Let's take the confusion out of dog food labels

Posted by Sanford Johnson on

The Problem

Everyone wants to feed their dog the best food, but with hundreds of brands on the market, choosing the right food can be daunting. Labels use phrases like "a complete and balanced diet," "human-grade," "natural and holistic." The choices between kibble, cans, dehydrated, freeze-dried, and raw foods seem limitless. And even more, decisions are complicated by a confusing list of ingredients, life stages, allergy control, and breed-specific food. So how do you make sense of it all?

The answer is in your hands. 

The Solution

Our goal in this episode is to learn how to read and understand your dog food bag/box and can label. I believe you will feel empowered to make the right food choice for your dog as I break down the critical information to look for on the packaging and how to unlock its meaning. At the end of this podcast, you to be a more savvy and informed partner to your dog.

Let's Get Started

There are eight essential items to look for on each bag or can. Most of these are required by law, while quality manufacturers voluntarily include others.

These are:

  • Product name and identifier
  • Product weight or quantit
  • Guaranteed analysis
  • The ingredients list
  • Nutritional statement
  • Feeding Directions 
  • Caloric information
  • Manufactures name and address

Product name

What's in a name? As it turns out, a lot. 

Product names hold unique identifiers and the first clue to the quality of the food. This is not accidental, as four crucial regulations apply to product naming and identification.  

These regulations are:

The 95% Rule

The 25% Rule

The "with" rule

The "Flavor" rule

The 95% rule: requires that at least 95% of the food must contain the named ingredient. In other words, if the food is named Salmon Dog Food, it must include 95% salmon. This main ingredient must be at least 70% of the total product when accounting for added water for processing in canned food. 

The 25% rule: applies to foods that use words like DinnerEntree, or Platter in their name. An example is Chicken and Sweet Potato Entree or Lamb Dinner for Dogs, which require that the food contain only 25% of the named ingredient. 

The WITH rule: When you see the word "with" on the bag, such as Puppy food with Beef, it means the "with" ingredient only has to be 3% of the product. This one word can dramatically change the amount of the listed ingredient in the product. 

The flavor rule: If a label says Beef Flavor Dog Food, a specific percentage of the beef flavor has no minimum, except there is only enough in the product to be detected in a lab.  

Product weight or quantity  

The quantity or weight must be listed on the label, which tells you how much food is in the package. This can be measured by count (12 patties), liquid measure (16 oz), or weight (12 lbs.) The information about weight or quantity shows you a cost per weight comparison, as some foods differ in density.

Guaranteed analysis

Most states regulate the minimum amount of nutrients your dog's food must contain and the maximum amount of moisture and crude fiber. All dog food labels must show the percentage of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and water or moisture.





These are the big four when comparing pet foods. Also, if the food makes specific claims such as low fat or high protein, then both the maximum and minimum percentage of the nutrient must be guaranteed. 

*One note to insert here is that the Guaranteed Analysis does not tell you whether the protein is animal or vegetable-based.

The ingredients list

The ingredients list is the most critical part of the label to understand. The key is that the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. 

Each ingredient must be listed individually, and collective descriptions such as animal protein products are prohibited. Ingredients must be listed in their common names, like SalmonWhite FishLamb, etc.

There are two terms in this section that demand some unpacking: by-product and meat meal. 


By-products have a range of utility, from low-grade refuse from human meat processing included without regard for quality to highly nutritious organ meats rich in vitamins and minerals. Pay close attention because by-products are not created equally.

For example, the term "poultry by-products" is a regulated term that includes the internal organs, beaks, bones, and feet of the Chicken, turkey, or other fowl, and some amount of feathers coincident with processing. While this may sound a bit gross, these internal organs are rich in vitamins and minerals. Also, the bones, feet, and beaks are sources of calcium and glucosamine. These are good by-products.

On the other end of the spectrum is the term "meat by-products." This unfortunate term may include rendered animals from a category known as 4 D - which stands for dead, dying, diseased and disabled animals. Add a 5th D for drugged animals that includes euthanized pets from animal shelters and veterinary clinics. These 4 and 5 D carcasses may have cancerous tumors, worm-infested organs, cattle ear tags with fly repellents, and other animal industry paraphernalia. This all goes into the pot at the rendering plant and ends up as a frozen slurry used in many low-quality pet foods.  Meat by-product is the meat industry's garbage dump - free of any safeguards. 

These are not good by-products.

I draw a distinction between poultry by-products and meat by-products for apparent reasons.

Meat Meals

Ingredient lists often include various types of meals

Meat by-product mealSalmon mealchicken meal, or other proteins like lamb or turkey are standard. You now know what is included in the meat by-product meal. But consumers have a wrong impression of meal in general. While meat by-product meals are a low-quality ingredient, We have evolved to the advent of natural and holistic pet foods with better ingredients, including healthy meal additives.

The best way to think of the term meal is to understand that it was previously high in moisture but that moisture has been removed, making it a meal or flour suitable for processing. The resulting meal could come from high-quality muscle meat from grass-fed venison or low-quality meat by-products. It just depends on the quality of the beginning ingredient.

Remember when I said that ingredients earn their place on the label in descending order by weight, but there was a caveat?

This is the weight before processing. And in the case of meat, it includes the water weight before drying to make kibble. This fresh meat may contain almost 75% water which helps it attain that top spot on the ingredients list. This changes once you remove this water. 

When the water is removed from Chicken, lamb, or Beef, what's left is 25% of the weight you began with. Here is an example of what this means to your dog's diet: 

Let's say you are looking at a bag of dog food. On the front of the bag, it says in big, bold text, "First Ingredient Fresh Chicken." Sounds great, right?

Take a look at the ingredients section and see if the second ingredient is corn and the 3rd is corn gluten meal. Since that fresh Chicken earned its spot by weight with the water included, once the water was removed & turned into a meal, the first ingredient by actual weight is the corn, and the second is corn gluten meal. The amount of protein derived from meat in this food is so low that despite the claim that the first ingredient is "fresh chicken," this is a corn-based diet.

Using fresh meat to get the top slot on the ingredients list is one way that a mediocre or even low-grade food can trick you into paying more for their product than it's worth. A good rule of thumb is that it takes 4 cups of natural Chicken to have as much protein and nutrients as 1 cup of chicken meal.

What I want to feed my dog is a high-quality, meat-based diet. If you are feeding kibble, look for a food with a meat meal either first or second on the ingredients list. This way, you know the food is primarily a meat-based diet. A standard, healthy ingredients list will read something like: 

Chicken, chicken meal, salmon, salmon meal, and then the non-meat ingredients. 

I know I have spent much time here, but I believe this is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to an understanding the quality of your dog's diet.

The Nutritional Statement

The nutritional statement, required to be backed by lab testing, shows that the food contains vital levels of nutrients such as protein, fat, fiber, and vitamins and minerals. In the United States, a nongovernmental agency, the Association of American Feed Control, or AAFCO, sets the pet food industry's guidelines to use the phrase "a complete and balanced diet."

Let us talk a bit more about AAFCO.

Many foods state that they are "complete and balanced" or "100 percent nutritious." These aren't just marketing terms. These phrases mean that the food has met a specific industry standard and provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages of dogs, as determined by AAFCO.

AAFCO recognizes the following life stages:

  • Gestation/Lactation
  • Growth
  • Maintenance
  • All life stages

While some products are labeled for a more specific use or life stage, such as senior or large breed, no rules govern those stages. Therefore, a senior diet only has to meet the requirements for adult maintenance, and not more.

The AAFCO guidelines are established by performing feeding trials. 

AAFCO Food Trials

The AAFCO feeding trials are designed to determine whether a food will sustain a dog's life for up to 6 months. This means that long-term health is considered nor established. Unlike the recommended daily allowances or (RDA) for human diets, which target certain nutrient levels, the AAFCO guidelines only require minimum nutrient levels and maximum nutrient levels for items that can be toxic in excess. This provides manufacturers with a lot of wiggle room to produce a mediocre product and still be labeled "complete and balanced."

I put little to no stock in the AAFCO certification of food because the bar so low to achieve certification. The companies using best practices in the industry now provide enough information about their sourcing of products, lab results, feeding trials, and batch tracking, making the AAFCO designation negligible. 

Feeding Directions

The feeding directions tell you how much to feed your dog by either weight or volume. While this is pretty straightforward, many people fail to read the directions correctly.

Feeding directions are guidelines for age, weight, pregnant or nursing dogs, and activity level. Don't feed the bowl! Here is how to determine the proper amount:

Caloric information

The calorie content of dog food is expressed as Kilocalories/Kilogram Metabolizable Energy or kcal.

The caloric content statement is located on the back or sides of the packaging and is shown as ME (kcal/kg) = X, where X will be a number, such as 3200. The calorie content is listed as the number of kcal per cup. I use the kcal per cup as the pertinent piece of information. When comparing foods side by side, notice a vast range in this number. Some foods may be in the low 300 kcal per cup, while others may be as high as 620. If you used to feed a low kcal food to your dog and then switched to a higher kcal food, your dog would be getting twice as many calories in its diet if you feed them the same amount. So read. The. Label. 

Manufactures name and address

The contact information is included so you can contact the manufacture. This is also where you will find the guarantee and instructions on how to be refunded if you are not happy with their product.

The final thing I want to say about modern pet food packaging is that the bags now have a lot of easily digestible information in the form of icons, pictograms, and percentages right on the front of the bag. I believe this is because so much pet food is now sold in chain stores and online rather than by knowledgeable independent shops. The manufactures have tried to make their packaging appeal to you, the consumer. In the end, the over-labeled bag is a boon to you.

So next time you are on the hunt for new dog food, give yourself enough time to read the bags and compare the foods for yourself. Armed with this knowledge, you will be in charge of what goes into your best friend's body. 



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