How to Read & Understand Pet Food Labels

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20 Minute Read
Updated February 19, 2021

We want the best for our pets, but it's hard to tell what's really in their food when pet food labels are so confusing and misguiding. Let's breakdown your pet food labels so you can make educated decisions for your pet's health. 

Take a look at the ingredient panel on your pet's food. Outside of the few recognizable ingredients at the top of the list, it looks like gibberish to most of us. How do you know what you're feeding your dog if you can't even pronounce half of the ingredients?

This article is going to help you decipher some of the lingo, get a better understanding of what's actually in your pet's food, and determine what the manufacturers are trying to cover up with strategic wordplay. 

As if the dog food industry isn't confusing enough, now we have to take a look into the marketing side of things. Manufacturers are required to follow certain laws that dictate how they are allowed to label certain things on their packaging.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of grey area in this process, and navigating this can be a bit tricky. Here is some insight into how you can avoid poor-quality foods that use very clever language to influence how we perceive their products.

Natural Dog Food

Reading the Ingredient List

Occasionally with our own food, we get brave enough to browse through the ingredient list of our favourite products. Usually, we end up feeling quite overwhelmed by the long list of foreign ingredients and weird sounding additives.

To try and recover, we usually focus on the comforting claims of the product to help us feel confident that we’ve chosen a food that is still healthy, or at least not harmful.

Reading the Ingredient List

When it comes to our pet's food, that list can seem even more alien to us. Being able to understand pet food ingredients can help us get a better idea of the quality of the product, but first we have to learn how to decode the cleverly disguised marketing tactics and get down to the real nutrition in the food.

What Does This List Tell You?

Legally, manufacturers must list all ingredients of your dog food in order of weight. Unfortunately, that weight is determined before processing, so this will include the moisture content.

This means you must be extra careful to avoid being tricked by clever wordplay.

For example, "deboned chicken" sounds great, but it is full of moisture, and that moisture adds weight. Once the food gets turned into kibble (extruded), all of that moisture evaporates. 

Many of us already know that the very first ingredient of your dog food should be a named animal protein. However, this is where it gets tricky. Knowing that this animal protein was weighed before processing, it can be difficult to tell if that protein actually makes up a large portion of the finished product.

For more details about some of the regulations surrounding pet food labelling, take a look at the Government of Canada's Guide for Labelling and Advertising of Pet Foods.

Meat meals are often used in higher protein foods because the same weight of meat meal will have a higher protein content when compared to deboned or fresh meat. 

The quality of meat meals can be hard to determine, as meat meals must be comprised of meat and bone, but don’t always specify a source. Look for foods with named animal meals, like chicken meal or lamb meal, compared to something simply labeled meat meal or poultry meal.

This doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality, but unnamed meat sources are generally considered poor quality in any format.

Multiple animal protein sources, ranging from meat meal, whole prey, de-boned meat and even organ meats, should be included high up in the ingredient list to indicate a higher animal inclusion.

Foods that include both meat meals and meats near the top of the ingredients list, can often indicate a higher-quality, providing both higher animal inclusion and fresh nutrient-dense ingredients.

A good tip is to look for foods that list their protein inclusion on their packaging because it clarifies some of what the ingredient list can make confusing. It may look something like this:

Reading the Ingredient List

This tells us that 70% of the protein in this food comes from saltwater fish, 30% comes from produce and botanicals, and none of the protein comes from grains or potatoes. Most of the protein in this kibble comes from a meat source.

Not every brand will be this transparent, and so it is a good habit to look for multiple meat sources lower in the ingredient list too.

Although it’s commonly understood that the first five ingredients are the most important, make sure you read the whole list. Many companies try to hide poor quality ingredients in between good ones.

Certain dog food ingredients should be avoided at all costs. Check out our list of red flag ingredients at the end of this article to help you avoid poor quality dog foods. 

Animal Protein

When reading the guaranteed analysis on your dog food bag, the protein percentage is made up of all sources of protein, not just animal.

Carbohydrates, including grains, legumes, and vegetables, all make up part of the protein percentage. However, these proteins are not always as bioavailable or as nutrient dense as animal-sourced proteins.

Meat First

In a premium quality formula, at least 50% of the protein should come from animal ingredients. This is called the animal inclusion. It tells you how much of the protein in the food comes from animal sources. 

The first ingredient in any high-quality food should be a named animal protein (ie. chicken, beef), with the exception of high quality vegetarian or some therapeutic prescription diets. This doesn’t guarantee a  high animal inclusion, but foods that don’t list animal protein as the first ingredient rarely meet that 50% standard.

Meat Meals

An efficient ingredient to increase the amount of animal ingredients manufacturers can affordably put in pet food are meat meals.

Meat meals are the result of removing moisture from animal meat. The end product is a higher concentration of highly digestible protein.

Although meat meals offer higher protein, they also result in the pet food being more processed. To remove the moisture, the meat is heated and cooked down until the meat is a dry powder, then the meal is added to the kibble recipe to be cooked a second time.

This process can also reduce the nutritional value of the protein and breakdown some of the essential amino acids, reducing your pet’s ability to digest and properly utilize the nutrients from the protein.

Check out The Best Kind of Protein in Dog Food to learn more about finding the right food for your dog. 

Vitamins and Minerals

Found at the bottom of the ingredient list is the ‘scary’ part of any pet food label. Processed foods, like kibble and canned diets, typically require supplementation to meet the standards for a complete and balanced diet, while raw and fresh foods usually do not require supplementation.

This is because the cooking process can diminish the natural nutrients in the ingredients, so supplements are added to ensure that the food contains the proper amount of each essential vitamin and mineral.

This section of ingredients can also contain some of the non-essential, but still very beneficial additives, like probiotics, botanicals, and omega fatty acids.

When we say essential, we refer to the standards set by AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, the governing body that dictates quality standards for animal food. They determined levels of each essential nutrient required for your pet to survive.  

Vitamins

We can often recognize the common names of the nutrients, but the chemical names of these ingredients can seem a little too scientific for all of us non-scientists.

Here’s a quick list of some of the most common vitamins added to our pet’s food and why they are added:

Vitamins-in-Dog-Food

These are just a few of the essential vitamins for pets, but it gives you a general idea of what to look for on the ingredient label.

Not every vitamin additive is considered essential, meaning your pet cannot produce this vitamin on their own and it must be supplemented through diet. Vitamins like Vitamins C and E, which are both antioxidants, are often added to naturally preserve the food, or to provide further protection for the pet.

Chelated Minerals

A lot of the common minerals added to pet food are fairly recognizable, like calcium or zinc, but they may have a strange word attached to them that you are not familiar with. Minerals are inorganic compounds, and for them to be usable by your pet's body, they need to be made into an organic format called Chelated minerals

Chelated minerals are paired with an amino acid to form ‘complexes.’ These pairings make the minerals more easily digestible. Complexes can be seen with a suffix of ‘ate’, like sodium phosphate, or calcium carbonate.

Once you have a good understanding of what all these fancy words mean, it’s a little easier to demystify this confusing list of ingredients.

Excessive Additives

Excessive synthetic vitamins and minerals can also indicate a poorer quality of food. If the ingredients panel shows only 2-5 real foods followed by 20-30+ synthetic additives, then the food could be lacking nutrition from real ingredients like meat, fat, and vegetables.

An exception to look out for would be limited ingredient foods. These foods typically limit their protein sources to one animal (sometimes multiple sources like deboned meals and organs), and as few other ingredients as possible. This type of diet is intended to help you determine which ingredients your pet can digest and which may be causing a reaction.

While limited ingredients foods are nutritionally complete and balanced, thanks to the additives, they aren’t recommended as a permanent diet. Once the allergies or sensitivities are identified, finding a more robust food to accommodate these intolerances is recommended.

The goal is to get as many natural sources of these nutrients as possible and supplement the rest with vitamins and chelated minerals.

Check out Dog Food for Allergies to find out more about limited ingredient dog food. 

Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis, typically located on the back, bottom, or side of the bag, will tell you the minimum and/or maximum percentages of protein, fat, fibre, and some key nutrients in the food, However, this doesn't necessarily tell you everything you need to know. Take this example:


Guaranteed Analysis

This information can help you decide whether this food has an appropriate balance of nutrition for your unique pet, but it is not always the best way to determine quality of ingredients or digestibility of the nutrients. Is that 32% protein sourced from animal or plant sources?

Could that fat be from a less desirable or un-named meat? When choosing a pet food, you have to look beyond the basic information that is offered on the product packaging.

What it Doesn't Tell You

While the percentages provided in the guaranteed analysis do help you determine if your pet’s food has the right levels of protein, fat and fibre, they do not represent the pure nutrients that your pet will be consuming, as all food is diluted by a certain amount of moisture (water).

To find out the true quantities of nutrients in your dog’s food, you must measure it on a dry matter basis. Dry matter basis evaluates the whole food without any moisture.

Most canned diets contain 70-80% moisture, and most kibble, roughly 10%. Removing this moisture content will give you a more accurate percentage of micronutrients.

For example, if a canned food has a moisture content of 75%, then the other 25% contains all of the nutritional value of the food or dry matter.

To find out the protein of the dry matter, divide the protein percentage on the guaranteed analysis by the percent of dry matter. Let’s say the protein of a canned food is 9%.

Protein % / Dry Matter %

9/25=0.36

Now multiply that by 100 to get your real protein percentage.

0.36 x 100=36%

Although the label on your can of food tells you that the protein is 9%, after your dog’s system separates the nutrients from the moisture, you are actually feeding a 36% protein-rich diet.  

Dry Matter Basis Protein Calculator

If you don't like math, here is a simple calculator to help you out. Find these values on your pet food bag's guaranteed analysis. Looking for another macronutrient? You can substitute ash, fat, or fibre in this equation to find these other actual values.

Crude Protein (%):



Moisture Content (%):





Actual Protein Content (%):

Discovering the Carbohydrate Content of Your Food

Discovering the Carbohydrate Content of Your Food

Carbohydrates are not listed on your food’s guaranteed analysis. Using the dry matter basis technique, we can roughly determine how much of your pet’s food is made of carbohydrates.

Once you've calculated the real quantities of protein, fat, and fiber in your food, we can assume that the bulk of the rest is made up of carbohydrates and plant-based matter.

For example, if you’ve calculated that your protein is 28%, your fat is 15%, and fibre is 4.5%, the leftover is approximately 50%. Most of that 50% comes from plant products, some of which will be fruits and vegetables that provide essential vitamins and minerals, but the rest will be starches, grains, and other nutritionally limited ingredients.

Having a higher carbohydrate content in your pet’s food may mean that you are feeding a food that contains way more sugars than your pet requires to maintain energy levels, and in some cases can be linked to digestive problems from overfeeding bad bacteria in the digestive tract.

Look for foods that use primarily low glycemic carbohydrates, particularly if they are high up in the ingredient list. Beans, peas, and lentils are healthy carbohydrate and fibre sources that have a minimal effect on blood glucose levels, but whole and ancient grains can be a great alternative as well.

Ingredients like wheat, corn, and soy can rapidly spike blood sugar, leading to less efficient digestion and more frequent food cravings.

Check out our article on Dog Nutritional Requirements to find out more about the effects that carbohydrates can have on your dog's blood sugar levels.

Calories to Kilocalories

It is required that every bag of food lists the calorie content somewhere near the guaranteed analysis. Often, it is listed as a measurement per cup and a measurement per kilogram, which seems pretty standard.

Where these measurements can get confusing, is when they are listed as Kcal/cup and Kcal/kg.

Kcal stands for Kilocalorie, which is what we refer to in our own diets, as a calorie.

What is a calorie?

To get technical, a calorie, or Kcal as it is properly shown on your pet’s food bag, is the amount of heat (or in terms of digestion, energy) required to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

Of course, this information doesn’t really explain much, so to put it as simply as possible, forget about the K, and just view this measurement as calories. A Kcal is a Calorie as you and I understand them in our own diets.

Metabolized Energy

Another acronym that you may notice that refers to calorie content, is ME. ME stands for metabolized energy. This is telling you how much energy will be available for your pet to use, after the food has been digested.

This means that any energy lost or used during digestion is not counted as part of the total calorie count.

Calorie content is important, but not as important as where those calories are coming from. If you think your pet may be overweight first make sure you are feeding the right amount, but don’t be fooled by a low calorie food, because those calories may be provided by poor quality ingredients, or sources that are difficult to digest.

In Weight Loss Dog Food: Managing Your Pet’s Weight, we explain what ingredients to look for and which marketing tricks to avoid to increase your chances of successfully improving your pet’s weight.

10 Red Flag Ingredients in Dog Food

animal-digest-red-flag-ingredients-article-feature

While it can help to know what good ingredients to look for in a quality pet food, it can also be beneficial to know how to spot the not-so-good ingredients. Now that you know how to read your pet food labels, keep an eye out for some of these indicators are poor quality dog food:

1. Grains First

Ingredients in dog and cat food are listed by weight in descending order. If your pet's food lists a carbohydrate as the first ingredient, you are likely feeding sub-par nutrition to our pet. Nutrients like protein and fat are best sourced from meat, so stick to foods that list meat as the first ingredient.

Pet food manufacturers often throw off buyers by sandwiching the meat in between two carbs. The food may appear meaty because animal protein is very high up on the ingredient list, but the two carb sources combined will overshadow many nutrients coming from the meat. 

Carbs aren’t bad, but that they need to be fed in moderation. Carbs contain vitamins, minerals, and key nutrients just like protein, but they are also full of sugars that can disrupt digestion and lead to unnecessary weight gain. So look for high quality carbs, like whole grains, that are used in moderation.

2. Mystery Meats

When the source of animal protein is not specified, the protein likely comes from heavily rendered meats. Rendered meats are separated, ground, heated, and sometimes emulsified to create cheap and easy to apply animal sources for food. While this is a widely accepted practice in both pet and human foods, rendered meats often don’t offer the same variety or quality of nutrients that a non-rendered meat source would.

Rendered meats are usually vaguely named, and aren’t the ideal animal sources you want in your dog’s food, or yours. Examples of non-descript proteins that you want to look out for are:

  • Poultry meal
  • Meat meal
  • Animal by-products
  • Porcine plasma
  • Animal fat

3. Un-named Fats

In the same way that unidentified or very general meat sources can indicate a very cheap and inconsistent quality food, unidentified meat and fat sources also show that your dog food manufacturer is cutting corners.

These non-descript fats are often of a low quality and are typically rendered, which means they are cooked at extremely high temperatures, degrading most of the nutritional value that may have been there in the first place.

Even some fat sources that are named, such as beef tallow or beef lard, may still be low-quality. While these fat sources are appealing to pets flavour-wise, they are all cheap by-products of rendering, and mostly void of nutrition.

Look for healthful, nutrient-rich, and tasty options such as chicken or beef fat that should be considered instead.  

4. By-Products

By-products are inexpensive, heavily rendered meat sources that are commonly used in the pet industry. While there are regulations as far as what can be included in by-products, the difference in regulations between human grade ingredients and feed grade ingredients are drastic.  

Feed grade is the quality of meat designated for the pet food industry. It is deemed not fit for human consumption, but suitable for feeding to animals. 

This means that feed grade by-products might have some very questionable sources, sources that are difficult to track and easy for manufacturers to cover up. This isn’t always the case, but it’s almost impossible for you to tell the quality of the animal ingredients in a feed grade by-product.

By-product is typically a bad word in the pet industry, and often indicative of a poorer quality product, but some by-products can be quite nutritious. Organ meats and bone meals are very nutritious when processed correctly, but when these nutritious ingredients are heavily rendered like other by-products and meals, many of these nutrients are lost.

5. Artificial Flavours and Colours

Artificial Flavours and Colours

There is no reason that your pet needs artificial flavours or colours in their food. These ingredients have been linked to serious conditions such as cancer and diabetes, and they have absolutely no health benefits. The truth comes out – artificial flavours and colours are added to foods for pet food companies to make money.

Cats and dogs love the taste of real meat. So, why would healthy pet foods require artificial flavour? The truth is that artificial flavours are used in pet foods to cover up the taste of substandard, spoiled or rancid meats, or a lack of meat entirely.

Even the relatively cheap and flavourful broths are bypassed by ingredients such as sugar (often disguised under other names such as molasses or corn syrup).

Artificial colours are used only to attract pet owners. Colourful foods are more appealing to the consumer’s eye – but pets don’t care what their food looks like! Your dog doesn't know that their kibble looks like Lucky Charms. All they care about is that it tastes good.

Common artificial offenders in pet food are:

  • flavour
  • corn syrup
  • caramel
  • propylene glycol (a sweet-tasting sister to anti-freeze)
  • Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6

6. Artificial Preservatives

Dry food needs to last on the shelf at the store. The longer a pet food lasts on the shelf, the less likely it is to expire and be a loss for the food company.

Chemical preservatives are used in pet foods because they are cheap and make food last much longer than natural preservatives. Unfortunately, chemical preservatives can also be very damaging to pet health.

Be wary of unspecified fish meals or oils.  As in meat, this ambiguity often indicates poor quality. Fish not destined for human consumption is pre-treated with the preservative ethoxyquin – a questionable additive that has possible links to several health risks, and no safety studies to back it up.

Since the fish is treated before it's purchased by the food manufacturer, this ingredient does not need to be listed on the pet food label.   

Look for natural preservatives instead, such as mixed tocopherols, citric acid, and rosemary oil, instead of these common and dangerous chemical preservatives:

  • Ethoxyquin
  • butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • propyl gallate
  • tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)

7. Fillers

corn-filler

Pet owners know that fillers are bad – but what pet food ingredients can be classified as fillers? Fillers are any ingredient added to pet food that has little nutritional value, but exist in quantities sufficient to bulk up food.

Some fillers are also low grade proteins, carbohydrates, and fibres, meant to bring pet foods up to minimum guaranteed analysis requirements. They may be a source of some essential nutrients, just not a good one.

This can make a poor quality food look like it contains more meat than it actually does. We usually associate protein with meat protein, but protein can be sourced from most carbohydrates too. Peas, corn, wheat, and oats can all be used in excess to cover up a lack of animal protein in your pet's food. 

Common dog and cat food fillers are:

  • corn (and various types of)
  • maize (also corn)
  • peanut hulls
  • cellulose
  • apple or grape pomace
  • pea bran
  • dried beet pulp
  • oat hulls
  • rice hulls
  • wheat (or other) mills
  • brewers rice
  • soy

8. Unknown Origin

With the frequency of recalls from pet food ingredients sourced from countries with lower food and ingredient standards, it is important that you know where your pet food ingredients come from. If a bag does not specify where ingredients are sourced, or the information is not available on their website, then they are likely to be from inexpensive, cheap manufacturers that cut corners on quality to save a buck.

Manufacturing standards in the UK, Italy, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States are much higher than many other countries. While companies can specify a certain quality of imported ingredients, they have no direct involvement in regulation. They have no way of knowing that certain standards are being met consistently unless they test everything that comes into their facility (also highly unlikely).

While food safety mishaps can happen anywhere, they are less likely to happen where processes are monitored frequently at a high standard. Ingredients should be sourced from farmers, fisherman, and ranchers that follow USDA, EU, or CFIA policies and standards.

9. Only One Meat 

raw-chicken

Pet owners know to look for meat as a top ingredient in their pet’s food, and pet food manufacturers know this. A food that has meat as the first ingredient but the no other sources of animal protein may not be as high in animal protein as it looks, especially if the formula uses fresh meat. 

Fresh chicken, deboned chicken, or just chicken may be listed as the animal protein in your dog's food. Fresh meats are less process and offer more usable nutrients than meat meals that are cooked twice, but that a food that contains fresh meat sources doesn't always mean it's the healthiest option. 

Fresh meats are 60-70% water, so even though they are first on the list before cooking, the final product will contain much less animal protein than you thought you were getting. A blend of multiple fresh meats, or both fresh meats and meat meals is ideal for ensuring both quality and quantity of nutrients. 

10. Ingredient Splitting

Ingredient splitting is one of the most notorious tricks that pet food manufacturers play in order to make their ingredient panel read better. Ingredient splitting is the manipulation of similar ingredients so that they can separate their weight and move those ingredients lower down on the ingredient panel.

Ingredient splitting is a game that almost all pet food manufacturers play, so it isn't necessarily a sign that the food is bad, but combined with other red flags, it could indicate that the food isn't as good as it looks at first glance. 

Knowledge is Power

You now have a pretty good idea of what to look for, and what to avoid, when choosing a suitable pet food, but if you still have more questions, feel free to leave us a comment below or just pop by one of our locations to chat with our knowledgeable staff.

With this information, you should feel confident assessing your dog's current food and seeing if it measures up to what you are really looking for in a pet food. To keep learning, check out our Dog Food Guide and learn about your dog's nutritional needs.

Look at the ingredient panel and guaranteed analysis on your pet's food and see if you can spot anything that might not be what you were expecting. Check out our Pet food Comparison Chart to see how your pet food might stack up to some of the top brands on the market, you might be surprised at what you find.

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Written by

Krystn Janisse

Krystn is a passionate pet nutrition enthusiast. She has worked in the pet industry for over a decade and loves to share her passion for animal welfare with others. She loves all animals but is currently channeling some crazy cat lady vibes with her four lovable, but rebellious cats.

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