Reading and Understanding Food Labels

So now you find yourself standing in the pet food aisle, saying “I can remember the basic nutrients but what in the world does this label say?” Pet food companies do a wonderful job of making pet food sound tasty: meaty, beef stew with slow cooked veggies, roasted chicken and herbs, lamb and rice with roasted potato, smoked turkey and wild rice, fresh water salmon. The combinations can go on and on with each one sounding similar to an item from a five star restaurant menu.

Labels can be frustrating and sometimes painful to understand, but knowing what they are “saying” to you will help ease the pain.

AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) requires that all pet food labels show: product name and brand name, guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy, ingredient list, feeding directions, net weight, species specific, and manufacturer name and address.

Guaranteed Analysis

  • Shows the minimum percentage of crude fat and protein as well as the maximum percentage of crude fiber and moisture.
  • Does not tell anything about the quality of ingredient used.
  • Does not give the actual amount, just the max or min.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

  • Also called the AAFCO statement
    Example: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Science Diet Mature Adult Small Bites Dog Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs.”
  • The product must state what it is: treat, complete, veterinary prescription diet, etc.
  • Products must always state what life stage it is approved for: growth, maintenance, pregnancy and lactation

Beware of diets that state they are intended for “all life stages.” These diets have to be suitable for puppies and kittens. Puppies and kittens need higher levels of nutrients for growth and development, making them inappropriate for adult and senior pets.

  • The AAFCO statement does not have to show nutritional guidelines for older pets. Dietary changes may need to occur as an animal matures, due to changes of vital organ functions.
  • Must also state how the food was tested to find the actual nutrient contents: feeding trial or calculation method.
  • Feeding trials: the food/diet was actually fed to pets for a certain time period. The diet’s nutrients were tested before they were consumed, as well as tested after they were eliminated to see how much the nutrients were absorbed.
  • Calculation Method: food/diet was never fed to a pet. It was passed through a computer that has pre-set profiles (set by the manufacturer). They must be met before they are packaged for sale.

    Research showed that calculation method once passed old shoes, coal, motor oil and water
    WITH a Guaranteed Analysis of:

    6.0% Crude Protein (min)
    4.0% Crude Fat (min)
    6.3% Crude Fiber (max)
    78.0% Moisture (max)
    2.7% Ash(max)
  • Ash is the by-product of combustion. It has NO nutritional value.

Ingredient List

  • Ingredients are the vehicles that deliver nutrients. Pets need nutrients and NOT ingredients.
  • Unlike human food labels, chemical content is not listed.
  • List is in descending order according to weightThe ingredients are weighed while wet and uncooked. This makes the heaviest ingredient usually meat (meat has a 70% moisture content) first, while making the dry matter ingredients lower on the list. When in actuality the dry matter ingredients (after being cooked) may be supplying more protein and fat than the meat.
    Example Before Drying After Drying
    Lamb 10lbs 2.5 lbs
    Brewer’s Rice 9 lbs 9 lbs
    Ground Yellow Corn 8 lbs 8 lbs

Feeding Directions

  • Shows how much food per day the company recommends for your pet.
  • Based on the weight of the pet.
  • Most feeding directions are directed towards pets that have not been spayed or neutered.
    With this in mind it is very important that you monitor your pet’s weight when feeding the company’s recommended amount. Pets metabolize differently after being spayed and neuter and feeding too much may put weight on your pet. If your pet is losing weight and you have increased the amount of food being fed, you may need to change to a higher quality diet. Doing so will help increase the amount of nutrients your pet can absorb.

Other Label Information – Some terminology that you may see on pet foods

  • Complete: that all nutrients present in this food can be used by the body
  • Balanced: that all nutrients are in proportion to the energy requirements for the pet being fed.
  • Organic: this term may only be used by companies that follow USDA guidelines. It must also state that it is USDA approved.
  • Natural: according to AAFCO this term may only be used if the food consist of natural ingredients only and no chemical alterations.
  • Holistic: there are no rules for a company to place this on their food. There are also no regulations for the ingredients used.

What does it mean when a bag says…

  • Chicken, Beef, Lamb – the product contains at least 70% of named ingredient.
  • Chicken Dinner, Liver Stew – the named ingredients must be at least 10%.
  • With Chicken, With Beef, Chicken (Beef) Flavored – must have at least 3% of the named ingredient.
  • Gravy or Sauce – has a moisture content of at least 78%. Not considered a food.
  • New and Improved – can only be on the bag for 6 months.
  • Less or Reduced Fat, Light/Lite, Reduced Calories, Lower Calories – must show the comparative amount of fat or calorie reduction.

The important thing to remember is that the quality of a pet food is not determined by ingredients. It is determined by the nutritional value that each ingredient brings once blended together. Just be aware of your pet’s needs and find a food that offers all the nutrients needed.