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Top 5 Tips on Reading a Dog Food Ingredients List

Sometimes reading a pet food label and dog food ingredients list can feel like the most overwhelming thing in the world. The average pet parent often has limited knowledge of the “rules” that govern ingredient lists. And there are rules, lots of them. The Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO for short has put together some simple rules that pet food companies have to follow in order to sell pet food here in the United States. Which is great!

However, over the years pet food companies have taken these simple rules that were meant to help pet parents identify products that would suit their dog’s needs and manipulate them into basically marketing. Now dog food ingredients lists are just another marketing tactic for pet parents to navigate. 
So what I want to do for you today is break down what information you can get from a dog food ingredient’s list, and what you can’t. And give you five easy tips on how to read a dog food ingredient’s list so that you can discern actual useful information from marketing.


The Order of Ingredients List

Ingredients within the ingredients list are required to be listed in order by weight from heaviest to lightest before processing. Keep in mind that some ingredients when fresh contain higher amounts of water – like fresh chicken – than dried ingredients – like dehydrated or mealed chicken. Other foods such as rice are added in dried or pre-cooked and dehydrated, which will place them lower on the ingredients list.

Pet food companies have learned to add certain ingredients that are more appealing to pet parents in their “fresh” form in order to move them higher on the ingredients list. Just because “fresh” chicken is used in an ingredients list it doesn’t mean it’s high quality chicken. The term “chicken” includes the use of chicken frames – which is mostly bone and not very digestible. Thus seeing “chicken” first doesn’t actually tell you anything about the actual quality of the food in question.

Superfoods and “The Salt Rule”

Certain ingredients can only be added to the food in certain quantities. For example – salt or sodium is an essential nutrient for dogs, however we don’t typically want more than 1% of the diet to contain salt. This can make salt a great divider to use when evaluating pet food. Any foods after “salt” on the ingredients panel make up less than 1% of the diet.

In order to appeal to pet parents pet food companies have started to add “superfoods” to dog food, however if these superfoods are listed after salt, then the amount in the diet is less than 1%. We call these fairy dust ingredients because they likely do not serve a true nutritional purpose within the recipe, and are there just for marketing purposes.



Ingredient Splitting

Pet food companies may “split” ingredients into subcategories in order to move them lower on the ingredients panel, or move key ingredients higher on the ingredients panel. This tactic is done by pet food companies to place ingredients that pet parents want to see higher on ingredient lists, and ingredients pet parents don’t want to see lower on the ingredients list.

Good examples of ingredient splitting is if you see multiple types of legumes listed within an ingredients list “yellow peas, green peas, pea fiber, pea protein”. All of these are different types of peas – by splitting these all into subcategories they now move further down the ingredients list. Making it seem like peas make up less of the overall diet, when in reality they may be a major player.

We also see this happen in order to move meat-based ingredients that pet parents are looking for higher on the ingredients list. For example, an ingredient’s list might be written potatoes, chicken meal. But instead they split potatoes into potato fiber, dehydrated potato, potato, and potato protein – now chicken is first, and our potato ingredients come after.

Amino Acid Supplementation

Though it can be very difficult to know exactly what the overall composition of the diet is, and the portion of the diet that is animal vs. plant protein sources. You can look for hints of if a diet contains lower amount of animal protein. Obviously looking at the order of the ingredients can give you some clues (though as discussed above it can easily be manipulated by pet food companies for marketing purposes.

But what you can do is look for amino acid supplementation. Basically if a diet is lower in protein, or if they are using a poorer quality protein they may need to supplement additional amino acids in order to meet AAFCO minimums. Amino Acids you may see listed on the label are: DL-Methionine,  L-Lysine, L-Threonine, DL-Tryptophan, DL-Arginine, L-Tyrosine. It should be noted that a company may choose to add additional supplementation of certain amino acids for therapeutic purposes. So this doesn’t always mean a diet is lower in protein, or protein quality is poor.




Ingredients to Avoid

Now that you understand the basics of looking at an ingredients list regarding the order, and some of the marketing tactics used by companies to trick you. I think it’s important to understand what ingredients you may want to consider avoiding – and this isn’t because these ingredients are “toxic” as much as there are better options out there.

  • Artificial colors – red, yellow, blue, caramel coloring. Dog’s don’t care what color the food is – these coloring agents are just added for your benefit to make the dog food “pretty”.
  • Artificial Preservatives – butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), ethoxyquin. We now have better food preservation options – vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), rosemary extract, citric acid (vitamin C), are more mild preservation options that have not been associated with possible side effects from long-term use.
  • Gums: carrageenan, propylene glycol, guar gum, agar-agar. Some dogs with gastrointestinal disease may find these texturizing agents difficult to digest, in these cases using a fresh-frozen option or stem that does not contain these agents may be better.
  • Unspecified Ingredients: meat, digest, natural flavoring, animal by-product. All of these terms are non-specific, aka they do not specify the species or portion of the animal used. For dogs without allergies this might not be a problem. But for dogs with allergies, or that have a sensitive stomach – open-label ingredients such as these can cause flares to their conditions. 

The Big Take-Away Here

Understand that though AAFCO has attempted to create rules and guidelines for pet food companies to follow, pet food companies often manipulate these rules for marketing purposes if possible. The biggest thing to look at on the ingredients list is just what foods are within the diet – don’t try to figure out what the composition is. Even board-certified veterinary nutritionists can find it difficult, if not impossible to figure out composition based on ingredients alone.

An ingredients list should not be the only part of the food you look at to see if it’s the right fit for your dog. Looking at the guaranteed analysis for composition information, the AAFCO nutrient statement to see if a diet is complete and balanced OR for supplementation feeding only, and contacting the company directly to learn more about quality control, formulation, and ingredient sourcing practices should also be considered.

The ingredients list is only one piece in the puzzle, and honestly – it’s likely not the most important piece either considering how much it can be manipulated by pet food companies for marketing purposes.

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