Understanding pet food labels

dog food

Ensuring that your dog is eating a healthy diet involves more than just switching brands. It means being a pet food label detective, and learning how to understand ingredient lists and terminology.

If you’re like a lot of people these days, you want your dog to eat a healthy diet. To succeed at choosing a safe, nutritious, quality food for your canine companion, however, you need to become adept at reading pet food labels and understanding some of the terminology.


Always look at the back of a package of pet food for the full ingredient profile, listed in order of weight.

1) Ideally, we want to see a specific meat, such as pork or beef, listed first. If it is, this means it has been weighed with the water still in it. This makes it heavier and brings it to the top of the list. However, the water is removed during processing, meaning there is a lower weight of actual meat-derived protein in the end product.

2) By-products are non-rendered and include organs, fat, and entrails, but no hair, horns, teeth, or hooves. By-products can be healthy, but we don’t know the quality based on a label listing. Carnivores do need to ingest organs for good health.

3) A meat “meal” means the tissue has been rendered. This process converts waste animal tissue (not human grade meat) into stable usable materials like yellow grease, choice white grease, bleachable fancy tallow, and a protein meal such as meat and bone meal, or poultry by-product meal. It contains no hair, hoof, hide, or extraneous materials. By definition, while up to 9% of the crude protein in the product may be pepsin indigestible, the product would be more protein-dense than its clean flesh counterpart weighed with water included.

4) If a meat product is followed by more than one grain or starch, there may be more grain or starch than meat by weight, even though the meat is listed first. A common marketing trick is to list a grain, for example corn, broken down into corn gluten, corn starch, corn middlings, etc. This puts the corn versions below the meat source — unless you add them all together. This is called ingredient splitting. Corn is not a natural food for a carnivore diet.

dog foodDigestibility, quality, and safety

The three crucial parameters of digestibility, quality, and safety cannot be easily determined by reading pet food labels. It’s not just what your dog eats, but rather what he absorbs that’s most crucial to his good health. This point was recently driven home to us by ongoing investigations into spikes of canine dilated cardiomyopathy cases. Many of the diets tested were found to contain taurine, methionine, and cysteine levels consistent with AAFCO recommendations — yet many dogs consuming those same diets lacked adequate taurine in their blood.

5) After the starches on a label, a fat is listed along with how it is preserved. Avoid animal fat preserved with BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin. These artificial preservatives have been shown to be carcinogenic; in fact, ethoxyquin is banned in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Look for mixed tocopherols, a source of vitamin E, and/or rosemary extract as preservatives.

6) Avoid added sugars such as corn syrup, molasses, and beet sugar. These are not useful nutrients. They entice an animal to eat the food and become addicted to it.

7) Salt should not be too high on the list. Like sugar, salt is also addictive.

8) If vitamins and minerals are added, look for those that are chelated, which improves absorption (they’ll be listed as a chelate or proteinate). However, do be aware that this chelation is not “natural” and often occurs by combining a mineral with soy proteinate. The best pet foods contain enough whole food sources of vitamins and minerals, so synthetic versions need not be added.

9) Avoid canned foods that contain carrageenan as a thickener. This ingredient has been found to have a link to inflammatory bowel disease.

10) Can liners may contain BPA, a known endocrine disruptor. Look for companies that don’t use BPA in their cans.

11) Some grocery store foods, many treats, and dental chews still contain dye. These artificial colorings can be carcinogenic. If a food contains dye (e.g. Red Dye 40), put it back on the shelf! Better ingredients can be utilized, such as blue-green algae, which also provides great antioxidant properties.

12) Small amounts of the best, healthiest, and most expensive ingredients are usually last on the list! You may see blueberries, cranberries, broccoli, dried kelp, hemp seed, and others. Some foods, like chicory root extract/inulin, are prebiotics that promote gut flora health. Prebiotics feed probiotics, the good bacteria in the gut.