How to Read a Pet Food Label

Cat with reading glass - choose the best pet foodYou want what’s best for your furry friend, but how do you make sure the food you’re feeding your pet is good? Does price make a difference? Which ingredients are the healthiest for pets? Which pet foods are the animal equivalents of fast food – tasty, but not a lot of nutritional value? Gaining a better understanding of how to read a pet food label may help in your decision-making process (or just skip to the end for the cheat sheet).

Low Cost vs. Premium Pet Foods

Most grocery store and generic brands are formulated as “variable formula diets.” This means that the ingredients used in the food will vary from batch to batch, depending on market availability and pricing. In contrast, most premium foods sold in feed stores, pet stores and through veterinarians are produced using fixed formulas. Although the cost for a fixed formula food may be more than a variable formula diet, the consistency between batches of food is a distinct advantage to the dog or cat who requires a consistent nutrient profile.

When reviewing the list of ingredients, keep in mind that as with food for humans, they are listed in order of predominance by weight. Also, the ingredient list can give no indicator of the quality of the ingredients used in the food. Ingredients with similar names can vary in digestibility, amino acid content and availability, mineral availability and the amount of indigestible materials they contain. In fact, some premium foods with very high-quality ingredients may have an ingredient list that is almost identical to a generic food that contains poor-quality ingredients with low digestibility and poor nutrient availability. This can be seen in products that claim to be “the same as” another higher-priced product.

Also, in the United States, the name and address of the manufacturer, distributor or dealer of the pet food must be found on the label, usually on the information panel. This information is not required to be complete, and may only include the distributor and city of origin. Most premium foods include the manufacturer’s name, mailing address, phone number, hours of operations and possibly a website address. This makes it much easier to contact the manufacturer with any problems or questions regarding the product.

Common Pet Food Ingredients

Pet food manufacturers in the United States are required to include minimum percentages for crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages for crude fiber and moisture. These percentages generally indicate the “worst case” levels for these nutrients in the food and may not accurately reflect the exact or typical amounts included. Also note that these indicate only minimums or maximums found in the foods; actual values may differ dramatically.

DescriptionExampleContribution to diet
Meat (muscle)Skeletal muscle, tongue, diaphragm, heartAnimal fat, protein, energy
Meat by-productsLung, spleen, kidney, brain, blood, bone, intestineAnimal fat, protein, energy
Meat meal, meat & bone meal, fish meal, blood mealDry rendered product from animal tissueAnimal fat, protein, energy
CerealsCorn, wheat, oats, barley, corn gluten mealCarbohydrate, protein, fiber, energy
Soy flour, soy mealVegetable protein source including Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)Protein, texture/chunks (usually the meaty chunks in foods)
Animal fat, vegetable oilTallow, chicken fat, corn oil, soy oilFats, fatty acids, essential fatty acids, energy
EggEgg powderProtein of high biologic value
MilkSkim milk powder, wheyMilk protein
Grain nulls, root cropsBran, beet pulpDietary fiber
HumectantsSugars, salt, glycerolIncreases moisture in food
DigestHydrolysed liver or intestineFlavor and palatability enhancer, some protein and fat
PreservativesSodium benzoate, sodium and potassium sorbateRetard spoilage from molds and bacteria
FlavorsNatural and artificial and “nature identical” flavors, process reacted flavors, key character compoundsImprovement in taste, smell and mouth feel
Coloring agentsNatural and artificial coloringsImprovement in owner appeal
AromasNatural and artificial aromas and tonesImprovement in owner and animal appeal
Vitamins, mineralsVitamin and mineral premixesNutrients and dietary balance
AntioxidantsBHT, BHA, ascorbic acid, mixed tocopherols (Vitamin E)Prevents fat rancidity

What’s More Important Than the Label? (Psst, the Cheat Sheet!)

“It’s almost impossible for the average pet parent to evaluate a pet food based on the label,” states Dr. Susan Wynn, a veterinary nutritionist at BluePearl in Atlanta. “Instead, people should get to know the pet food company and its practices, specifically, if it employs nutritionists.”

In general, a well-established company with veterinary nutritionists on staff and the AAFCO feeding statement on their foods is a trustworthy source of pet food. (AAFCO is the American Association of Feed Control Officials. Having the statement on the label indicates that the food is formulated to meet nutritional levels established by the organization.)

What’s even quicker, and more reliable, than trying to figure out on your own which food to feed your pet? Ask your family veterinarian. Veterinarians look at foods with a critical eye and assess them based on the AAFCO statement, whether the food was tested in a trial, past performance as well as the company’s expertise and track record (i.e. how they handle recalls, if they adjust their formulas based on new discoveries, etc.).