Understanding Pet Food Labels

    Brittany Kleszynski

    Pet food labels provide a great deal of information when you’re choosing a diet for your dog or cat, but they can be quite overwhelming and confusing. A healthy and nutritious diet is what most pet owners desire, but they often don’t know where to begin when looking at each product. Here we will discuss eight important sections of a pet food label that can help you make educated decisions for your pet’s health.

    1. Product Names

    Each product should clearly state whether it is designed for nutrition or a supplemental treat to an already well-balanced diet. When selecting a food or treat, you should also understand how the phrasing on the bag relates to its ingredients. American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established a set of rules that dictates the minimum percentage of the advertised ingredient(s) that must be present within the product in order to include the ingredient(s) in the product name. Most people are unaware of the 100%, 95%, 25%, “with,” and “flavor” rules, but understanding the differences can help you make more informed choices for your pet.Reading your pet food label LABEL COURTESY OF LUCY PET PRODUCTSReading your pet food label LABEL COURTESY OF LUCY PET PRODUCTS»

    Companies may label their product as 100% Beef Jerky only if that product claim is true. You would typically only see this on treats that are used as supplements to an already balanced diet. If you see a product labeled Beef Dog Food without any descriptors, beef must constitute 95% of that diet, excluding any added water content. This would be a great product for dogs because they are natural carnivores, and a quality protein source is essential for adequate nutrition. If two ingredients are listed, as in Salmon and Rice Cat Food, both salmon and rice must add up to 95%; however, there should be a higher percentage of salmon than rice since it is listed first. If a pet food contains a descriptive term after the listed ingredient, it must contain at least 25% but no more than 95% of that ingredient, excluding added water content. Lamb Entrée, Beef Dinner, and Tuna Platter are all examples of descriptive terms commonly seen. When a pet food advertises “with lamb,” only 3% of the product is required to be lamb. Any products that use the word “flavor” are only required to have added flavoring, not the actual meat product. You can see that the phrasing holds great importance, and there are large differences between each product in terms of content. Be sure to check the label prior to choosing pet food or treats to ensure you are purchasing exactly what you set out to buy.

    2. Species Designation

    All products should clearly state what species they are formulated for. Furthermore, pictures on the product bags should match the appropriate species and age to avoid confusion. It would be misleading to have an adult dog on a puppy food. Unlike dog foods, cat foods are specifically formulated to include an amino acid known as taurine that is essential for their health. If cats become deficient in taurine, they can develop dilated cardiomyopathy and feline central retinal degeneration, which can lead to heart failure and blindness, respectively. You can understand why properly identifying species on each product is imperative.

    3. Net Quantity Statement

    On the bottom third of the product bag, you will see a net quantity statement showing the net weight or volume of product included. It is normally written as “Net Wt. 22 lbs (10 kg)” or “Net Vol 16 fl oz (473 mL).” You won’t need to worry too much about this part, except when deciding what size bag you would like to buy or calculating how long a product will last you based on how much you are feeding each day.

    4. Ingredient List

    Items are listed in descending order based on weight. Ingredients with higher water content naturally comprise more of the total weight of the product, which is why you will find them at the beginning of the list. It can be helpful to compare diets on a dry matter basis (without the water content) to get a better idea of which diet contains more of the ingredient of interest without the confounding weight factor. This is done using a simple calculation, and I will walk you through it using protein as an example. In the guaranteed analysis listing, you will see the maximum percentages of moisture and protein. Let’s say moisture is 10%, which would mean 90% is dry matter. Next, find your protein percentage. We will use 20% in this example. You then divide the protein percentage by the dry matter percentage (20/90) and multiply by 100. In this case, 22.2% is the final protein on a dry matter basis and can now be used as a comparison with other diets. You may also see some unfamiliar ingredients that are preservatives, artificial colorings, or flavors. The FDA ensures that each of these ingredients is “Generally Recognized as Safe” for consumption. It is worth mentioning that some cats and dogs develop food allergies after eating the same diet over time. It is most commonly caused by a protein source, but other ingredients can also be the culprit. Strict diet trials are needed to determine the exact cause, but once the allergic component is identified, it is imperative to check the ingredient lists before offering any new food or treats to your pet to avoid a flare-up.

    5. Guaranteed Analysis

    The guaranteed analysis is probably the most overlooked section on a food label. This is where you will find the minimum and maximum percentages for nutrients that AAFCO recognizes as essential to a complete and balanced diet. You will see minimum percentages listed for crude protein and crude fat and maximum percentages listed for crude fiber and moisture content. Some diets will also have a few vitamins or supplements listed in this section. For example, if the product advertises that it promotes a healthy coat, they must list specific ingredients here, such as Omega 3 Fatty Acids or Vitamin E, to support their claim. Certain diets also include “ash” in their analyses, and that is simply referring to trace minerals that are beneficial to your pet’s health.

    6. Calorie Content

    Your pet’s activity level, breed, body condition, and life stage all play a role in his energy requirements. It makes sense that larger, more active dogs will have higher energy requirements than inactive, small breed dogs. Young pets need a diet specifically formulated for the growth stage, whereas adults need a maintenance diet. The calorie guide is a great tool to ensure each pet meets his unique energy requirements. The number of kilocalories per cup is determined based on the standard energy needs of a dog or cat at the listed life stage. Diets formulated for the growth and reproduction stages are typically packed with high percentages of fats and protein sources to meet higher caloric requirements. Adult maintenance diets have lower percentages of fat, but higher carbohydrates and fiber to maintain satiety. For these reasons, I don’t usually recommend choosing a diet that has been formulated for all life stages. Your pet has different nutritional requirements as he ages, and it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

    7. Nutritional Adequacy Statement

    When pet owners ask for a food recommendation, I always suggest looking for the AAFCO “stamp of approval.” AAFCO is a company that establishes nutritional guidelines for complete and balanced diets based on published recommendations by the Nutritional Research Council. AAFCO considers certain nutrients essential and determines the recommended amount for each life stage. Categories typically include growth, maintenance, reproduction, or all life stages. Products labeled for geriatric pets typically follow the requirements for maintenance diets but may include chondroitin sulfate or glucosamine to promote joint health. If the diet meets or exceeds the nutritional standards set forth by AAFCO, a nutritional adequacy statement will be placed on the food label. Pet food companies prove their diets are complete and balanced, either through completing food trials or following these AAFCO guidelines. By choosing a product that has been formulated based on AAFCO’s recommendations, you can feel assured that you are providing a nutritious meal to your pet.

    8. Daily Feeding Guide

    The feeding chart provides the recommended daily serving based on your pet’s current weight. In my experience, most pet owners are unknowingly overfeeding their pets because they don’t measure each serving. To ensure your dog or cat stays at their optimum weight, it is important to follow this guide. Your veterinarian can also assist with calculating serving size if your pet requires additional nutritional support or needs to lose weight.

    Editors note: Understanding and reading the label of the food you feed your pet is only one part of the equation. Take the time to also find out about the pet food manufacturer, where the ingredients are sourced from, and where the product is made.

    Organic, Natural, and Other Label Claims

    Many label claims are present on pet foods today. Some have health benefits, but others are simply marketing tactics. It is important to recognize the difference when selecting a diet for your pet. For example, some pet food companies use the terms “premium” or “gourmet” to promote their products. According to the FDA, these diets are not required to contain higher-quality ingredients than any other product.

    Other over-the-counter foods may advertise that they improve coat quality, provide added supplements for joint health, or promote lean muscles. As I mentioned before, these claims must be backed by a listing in the guaranteed analysis section with minimum or maximum percentages of ingredients shown to have these effects. Chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine supplements are commonly added to pet food because they have been shown to have protective effects on joints, especially in patients with orthopedic diseases or age-related degenerative changes. Any ingredients added for these health benefits must also be deemed safe prior to sale.

    Another common product label characterizes diets as grain-free. These products caused some controversy recently because of studies suggesting a link between them and the development of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. Grain-free diets have been marketed to improve food allergies, but pet owners should be aware that food allergies are usually caused by the protein source, which are often still included in these products. I would recommend steering clear of grain-free diets for the time being until we complete more studies. If you think your pet may have a food allergy, your veterinarian can provide more appropriate recommendations.

    Prescription diets have been specially formulated to have health benefits. The Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA requires that diet trials and other studies be conducted to generate supporting data and ensure food safety prior to marketing a pet food with these health claims. For instance, if your dog has struvite bladder stones, your veterinarian may prescribe a diet specifically formulated to dissolve those stones by acidifying the urine. If your cat has chronic kidney disease, a prescription diet consisting of lower levels of protein and phosphorus may be recommended.

    Other label claims, such as natural, organic, and human-grade, are becoming increasingly common. These words aren’t always universally understood, but AAFCO does provide loose definitions for each. Natural pet food should not have artificial flavors, preservatives, or colors. It should also be unprocessed and free of synthetic chemicals. If you desire a truly natural food, always check if vitamins and minerals have been added. If they have, the product isn’t technically “all-natural.” AAFCO also requires that organic foods meet USDA standards for human products in terms of processing and production because guidelines specific for pet foods currently do not exist. If you are looking for an organic food for your pet, you can rest assured that the label claim is accurate. However, more studies are needed to support the idea that organic is a better quality than non-organic. AAFCO also does not recognize “human-grade” at this time. Although it may sound good on the packaging, there are currently no regulations to ensure this claim is true in the pet food industry.

    The overall theme to pet food labels is that there should be supporting evidence to back any claims made. It is easy for pet owners to fall for certain products that sound enticing but overall don’t really have any advantages, such as with “premium” diets. If you’re in doubt when reading the label, your veterinarian is the best resource to help you choose a nutritious and appropriate diet to meet the individualized needs of your pet.

    What is AAFCO?

    AAFCO, a private company started in 1906, oversees the sales and labeling of animal food and drug products. It consists of members from local, state, and federal agencies who enforce feed laws and regulate nutritional standards. AAFCO does not have any authority over these regulations, which is why it relies on members to implement and enforce laws, while providing oversight and support. AAFCO sets nutritional standards for essential nutrients in animal products and works with the FDA, which ensures food safety. Pet food companies have to meet these standards set forth by AAFCO to sell their products with the nutritional adequacy statement.