What Do I Look For on a Dog Food Label?

It can be daunting to look at any food labeling, but it’s always worth checking for good quality products. I always think that the longer the ingredient list, the more chance there is of having artificial additives and other undesirable components in the food.

Would you buy this food for your dog?

We all want to give our dogs the best food we can. In my experience, the cheapest dog food is going to be nutritionally lacking, at best, and downright garbage, at worst. That said, some of the most expensive dog food has been found to be full of fillers and other undesirable ingredients. You have to look at the labels, and do some comparisons yourself. Never rely on the advertising blurb.

I like to keep it this simple.

  • Real meat, or meat meal as the first ingredient 
  • Vegetables and fruit towards the top of the ingredient list
  • No meat by-products
  • No artificial dyes or sweeteners
  • As few preservatives as possible
  • No added salt
  • No corn or corn product

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to analyze absolutely everything in any food, but the ingredients are listed in order of predominance by weight. That means that the things on the top of the list need to be things you actually recognize, and be of good quality. 

What Should I Feed My Dog?

Dogs can meet their nutritional needs by eating a combination of plant and animal foods. Feeding dogs just meat is an unbalanced diet, and they will miss out on vital nutrients. Some commercial foods are specifically formulated for dogs with allergies, or those who need to lose weight, have anal gland problems or just for individual breeds. They all contain the same nutrients, but in different ratios.

The six basic nutrients are water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. Make sure that your dog’s food meets the AAFCO standards.

The rule of thumb is: feed your dog the highest-quality food you can afford.

What are AAFCO Dog Nutrient Standards?

AAFCO is an acronym for the Association of American Feed Control Officials. In order for a dog food to be marketed as ‘complete and balanced’, it must meet the nutritional standards established by AAFCO. These nutritional adequacy standards are defined by two nutrient profiles based upon a dog’s stage of life.

  • Adult maintenance
  • Growth and reproduction

AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way. AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods.

Rest assured, if AAFCO standards are met, it will be stated on the packaging.

Is Dog Food Labeling Regulated?

Labeling for dog food in the United States is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The minimum applicable standards for labeling need to include proper identification of the product, a net quantity statement, the manufacturer’s name and address, and proper listing of ingredients.

AAFCO regulations are more specific in nature, insisting on covering aspects of labeling such as the product name, the guaranteed analysis, the nutritional adequacy statement, feeding directions, and calorie statements.

What Are ‘95%’, ‘25%’, ‘3%’ And Flavor Rules?

These are labeling and product ingredient rules. 

95% Rule

If a dog food is called ‘Lamb for Dogs’, then that product must contain at least 95% lamb, not counting the added water. If the water is accounted for, the food must still contain at least 70% lamb.

25% Rule

If the food contains at least 25% lamb, not counting water. (or 10% with the water), then that food can be called ‘Lamb Dinner for Dogs’, ‘Lamb Platter for Dogs’, ‘Lamb Formula for Dogs’, ‘Lamb Recipe for Dogs’, etc.

3% Rule

The ‘3%’ or ‘with’ rule applies to a minor ingredient, which may be confused by consumers as a major component of the food. Picking up a tin of ‘Dog Food with Lamb’ means that there is very little lamb in that product. Always check labels.

Flavor Rule

Lamb flavor does not mean that there is real lamb in the product.

Guaranteed Nutrition On The Label

On the ingredient list found on the back of the pack, consumers will find all the ingredients used to make that product. The weight, or percentage of each ingredient includes its water content. This is important to note, as fresh meats are very high in moisture, while products like meat meals are only about 10 percent moisture. That means that if a tin of food contains 40% real chicken, while another contains 30% chicken meal, the food containing the 30% chicken meal will have more good protein than the tin with real chicken.

This is why comparing products on a ‘dry matter basis’ helps provide a true comparison of ingredients. Further on, I’ll teach you how to calculate the percentage of food components on a ‘dry matter basis’. 

Typically, ingredients must be listed by their common names. Vitamins and mineral supplements are added in addition to natural sources such as antioxidants. Other ingredients might include coloring, preservatives, or stabilizers.

Regulations require that all dog food packaging shows the minimum percentages of protein and fat, and the maximum percentage of fiber and moisture contained in the product. Manufacturers may choose to include guarantees for other nutrients on their label.

Guaranteed Analysis On The Label

This is a good way to check percentages of protein, fat, fiber and moisture.

Wet food contains a lot of water, while the protein content in the dehydrated product is highly concentrated. To get an accurate percentage of protein, it usually has to be re-calculated using a method called ‘Dry Matter Basis’. It’s especially important if you’re trying to compare wet and dry foods. Don’t worry though, it’s easy!

What is Dry Weight (Dry Matter Basis)?

Measuring Protein, Fat or Fiber Content Using ‘Dry Matter Basis’

Understanding how to calculate the percentages of these components is probably the best way you can compare foods, both wet and dry.

Wet Food Analysis           

  • Protein     8%           
  • Fat         6%
  • Fiber         1%
  • Moisture     78%

Dry Food Analysis

  • Crude Protein    26%
  • Crude fat    16%
  • Crude Fiber    3%
  • Moisture    12%

It looks as though the dry food has over three times the percentage of protein if you go by these numbers. But you need to remove the water from the wet food to calculate the protein percentage in the remaining ‘dry matter’.

So, remove the water which is 78% of the total wet food.

That leaves 22% dry matter.

Then, divide the protein (8%) in this tin, by the amount of dry matter (22%). Multiply the answer by 100 to get the percentage.

Dry Matter Protein Content in the wet food = (8/22) x 100 = 36%

So is there 10% more protein in the wet food?

Let’s calculate the dry food using the same formula.

Remove the water which is 12%, leaving 88% dry matter.

Divide the protein (26%), by the dry matter (88%), and multiply by 100.

Dry matter protein content in the dry food = 29.5%

What Is Crude Protein, Fat and Fiber?

Measuring these components in any food can be an expensive exercise, a cost which would undoubtedly be passed to us, the consumer. Instead, there is a much cheaper way of measuring the protein, fat and fiber in a food. It doesn’t mean that the protein, fat or fiber in dog food is of inferior quality, but the resulting measurement may not be a 100% ‘true’ measurement in that particular food. It doesn’t really matter though. We can still compare products based on these crude values.

Crude protein is actually not a true measurement of protein or protein quality. Nitrogen is the building block of protein, and crude protein percentage is calculated after measuring the nitrogen in a food. The problem is, nitrogen isn’t just found in the protein, so the crude protein measurement gives an elevated (true) protein level.

Dietary fiber should not be confused with crude fiber, a nutritionally obsolete term that refers to the residue (primarily cellulose and lignin) remaining after food is treated with acid and alkali. Again, it’s all about measurement. As long as we compare like with like, we can make good choices for our hounds.

Crude fat refers to the total amount of fat in the food before your dog has digested it. Crude fat is an essential macro-nutrient. 

What’s The Difference Between Animal Meal and Animal By-Product?

Animal meal is a good quality source of protein. It’s made from the ground muscle and bone of the animal, or bird. It has less water content than real meat, so it may be listed as a second ingredient, simply because it weighs less than another ingredient. If we compared two products, one with real meat, and the other with meat meal, on a dry matter basis, you would likely find that there is more animal-source protein in the food with meat meal.

Animal by-product is undesirable as it could be any part of an animal, whether there is any nutritional value or not. An example of by-product is chicken feet. Never buy dog food with animal by-products in the ingredients.

Why Are Antioxidants Important in Dog Food?

Antioxidants are just as important for dogs as they are for humans. They are found in many fruits and vegetables.

Simply put, free-radicals and antioxidants are normal and are both important to have in our body. We need them both to maintain our health. Problems arise when we have higher than normal levels of free-radicals. This can be due to pollution, environmental factors, infections and toxins, to name a few. Antioxidants help to neutralize the free-radicals, so they don’t harm our body. 

Are Preservatives Bad For Dogs?

Preservatives in food are a fact of life. Unless you intend to cook food for your dog every day, or pay large amounts for food that’s been produced in small batches and not intended to be stored, there’s likely to be preservatives in any food you buy.

There are both natural, and artificial preservatives to consider. 

Artificial Preservatives

Commonly used artificial preservatives in dry dog foods include ethoxyquin, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). There may be some links between these substances and health issues.

Canned food contains less artificial preservatives than dry food. The canning process is an effective preserving method in itself. Canned food can last for months, even years, if stored unopened in a cool environment. 

Natural Preservatives

Natural substances such as vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and plant extracts can also prevent foods from going bad. These preservatives don’t last as long as artificial preservatives, so the food will have a shorter shelf-life. The answer is to buy less, more often.

Remember, if you see ethoxyquin, BHT, and/or BHA in the ingredient list, the food is not naturally preserved.

How To Decide Which Dog Food Is Best For Your Dog

Unless you require a specially prepared diet from your vet, this quick check-list should help you decide what food is best for your dog.

  • The ingredient listed first is the greatest ingredient in the food, by weight. Make sure it’s real meat, or meat meal. NOT: broth, water, meat by-product, corn, potato, grain.
  • Always check the sell-by date, especially if something is marked down. 
  • The guaranteed analysis tells you how much protein, fat, fiber, and water the food contains. This information can be used to compare different foods. Remember to calculate the ‘dry matter’ if comparing wet and dry foods, or foods with real meat and meat meal.
  • Remember the difference in water (moisture) content changes the percentages of protein, fat and fiber in each food.
  • The feeding directions are recommendations only. You know your dog.
  • Feed your dog the highest quality food you can afford.
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