrive, not merely survive, on the food you choose for him or her!