Do you know what's in your pet's food? So many foods pass off poor quality, and sometime dangerous ingredients to unsuspecting pet owners. What is animal digest? What about BHT? Find out the truth about the red flag ingredients that might be lurking in your pet's food.
There are so many dog and cat foods on the market today - and all of them claim to be healthy. Bags are covered in pictures of chicken, fish, fruits, and veggies - complete with a good-looking dog or cat, front and centre. From one bag to the next, it's hard to tell the difference. But there is one place you can always tell the difference: the ingredient panel.
While it can help to know what good ingredients to look for in a quality food, it can also be beneficial to know how to spot the not-so-good ingredients. Look out for these indicators of poor quality pet food!
1. Grains Are First Ingredients
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.
Let's say that meat the second ingredient, followed by more carbs. It may not look so bad a first glance, but the food likely contains more nutrition from carbs than meat.
Pet food manufacturers often throw off buyers by sandwiching a meat in between two carbs. The food may appear meaty, but the two carb sources combined will overshadow any nutrients coming from the meat.
We don't claim that carbs are bad, just that they need to be fed in moderation. Carbs contain vitamins, minerals, and key nutrients like protein, but they are also full of sugars that can disrupt digestion and lead to unnecessary weight gain.
2. Mystery Meat
Many cheaper pet foods will list non-descript meat ingredients. They use terms like meat meal, poultry, or animal digest, without specifying an actual animal source.
Vague and unidentified meat is likely inconsistent in quality, meaning you could be feeding scraps from a variety of sources. These ingredients might even include 4D animals (diseased, disabled, dying, or dead before processing). This could include expired grocery store meat, zoo animals, roadkill, and even euthanized or diseased animals.
The use of 4D meats is not a legal practice, but cheaply sourced and manufactured foods sometimes find ways to circumvent the laws, especially when they are not actively enforced.
Top offending ingredients are non-descript meat sources like:
- poultry meal
- meat and bone meal
- blood meal
- animal digest
- beef and bone meal
Other mystery meats, like animal digest, do contain protein, but not the kind you want to see in your dog's food. Animal digest refers to a animal protein that has been "digested" using enzymes and acids, to break apart the components of the meat. It's often made into a liquid or powdered form to spray onto foods, increasing flavour and aroma.
That doesn't sound too bad does it? Well, in theory, it's not. The problem is that there is little to know regulation of the quality of meat used to make animal digest. It could be healthy muscle tissue, but it could also be an animal by-product from a less than desirable source.
Calling it unspecified animal digest leaves the a lot to the imagination, and a manufacturer that is cutting corners will not be hunting down top shelf animal digest. A meat-rich high quality diet would have no need for animal digest and other mystery meats to improve flavour or scent.
3. Cheap Fat Sources
In the same way that unidentified or very general meat sources can indicate a very cheap and inconsistent quality food, unidentified 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.
By-products are what’s left-over of the animal carcass once meat is removed, typically the parts that are used for human consumption. By definition, by-products aren't bad. They are made up of parts of the animal that may be gross to us, but are healthy and digestible for your dog.
Organ meats, tendons, bones, and any other animal parts are safe to feed your dog. However, in rendered animal by-products the nutrition is inconsistent. You never know what your pet is getting. Foods that rely solely on animal by-products for their protein and fat may be offering less nutrition than they seem.
Without strict regulation surrounding the quality of animal by-products, it's safer to stick to real named meat sources. Un-rendered by-products can be fed supplementally. Adding fresh organ meat, or feeding natural chews can add both nutrition and flavour in a format that you know is safer and healthier.
5. 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:
- corn syrup
- 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:
- butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
- butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- propyl gallate
- tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)
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 pet food fillers are:
- corn (and various types of)
- maize (also corn)
- peanut hulls
- apple or grape pomace
- pea bran
- dried beet pulp
- oat hulls
- rice hulls
- wheat (or other) mills
- brewers rice
8. Unknown Sourcing
With the frequency of recalls from pet food ingredients sourced out of places like China, 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, such as those found in China and other developing countries.
Manufacturing standards in Europe, Canada, Australia 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. It's Very Cheap
OK, so this is technically not on the ingredient panel, but it is worth noting. While price does not always dictate value or quality, the lowest price item is almost always guaranteed to cut corners somewhere. Unfortunately, in terms of pet food, this means the cheapest, worst ingredients are included.
If you are feeding your pet the cheapest food you can find, you are going to end up paying for it in the long run – through vet bills, or health conditions resulting from poor ingredients or nutritional deficiency.
Price ins't the only factor to consider though. Many brands are trying to bridge the price gap between poor quality grocery brands, and premium pet foods. A reasonably priced food, may still check all the other boxes for quality, so don't discount the food without looking at it's ingredients.
10. Fresh Meat vs Meat Meals
Pet owners know to look for meat as a top ingredient in their pet’s food, and pet food manufacturers know this. Fresh chicken, deboned chicken, or just chicken sounds whole and healthy. And it often is – but there’s a catch.
Fresh chicken (or another named meat) is not processed before it goes into your dog’s food. This means that the water content is high, which accounts for most of the weight.
Since most of this moisture evaporates during the cooking processing, the actual amount of chicken protein in the finished product is less than it appears on the ingredient panel. If it were weighed after processing, the chicken would end up much further down the ingredient list.
To solve this, many manufacturers have started using named meat meals, like chicken meal. Meals are made by removing the moisture from the meat before it's added to the food. This ensure a much higher protein content in a smaller portion.
The downside to using meat meals, is that quality cannot be guaranteed. Dehydration requires a heat process, which can degrade the nutrients in the meat. The food is them extruded and cooked a second time. It's difficult to ensure that foods using just meat meals contain appropriate levels of digestible nutrients.
Look for foods that use both fresh meat and meat meals. This offers the benefits of both worlds, and ensures that your pet is getting the right nutrients.
11. 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.
In the image above, there is an example of a food that uses sweet potatoes and potatoes for starch and carbohydrates. If they would have used just sweet potatoes or just potatoes, it likely would have made these ingredients show first in the ingredient panel over the salmon meal.
Ingredient splitting is a game that almost all pet food manufacturers play, so it isn't necessarily a sign that the food is bad. We include it in this list because it is important for you to recognize possible issues in your pet's food so that you can make more informed decisions about their diet
Why Quality Matters In Your Pet's Food
Quality matters. More and more studies are finding that nutrition has a big impact on our health - why should it be any different for our pets? Sure, exercise and other lifestyle factors are also important, but we can't deny the importance of a healthy, natural diet with plenty of nutrients from real, whole foods.
Some of the red flags on our list are deal breakers, while other may not be as concerning. If you find 1 of these red flags, then take a good look at your dog's food as a whole and decide if it's enough of a problem to look into some changes. If you see multiple red flags, then sound the alarms and change your pets food asap.
Your pet will reap the health benefits of a quality diet, and will hopefully avoid the possible pitfalls of a substandard one - illness, disease, and cancer. For your pet's best health and best chance at a long and healthy life, start with a high quality dog food.
Do you know any other red flag ingredients in pet food? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted 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 channelling some crazy cat lady vibes with her five lovable, but rebellious cats.