The ingredient list on dog food packaging provides information about the quantities of ingredients used but not the quality.
Instead, study the "Guaranteed Analysis" section on the package to ensure the product has adequate nutrients as the Association of American Feed Control Officials and AAFCO have recommended. This article will tell you what dog food ingredients to look for and what to avoid.
Dog owners are becoming more conscious about the food they buy for their pets. One survey indicates that roughly half — 55% of owners — “often” or “always” read the ingredient list on the food label. But do they know the ingredients in dog food to look for and what to avoid? Do you?
When choosing dog food, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that the nutritional needs of dogs are different from those of humans. Ingredients such as peas and potatoes in dog food may sound more acceptable to pet owners than fish meal or cornflour, but they are not necessarily healthier for dogs.
Ideally, the ingredient list and package labels should tell you all you need to know about the quality and nutritional value. The problem is the ingredient lists of many dog food products may be misleading.
In the drive to capture a slice of the global pet food market, which topped $90 billion in 2020, some manufacturers add more ingredients to dog food to impress consumers and drive up the price.
Dog food producers often add ingredients such as smoked salmon or kelp on the list to appeal to pet owners and motivate them to purchase their products.
But while these ingredients might sound fantastic, they might have little or no nutritional value for pets and might even be harmful in some cases. For instance, dried kelp is rich in vitamins and minerals that might benefit dogs, but kelp naturally contains arsenic that can be toxic in high doses.
Additionally, adding more dog food ingredients means the manufacturer must spend more resources to ensure the nutritional quality and safety of the end product. Unfortunately, not all products go through the desired level of quality control.
Given that the ingredient list is not necessarily a sound basis to judge the dog food quality. You can use it to determine the quantity of a particular ingredient used relative to all other ingredients in the product. To do that, you need to know the guidelines for pet food product labeling.
Like nutrition labels for human food, the ingredient list in dog food comes under regulations established on two levels in the U.S. You have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the federal level.
Many states have their own set of rules that subscribe to Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines on the state level. The AAFCO is a private non-profit association focused on defining the ingredients included in pet food and animal feed.
The FDA collaborates directly with the AAFCO and conducts a safety review for all AAFCO guidelines.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has no jurisdiction over pet food regulation except for instances where the manufacturer claims the product is organic. In that case, the manufacturer must follow the standards under the National Organic Program (NOP).
Based on AAFCO guidelines, manufacturers must list ingredients by weight from highest to lowest. That means ingredients that top the list constitute the highest quantities by weight in the product.
Since the calculations include water weight, ingredients with high water content such as meats and vegetables tend to be first on the list, and dry ingredients such as chicken meals would be lower.
But take away the water, and you might have less of that top ingredient present in the product than many others on the list and may contribute less nutritional value overall. The same is true for canned dog food that contains about 70% to 80% of water.
While two products may have very similar ingredients, the main ingredients may be of much lower quality than the other, even if they are of the same quantity. Alternatively, the ingredients may be of the same quality, but the product may not deliver the required nutrients to keep dogs healthy because of water weight.
Therefore, dog food ingredient labels are less helpful in judging the nutritional value and quality of the product than you might think. However, the AAFCO also provides definitions of ingredients, including what dog food can and cannot include. This is likely to be more informative to consumers and help assess the quality of a product.
Another strategy manufacturers use to catch the eye of fond pet owners is the use of attractive package terms such as wholesome or 100% natural.
You should know that FDA and AAFCO only provide regulations for the use of the terms “organic” and “human grade,” not for terms like “natural” and “holistic.”
The distinction is important because manufacturers that use regulated terms are subject to the rules laid down by the FDA and AAFCO, while those that use “natural” and other unregulated terms are not.
In other words, manufacturers of “natural” or “holistic” labeled dog food have no obligation to ensure that they are, in fact, natural or holistic.
Dogs need adequate essential nutrients, including protein, fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. The quantity and ratio appropriate for a specific pet will depend on their size and life stage — puppy, adult, or senior.
But rather than looking for specific dog food ingredients (as the ingredients list is often less than helpful), you should look for the following “[Product Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.”
If you can find that on a dog food package, you can be sure that the food represents a “complete and balanced” diet for your dog.
Check the Merck Manual Veterinary Manual if you want to be certain for complete information on the nutrient profiles for dogs from AAFCO and compare it to the Guaranteed Analysis of the product. If the percentages in the label match the requirements of the AAFCO, you’re in good shape.
Note that the nutrient profiles are for dry matter, that is, no water. If you want to convert the values for canned or wet food, subtract the moisture guarantee percentage (found in the label’s Guaranteed Analysis) from 100 to get the dry matter percentage. Divide the guaranteed percentage of the nutrient by the dry matter percentage.
Before getting on with what you should avoid in packed dog food, it might be helpful to address some of the myths circulating online.
Many websites may advise you to stay away from meat meal or meat by-products mostly because people don’t eat them.
But these animal products are pretty nutritious for dogs and will not harm them. In fact, these products tend to be more nutritious than the meat people eat because they have most of the water leached out of them.
Some websites also recommend avoiding dog food with food dyes, specifically Blue 2, Yellow 5 and 6, Red 40, and 4-MIE. Except for 4-MIE, the FDA has approved all these food dyes for human consumption.
The case against 4-MIE is still up in the air as the FDA has found no evidence that it might cause harm to humans in prescribed quantities. That said, it would not harm your dog if you chose a product without these food dyes as they have no nutritional value.
Many websites also recommend avoiding grains and grain products in dog food because dogs might be allergic to it. But grains are a rich source of nutrients, so unless your dog is allergic to them, there is no reason to go grain free.
Finally, you might also find articles that are down on BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole), BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene), and Ethoxyquin as preservatives for dog food because they have toxic effects on dogs.
According to a study published in EFSA Journal, these preservatives do not appear to pose a health risk to dogs when given the maximum concentration of 150 mg/kg.
So, what should you avoid in packed dog food? You should avoid dog food with exotic and “healthy” ingredients such as blueberries, sage, quinoa, and lentils.
Most dogs in the U.S. are not used to these ingredients, and they may trigger an allergic reaction. Even if your dog is not allergic, these ingredients are typically included only for marketing purposes, so they are unlikely to be present in adequate amounts to have nutritional value.
If you find these novel ingredients listed at the bottom of the ingredients list after vitamins and minerals, the amounts are minuscule indeed. The only effect of these exotic ingredients is to drive up the price of your kibble or canned food.
Other ingredients in dog food you should avoid will depend on the health circumstances of your dog.
Some dogs may have allergies or conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease that require special diets. Consult the vet for advice on the best dog food for your pet.
Comparing the many dog food products and making sense of the language and ingredients used in labeling can confuse consumers.
To help you discern the good and the bad in your dog food package and ingredient list more quickly, below is a summary of the most common words or phrases used on labels as explained on the AAFCO website.
|Organic (regulated)||Under the NOP, manufacturers may only use the term “organic” on pet food if they satisfy NOP requirements in production and handling. They gain the right to use the USDA Organic Seal on their labels if they do.
Certified organic pet food in the U.S. contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients, which means no use of synthetic fertilizers, genetic engineering, irradiation, or sewage sludge.
|Human-Grade (regulated)||The AAFCO defines this as pet food made from “human edible” ingredients and produced according to regulations for food fit for human consumption. To qualify for this label, the manufacturer must use human food facilities and transport the products using human food trucks.
Few packaged dog foods meet these standards, so contact the manufacturer to ask about the production process if you see “human-grade” on the label.
|Natural, All-Natural, 100% Natural (unregulated)||Natural dog food ingredients must come from plants, animals, or be mined. All-natural or 100% natural products means all ingredients are natural and not synthetic.
The manufacturer may process ingredients in any way except for chemical synthesis. Since nearly all vitamins and minerals are synthetic, 100% natural or all-natural dog food is not likely to be complete or balanced.
|Holistic or Wholesome (unregulated)||While these terms imply whole-body health, pet foods using them do not typically explain the source of the ingredients or the manner of production that makes the products healthy.|
|Amino Acids||The following amino acids are essential for dog health and often part of protein sources such as meat and plants, but the manufacturer may also add and list them separately.
Some dog food products may also include Taurine, which is essential for cats. Non-essential amino acids—L-carnitine, L-lysine monohydrochloride, L-cysteine, and DL-methionine—may also be present.
|Animal Products (Meat)||Dog food requires adequate amounts of animal products to meet its protein requirements. They come from different parts of an animal. Unless specified otherwise, these products are processed or rendered.
The AAFCO defines each one below. See if you can find these ingredients on your dog food label.
|Animal By-Product Meal||Animal tissues, excluding gastrointestinal (GI) contents, hooves, horn, hide, hair, and manure.|
|Animal Digest||Comes from enzymatic or chemical degradation of animal tissue, excluding horns, teeth, hooves, hair, and feathers.|
|Dried Egg Product||Eggs dried after shell removal.|
|Meat||Mammalian skeletal muscle, diaphragm, esophagus, heart, and tongue with or without the skin, fat, blood vessels, and nerves.|
|Meat and Bone Meal||Mammalian tissue and bone, excluding GI contents, hair, hooves, hide, horn, and manure.|
|Meat By-Products||Unprocessed mammalian body parts, including the organs, bone, and blood, excluding hair, horns, hooves, and teeth.|
|Meat Meal||Mammalian tissue, excluding bone, GI contents, hair, hooves, hide, horn, and manure.|
|Poultry||Skeletal muscle diaphragm, heart, esophagus, tongue with or without fat, blood vessels, skin, and nerves.|
|Poultry By-Product||Whole carcass, including organs, head, and feet.|
|Poultry By-Product Meal||Tissue including undeveloped eggs, feet, neck, organs, excluding feathers.|
|Poultry Meal||Tissue, excluding head, organs, feathers, and feet.|
|Fats/Oils||Essential to pet health, fats and oils provide energy and 2.25x the calories of protein and carbs. They also make the food tastier. Below are the different fats and oils you may see on the label.|
|Omega-3 and Omega-6||Prevent inflammation, provide antioxidants, and improve skin, hair, and joint health.|
|Animal fat||May also show up as chicken fat, beef fat, pork fat, etc. Source of Omega 6 fatty acids.|
|Coconut Oil or Palm Kernel Oil||Medium-chain triglycerides that may benefit older dogs by improving cognitive functions.|
|Fish Oils||Fish oil, salmon oil, etc.; source of Omega 3 fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid; Guaranteed Analysis quantities may be specified.|
|Glycerin||Fat/oil derived carbohydrate for keeping soft or canned food moist.|
|Vegetable Oils||May also show up as canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, etc.; source of Omega 6.|
|Gums||Gums help with elimination and increase short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which helps maintain colon and intestinal health. Common gums found in dog food include carrageenan, guar, cassia, and xanthan.|
|Hydrolyzed Protein||Derived from vegetables or poultry feathers, it is bioavailable, easy to absorb, and digest. Often found in hypoallergenic products.|
|Plant Products||Plants can be a source of fiber, carbohydrates, or protein. Below are the most common plant products added to dog food.|
|Cellulose||Source of insoluble fiber to promote satiation to prevent overeating and helps with elimination; derived from fibrous plants.|
|Grains||May refer to corn, barley, oats, rye, rice, or wheat.|
|Whole Grain or Refined Grain||Whole grain includes the bran, germ, and endosperm, while refined grain only retains the endosperm. The endosperm produces starch and gluten, which might not be suitable for obese dogs or those with diabetes.|
|Grain By-Products||These may refer to the following:
|Corn||May show up as the following:
|Legumes||May include soy, peas, beans, and lentils, used as a substitute for grains|
|Root Vegetables||May include the following:
|Minerals||Dog food manufacturers typically add mineral supplements as a chemical compound or chelated form. Manufacturers may add sodium chloride (salt) to promote water consumption that addresses kidney disease, urinary tract infection, or bladder stones.
Minerals added in different combinations may include the following macro-minerals:
May also include the following trace minerals:
|Natural Flavors||Any substance to make the food tastier. May include broths, spices, and yeast; must comply with AAFCO definition of “natural.”|
|Preservatives||Extends the shelf-life of good food and may be natural or artificial. Natural preservatives include:
Artificial preservatives tend to be more effective. These include:
|Probiotics||The introduction of beneficial bacteria to the GI tract can prevent inflammatory bowel disease and gastroenteritis and lessen the effects of food allergies. Standard probiotic formulas include lactobacillus, bifidobacteria, and enterococcus.|
|Vitamins||Vitamin supplements typically show up by their popular name, that is, Vitamin B or Biotin. But lesser-known names may also include L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (source of Vitamin C) and Menadione sodium bisulfate complex (source of Vitamin K).|
A digital marketing expert by profession, Andrews is a gifted writer and animal lover at heart. A self-confessed "pawrent", Andrews is well-versed in all things dogs. He uses his years of experience of raising puppies into show-quality dogs to help guide first-time pet parents. He believes in spreading the joy that comes with being a dog dad and advocates more families to adopt pets.