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Understanding labels and what they tell you.

THE "EASY" INFORMATION
The first piece of information contained on a pet food label is the "product", or "brand name". The product name is usually larger and more obvious than the other information printed on the principle front panel. The product name is often incorporated into a unique and recognizable logo.

Secondly, the designating terms "dog food" or "cat food" will also appear on the package. This is, in reality, a very important product designation, since the nutritional requirements of dogs and cats are very different. The terms "puppy food" and "kitten food" can also be used.

The net weight of the product is the third piece of data required on the package. This information will usually be supplied in English and metric units.

MORE INVOLVED INFORMATION
The fourth bit of information, which must be included on the package, is the contact information, including "name" and "address" of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor.

This data can also provide some insight, as to the processing and quality control of the product. If the expression "manufactured by" precedes the company's name, this company manufactures its own food and exercises its own control over the ingredients, processing, and final products. Private label pet foods are identified by the words "manufactured for" or "distributed by." This company markets and sells the pet food, but has another company manufacture the product.

The next, and fifth item included on the label, is the statement of the nutritional adequacy, or purpose of the diet. This is often referred to as the "life stages guarantee". Routinely, the diet will establish its nutritional adequacy by one of two standards:

  1. The diet "meets or exceeds NRC requirements." Originally, there was no way of knowing the digestibility or availability of the nutrients, since the initial NRC recommendations were based on purified, 100% digestible diets. To overcome this problem, the Canine Nutrition Expert Subcommittee of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) established new nutrient requirements based on commonly used, practical ingredients. Full laboratory analyses and digestibility protocols are now required to ensure adequate nutrient digestibility and availability.
  2. To test feed the food to animals in various life stages. A product that has completed a feeding trial of this type usually states that it has passed "feeding protocols established by AAFCO." This means that the diet has actually been fed to animals and that the animals have done well on the food.

Of these two methods, AAFCO feeding protocols are generally considered more reliable. If the label says that the food is good for puppy growth, then the food has actually been tested on growing puppies.

The sixth piece of useful information available on a pet food label is the guaranteed analysis. The guaranteed analysis lists the protein and fat minimums, and the moisture and fiber maximums. Other guarantees, such as ash, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, etc., are optional. If label references are made to certain nutrients (e.g. low sodium, low magnesium, calcium levels), those levels must be listed in the guaranteed analysis. The guaranteed analysis is not a perfect measurement, since it doesn't give any indication as to the actual analysis or actual nutrient intake by the animal. However, the guaranteed analysis can be very helpful when comparing pet foods and determining which products have the same basic protein, fat, and fiber content.

THE "CONFUSING" INFORMATION

The seventh and final bit of information on a label is the list of ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight. This may be the most confusing and biased aspect of reading a pet food label.

The ingredients are (or supposed to be) listed in descending order by weight. There is no indication as to the approximate or relative amounts of the ingredients, or the ingredient quality. Depending on the individual food, or what the product is being sold for, many things can be "read into" a pet food's ingredient listing. Personal biases for or against particular ingredients can also be a major factor in feeding or recommending a pet food. Biases towards ingredients, such as poultry by-products, chicken, lamb, corn, rice, wheat, soybean meal, and beet pulp are well known.

Occasionally, the ingredients listed on the bag may be confusing and misleading, as to what is actually contained within the food. For example, consider three of the most misinterpreted ingredients and their official AAFCO definitions:

  1. Poultry (chicken) by-products/poultry by-product meal - clean parts of carcasses from slaughtered poultry, such as heads, feet, and viscera, exclusive of feathers.
  2. Poultry (chicken)/poultry meal - 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, or entrails.
  3. Meat/meat meal - clean flesh from slaughtered mammals limited to that part of the striate muscle, which is skeletal or that which is found in tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus: with or without the accompanying fat, skin portions, tendons, nerves, and blood vessels.

The most important point to be made about reading labels is that the ingredient list gives absolutely no indication as to the quality of the ingredients.

HOW TO DEFINE THE "QUALITY" OF INGREDIENTS
Quality ingredients come from consistent, known, and respectable sources. Quality ingredients are highly digestible and utilizable by the animal. Quality ingredients also contain proper levels of essential nutrients.

To illustrate the definition of quality ingredients, consider the previous example of animal proteins. Poultry (chicken) by-products can serve as a very high or low quality protein source. By-products that contain high levels of beaks and feet will also contain high levels of poorly digestible, poor quality protein. However, by-products that contain high levels of internal organs contain high levels of digestible, smooth muscle tissue. By-products of this type would be an excellent source of quality protein (essential amino acids) in the diet.

As a comparison, consider poultry (chicken) or poultry meal. Chicken or chicken meal can also be a very high or very low quality protein source. Chicken that consists of boneless human-grade cuts of meat would be a great source of high quality protein (essential amino acids). Conversely, chicken that contains high levels of skin and bones would be a poor source of protein (essential amino acids).

An affordable source of poultry protein that still meets the AAFCO definition of "chicken," the pet food industry makes use of poultry scraps, necks, and backs. As with by-products, there is no consumer demand for poultry scraps, necks, and backs, making it economically feasible to use these ingredients. Nutritionally, however, poultry necks and backs contain higher levels of poor quality tendon, ligament, and cartilage-type proteins.

In this example, the ingredient with the lower "consumer appeal" (poultry by-products) is nutritionally superior to the product with the higher "consumer appeal" (poultry). This reinforces the fact that the ingredient listing is not an indication of the ingredient quality.

Meat, meat meal, and meat and bone meal can also be of extremely variable in quality. Just as with poultry or poultry by-products, the quality, or essential amino acid profile/content, varies with the amount of bone, collagen, cartilage, tendon, and ligament tissue processed with the meat. If high levels of these types of protein are used, the overall protein quality will be very low, and more protein must be included into the pet food to meet the animal's nutritional requirements. Most meat and meat meals tend to have higher ash contents and lower protein qualities.

Lamb and lamb meal can also vary considerable in protein quality. If lamb is used in a pet food formulation, the uniformity and consistency of the lamb or lamb by-products should be closely examined, since lamb does not enjoy the widespread human consumption as chicken does, and is commercially produced in lesser quantities.

HOW TO KNOW WHAT'S IN THE BAG?
This may be the most difficult question to answer, since the label doesn't always reveal the necessary information. The extreme competitiveness and "hype" marketing that surrounds the pet food industry makes it even more difficult to assess what's in the bag. The best source of information concerning the actual ingredient makeup of "poultry by-products," "poultry," "lamb," or "lamb meal," is confidence in the manufactures and their openness about the ingredients.

When discussing ingredient quality and content, what's on the label isn't always in the bag, and what's in the bag isn't always on the label.

THE BEST PET FOOD
A properly balanced pet food takes into account the intricate interrelationships between the various nutrients, and contains the proper levels of protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The best indicator of a good pet food is evidenced by how well the pet does on it. Healthy haircoats, bright eyes, increased stamina, vitality, and proper animal health are direct benefits of proper nutrition. Providing the animal with proper nutrition allows the animal to live, grow, and perform to its fullest potential.


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