• Michelle Chen
  • Dog Nutrition & Real Member Service Specialist

  • 5 minutes read time
  • Understanding Pet Food Labels: Ingredient Labels and Regulation

    Have you started paying more attention to what’s in your dog’s food? Ever since the recall scare in 2007, more pet owners are taking a second to look at the back of those bags. But labels can be intimidating! Mixed Tocopherols? Pyridoxine Hydrochloride? I’d spend forever in the aisles googling those hard to pronounce ingredients! And there’s much more to it than just knowing the definitions. Although most labels have a clear list of ingredients on the bag, brands can manipulate them due to their obscure definitions to make their food sound more marketable. Two bags of food with the same ingredient label can be drastically different! Amounts of an ingredient and it’s quality are not always clearly presented on the bag. With branding, internet reviews, and other pet owners clamoring about their food being the best, the responsibility to pick what’s best for our individual dogs lies in our own hands.

    We’ve made progress since then but there’s still a great deal of uncertainty in the pet food industry. So who’s in charge of regulating our pet’s food here? Regulations behind the pet food industry are a little different than the human food industry.

    AAFCO and the FDA: Who regulates what?

    The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a group of representatives that meet up annually to define the terms and ingredients on pet food labels. It is “a voluntary membership association of local, state, and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.” Some examples of members in the subcommittees of AAFCO include Nestle-Purina Analytical Labs, Neogen, Smuckers, Cargill, FDA, Eurofins, and various State Department of Agriculture affiliates.

    However, it is not a government organization. AAFCO cannot inspect, enforce, or regulate. Instead, AAFCO sets guidelines for ingredient, nutritional, and labeling requirements that pet food companies can choose to follow.

    The Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA CVM) is responsible for regulating animal feed. The FDA requires certain labels on the bag such as the guaranteed analysis.  Remember, these are US (Canada and Costa Rica) entities so other countries will use other means for their animal and pet feed.  

    Let’s talk ingredients!

    The FDA states “Any ingredient or additive used must have its nutritional or technical purpose”. This can be meeting protein requirements, calories, adding flavor, preservation, color. But nothing about the amount, quality, or digestibility of the ingredient. Here are some ways to help you decipher those lists.

    1.Ingredient Order

    An easy way to compare ingredient lists is to look at the ordering. Many commercials are even pointing out that they list “meat” first which sounds fantastic. However, ingredients are listed by weight, not amount. This can be incredibly deceiving, especially for dry kibble and other processed foods. Imagine cooking a chicken breast. After a few minutes, the breast shrinks and loses about 20% of its original weight. Chicken may be the first ingredient but with the water removed, it can fall a few spots down the list.

    What’s the deal with meals?

    Meals sound unappetizing on a bag of pet food, what exactly is it? According to the AAFCO definition, meals actually aren’t too terrible! Meals are rendered products which means the meat is cooked and ground, removing most of the water and fat. Chicken meal is just chicken with the water removed and thus, more concentrated in nutrients.

    For example, 1 lb. of chicken meal is much higher in protein and other nutrients than 1 lb. of chicken. After cooking, the 1 lb. of chicken also shrinks while the meal remains the same. After adding these in to different pet foods, the one with the meal actually has more chicken meat than the other! If a food wanted to use only fresh Chicken, they would have to use a lot more to meet nutritional requirements which increases the cost of the food.

    It’s also important to know what kind of meal. The animal should be specified. When looking at AAFCO definitions, you’ll notice that unspecified products like Animal By-Product Meal versus Poultry By-Product Meal have more open definitions. Since the Chicken meal definition includes the phrase “with or without bone,” we may ask ourselves how much bone? This is why it is better to see ingredient labels be as specific as possible since it can vary between manufacturers. This creates uncertainty for consumers since AAFCO doesn’t regulate processing.

    2.Ingredient Splitting

    Since many brands have caught onto our obsession with meat at the top of ingredient lists, some brands opt to split ingredients. Potato, potato flour, potato fiber, potato protein. That’s a lot of potato! Or you might see “Beef, red lentils, yellow lentils, green lentils…” Lentils are lentils!

    Another great example is Firstmate’s label change. Since potatoes are heavy (80% water), it was at the top of the list. But consumers are fixated on seeing meat first so the ingredient was split into two: Burbank Potato and Norkotah Potato. No formula change was made!

    3. Protein inflation

    Sometimes when comparing foods, we’ll take a glance at the guaranteed analysis and pick the one with the highest protein or lowest fat. But where is that 40% Crude Protein coming from? Meat is high in protein but much more pricier than the cheaper and easily accessible pea protein. It’s important to look at the ingredient list with the guaranteed analysis side-by-side to determine if that high protein food is animal-based or plant-based. The source of protein and other nutritional values is important for determining digestibility.

    Technical purposes of ingredients

    Some ingredients sound scary or unnecessary. But remember, every ingredient added must serve a technical or nutritional purpose if following AAFCO guidelines. Technical purpose includes preservatives, palatability enhancers, coloring agents, humectants, emulsifiers, and thickeners. When foods go through heavy processing like dry or canned food, the results without these additives are incredibly unappetizing for our pets. This is why kibble is sprayed with fat or other flavor enhancers. Here’s a list of some ingredients you may see and wonder about:

    Propylene glycol: humectant (holds in moisture to keep from drying out).Monoglycerides: emulsifier (keeps ingredients from separating).Guar gum: thickener (adds texture, shape, substance).Titanium dioxide: coloring agent.Mixed tocopherols: preservative.Animal digest: flavor

    Synthetics vs. Natural

    If these additives are necessary in certain types of food, how can pet owners decide which additives are better? There’s many different options to flavor and preserve pet food and they can be categorized as a synthetic or natural additive. The downside to natural preservatives is a shorter shelf life than it’s synthetic counterpart. However, more studies of health concerns and safety linked to synthetics have increased. For example, ethoxyquin which is banned in most human foods and has been studied as a carcinogen, is a chemical preservative used in some pet foods to prevent fat from going rancid. For many pet owners, shelf life and storage is an important box to check on their list of things to look for.

    Nature’s Logic with “No Synthetics” on their bag.They use whole food sources such as montmorillonite clay, kelp, and blood plasma.

    Synthetics also help to meet the nutritional requirements set by AAFCO. Since processed foods greatly lose their nutritional value, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added in. However, vitamin sourcing is most commonly imported from China due to its availability and price. And as mentioned, there is no indication of sourcing for ingredients required by AAFCO so some pet owners opt to avoid synthetics all together.

    What’s the best food (for my dog)?

    Many more components make up a bag of pet food. Labelling claims, the guaranteed analysis, and the AAFCO statement should all help to play a part in deciding which kind of food to buy. Along with cost, company, manufacturer and of course, palatability! Your dog can only benefit from your excellent deductions if they’ll eat it.

    In general, keep an eye out for specific terms. More information helps! Some brands go above and beyond the requirements set by AAFCO such as listing omega 3 values or breaking down protein content from meat sources. The downside to this is that some claims aren’t regulated. Use these tools in conjunction to look at the whole picture to help you choose the perfect food for your individual dog and situation! With the obscurity and tricky marketing tactics behind pet food, many owners are opting to make their dog’s food right at home. With proper research, home prepared fresh foods are a great option for your dog because you know the exact quality and amount of what is going in your pet’s food!