The Truth About Your Dog's Food
Do you really know what your pooch is chowing down on? Of course we all look at the label when buying dog food, but do we really understand what we are reading?
It seems like nowadays there is an ever growing list of dog nutritional claims on dog food: grain-free, gluten-free, high-protein, organic, all natural, and the list just goes on.
Your dog’s food label has a wealth of knowledge, if you know how to decipher it.
Don’t worry, cause we went out and did the research to help you navigate the world of dog foods. You’ll never look at a kibble, dry food, or wet food labels the same way again.
Don’t want to read the whole article? Scroll to the bottom for a cheat sheet.
Who Controls What Goes In Your Dog Food?
Before we dive in you should become aware of the institutional bodies that govern what goes in your dog’s food and how it is shown on the label. There are three main organizations that govern over your dog’s food: FDA, USDA, and AAFCO.
FDA (Food And Drug Administration)
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating our food supply and enforcing those regulations. Their jurisdiction covers the following categories: dairy, seafood, produce, packaged foods, bottled water, and whole eggs. They are also responsible for the labeling of foods and food ingredients under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, in addition to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.
USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees over meat, poultry, and egg products. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has jurisdiction over food labeling for meat and poultry products under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Inspection Act.
AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials)
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association of local, state, and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds (including dog and cat foods) and animal drug remedies.
The organization defines and establishes regulations for pet food and feed ingredients, as well as sets standards for nutritional adequacy. It is a private corporation that does not have to officially enforce any regulations they recommend. They do work closely with the FDA and USDA.
It’s easy to see how there can be so much overlap between regulatory bodies when it come’s to your pooch’s food. While this oversight can be a reassurance about your dog’s food navigating labels and terminology can shed light on what your pooch is really eating.
Reading Your Dog's Food Label
At a first glance a dog food label seems pretty simple and self-explanatory. It’s simply made up of a couple of sections:
- Dog Food Product Name
- Net Quantity Statement
- Manufacturer’s Name and Address
- Ingredient List
- Guaranteed Analyses
- Nutritional Adequacy Statement
- Feeding Directions
- Calorie Statement
- Fancy Claims
Dog food labels are there to empower and guide you to make the best decision for your dog.
Pretty simple, right? If you look at the dog food and read “Hill’s Science Diet Adult Light With Chicken Meal & Barley Dry Dog Food”. At first glance it seems like you're buying a nutritious low calorie meal for your pooch, but let’s take a look again. We’ll examine some of the caveat words like “adult”,”with”, “light”, and “chicken meal”.
3% or “with” Rule
The devil lives in the details. Originally the 3% rule applied to ingredients that were highlighted on the main display of the packaging but not included in the product name. This was intended so that manufacturers could highlight ingredients that were beneficial but not significantly present in the product by using the word “with”.
The rule states that there must be at least 3% of the ingredient present in the product. AAFCO regulations now allow the use of the 3% rule to be included in the name of the product. So our original example states that your dog’s meal has at least 3% “Chicken Meal” in it (we’ll get to the quotations in a bit). You may think “Wow, that’s great! I know that there is at least 3% Chicken Meal in my dog’s food and hopefully it’s closer to 60% or 90%.”
25% or “dinner” Rule
The “dinner” rule applies to many dry food and canned food products. The rule states that if the named ingredient makes up at least 25% of the product but LESS than 95%, then the name must include a qualifying descriptor like “dinner”. The word “dinner” can be replaced by other descriptors like “platter”, “entree”, “nuggets”, and “formula” just being a few examples. Returning to our initial example, we know that our “Hill’s Science Diet Adult Light With Chicken Meal & Barley Dry Dog Food” has at least 3% Chicken Meal but no more than 25%.
You may be asking at this point, “Well, what if my dog’s food contains more than 95% of an ingredient?”
The 95% Rule
This rule applies to dog foods that contain very few ingredients. Generally the name for these products tend to be simple, like “Beef For Dogs”. The named ingredient must make up at least 95% of the product, not counting water added for processing or condiments. Even if we count the water and condiments the rule states that the named ingredient must still make up at least 70% of the product.
What about labels that say “…Beef Flavored…”?
The “Flavor” Rule
This rule does not require any minimum percentage of a claimed ingredient to be present in the product. The only requirement is that the product has enough of the ingredient that it can be detected. It’s also important to keep in mind that many dog foods labeled “….flavored” often contain “digests”. These are materials treated with heat, enzymes or acids, to produce a concentration of the flavor.
Now that we deciphered what “with” means in a dog food product name, let’s look at “light”.
“Light” Descriptive Terms
The AAFCO has set forth the following guidelines when making claims like “light”, “lite”, or “low-calorie”. And here’s their guidance on what the “light” claim means:
A pet food product that claims to be “light,” “lite” or “low-calorie” must be formulated to contain a nutritionally-significant reduction in calories compared to a standard product. It must also have feeding directions that that would result in a reduction in calorie intake consistent with the intended use.
The maximum number of calories allowed depends on the type of food, and whether it is for a dog or cat. For example, a lite dry dog food cannot contain more than 3,100 kilocalories per kilogram.
Now let’s move on to one of the most important pieces in the product name, “chicken meal”. The word meal just seems like an innocent heart-warming description, but it isn’t.
Poultry vs. Poultry Meal
While the two may seem like the same thing, they are not. The AAFCO has set forth strict guidelines as to what dog food companies can call “poultry” and what they can call “poultry meal”.
Poultry: the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. It shall be suitable for use in animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto. If the bone has been removed, the process may be so designated by use of the appropriate feed term.
- Essentially, these are the parts of the bird as found in whole chickens or turkeys in aisles of grocery stores. Frankly, it often consists of the less profitable parts of the bird, such as backs and necks. Unlike “meat,” it may include the bone, which, when ground, can serve as a good source of calcium.
- If the bone has been removed, it can be called deboned poultry.
- If it is a particular species of bird, the more common name, such as chicken or turkey, may be used.
Poultry Meal: the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. It shall be suitable for use in animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.
- This is basically rendered poultry, so most of the water and fat has been removed to make a concentrated protein/mineral ingredient.
On one hand you may think your buying a nice chicken meal for your dog, when in reality it’s a concentrated protein ingredient.
Net Quantity Statement
The Net Quantity Statement tells you how much product is actually in the container. This comes in handy when you’re trying to figure out the cost between dog foods. When comparing two products best practice is to do a cost-per-pound or a cost-per-ounce analyses.
Manufacturer’s Name & Address
The manufacturer’s name and address is required to be printed on your dog’s food label. There are a couple of caveats we should take into consideration. On some labels it may say “manufactured for…” or “distributed by…”, this shows the responsible party but means that the dog food was manufactured by a 3rd party manufacturer.
Here’s a fun fact on reading you the ingredients list on your dog’s food label, all ingredients are listed in order by weight when they are added into the formula. This also includes the ingredient’s water content, which can be pretty high especially when it’s meat. Best practice is to do some basic math and remove the water content and compare on a dry matter basis.
All ingredients must be listed by their common name. Their common name and meaning can be found on the AAFCO website.
This basically tells you percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. Don’t be fooled by the word “crude” it is not a representation of quality it is a method of testing the product.
When comparing guaranteed analyses between wet food and dry food (i.e. Kibble), one will notice that wet food has lower levels of crude protein and most other nutrients. This has to do with the moisture of the contents. Generally wet dog food contains 75-78% moisture, whereas dry dog food comes in around 10-12%.
Make sure to look at the moisture guarantee for canned foods. Under AAFCO regulation the maximum moisture content for dog food cannot exceed 78%.
We all know and have seen the buzzwords “balanced”, “complete”, “100% nutritious”, “complete and balanced”, or anything of this type. It turns out that under FDA and AAFCO regulation a dog food that makes such a claim must be provided evidence and support these claims through one of two methods put forth by AAFCO.
Another important thing to note is that this is where the life stage is listed. There are four life stages:
- All life stages
Sometimes products may list a more specific life stage like “senior dog”, or size like large breed, small breed, or breed. To date there aren’t any official guidelines or governance set forth by the FDA around these statements. Best practice is to just consider it as marketing jargon.
This is probably the most straightforward and the one everyone looks at. The important thing to remember here is that it is a guideline and not a prescription. There are a lot of factors around how much you should feed your dog – weight, exercise level, life stage, etc.
Should you buy the “premium”, “super premium”, “ultra premium”, or the “gourmet” dog food? The truth is that it doesn’t make a difference. Products labeled in this nature are not held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any other complete and balanced products.
Natural versus Organic: Seeing the natural label may have you picturing green rolling hills and beautiful sunshine. In reality the AAFCO has set forth a set of guidelines that a dog food must meet in order to label the food as “natural”. In summary the criteria is that the food must not contain any. For the “organic” label there are no official rules or guidelines governing this statement for the pet food industry. The USDA is in the process of developing regulation around what synthetic additives may be used in pet foods labeled as “organic”.
Cheat Sheet For Reading Dog Food Labels
- FDA and the USDA regulate what goes in your dog’s food and the claims associated with it. They are both government bodies with regulatory powers.
- AAFCO has a set of recommendations of guidelines for food labeling and claims. They are a private corporation and NOT a regulatory body. This is a common misconception. States aren’t required to adopt the recommendations, however, they work closely with the FDA.
- The guaranteed analysis on the label tells you the amount of protein, fat, fiber, and water the food contains.
- A Nutritional Adequacy Statement is one of the most aspects of a dog food label. A “complete and balanced” dog food must prove nutritional adequacy by one of two means set forth by the AAFCO.
- “95%” rule applies to dog foods containing very few ingredients and where the product name highlights specific ingredients. For example “Beef For Dogs”, will require that the dog food has 95% of the highlighted ingredient not counting water added and condiments.
- “25%” or “dinner” rule applies to many canned and dry food products. If the named ingredients account for at least 25% of the product, but less than 95%, the name must have a descriptive term like “Dinner”. For example if a canned dog food has 35% beef it must be labeled as “Beef Dinner for Dogs.”
- “3%” rule applies to any other ingredients highlighted on the packaging main display panel. For example, “Beef Dinner For Dogs with Cheese” must contain at least 3% cheese.
- “Flavor” rule means that there must be a detectable amount of the highlighted ingredient. In regards to flavors many dog foods often contain “digests”. These are materials treated with enzymes/acids and high heat to form flavor concentrations.
- You must check the net quantity statement. This tells you how much product is in the container. This is extremely important especially when comparing the cost of products. A bag of dog food that holds 40 lbs of food may only hold 35 lbs of actual food that is not puffed up.
- All ingredients are required to be listed in order of heaviest to lightest ingredient. All ingredients must be listed by their “common or usual” name. For example, “meat” is defined as the “clean flesh of slaughtered mammals and is limited to…the striate muscle…with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh.” On the other hand, “meat meal” is “the rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents.”
- When comparing guaranteed analyses of canned and dry dog food it is important to compare on the same moisture basis. Canned foods typically contain 75-80% moisture whereas dry dog foods only contain 10-12% moisture. To do this, convert the guarantees for both products to a moisture-free or dry matter basis. The percentage of dry matter of the product is equal to 100% minus the percentage of moisture guaranteed on the label.
- To male any claim such as “complete”, “balanced”, “100% Nutritious” or anything similar to that it must prove nutritional adequacy per AAFCO guidelines.
TheBasic blog is devoted to helping doggie parents make better decisions about their pups health. If you want to learn more about our all natural, research backed, human-grade health booster, checkout TryTheBasic.com.
- Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health – Diana R. Laverdure, W. Jean Dodds