Understanding Pet Food Labels

A close up view of pet food pouring out of a container
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With so many pet foods on the market, how can you find the best food for your dog or cat? Reading the label, and learning how to decipher it, is a great place to start.

Pet owners can be passionate about choosing the best food for their pets, but with thousands of pet foods on the market, how do you make the optimal choice? Pet food labels are a good place to start. Understanding the label information can help you make informed decisions about the food you give your pets.

Which Parts of the Label Help Assess Food Quality?

The following key components of a pet food label can help you evaluate nutritional information:

What Does the Nutritional Adequacy Statement Reveal?

The AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement declares if the product or treat is complete and balanced, and whether it should be fed under veterinary supervision. The following types of nutritional adequacy statements can appear on a pet food label:

  • Animal feeding trials using AAFCO procedures show that the product provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages or a particular stage.
  • The product is formulated to meet the nutrient levels established by AAFCO for a particular life stage or for all life stages.
  • The product is intended for intermittent or supplemental use only.

The presence of either of the first two statements means that a food can be used as the sole source of nutrition. “Complete and balanced” means that a food has all the recognized, required nutrients in the proper proportions, when fed appropriately.

In a feeding trial, a product is fed to a certain number of dogs or cats for a specified period of time to determine whether it provides adequate nutrition. By conducting feeding trials, pet food companies ensure that animals in a particular life stage (i.e., pregnant, nursing, growing, adult maintenance) will obtain proper nutrition from a food. Feeding trials also provide some assurance of palatability (how good the food tastes to pets) and the availability of nutrients.

When a food is formulated by calculation or chemical analysis, the nutrients may meet the maximum or minimum levels established by AAFCO, but because the finished product is not fed to animals, availability of nutrients and palatability are not assessed.

The nutritional adequacy statement regarding intermittent or supplemental feeding applies to treats, or to special diets that require a veterinarian to monitor the pet.

What Should I Know About the Ingredients?

Here are some important facts about pet food ingredients:

  • The ingredient list is of little practical use when determining nutritional value.
  • Each ingredient, including additives, must be listed in the ingredients statement.
  • Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. However, this does not reveal the amounts of the ingredients. For example, wheat germ meal, wheat bran, and wheat flour are all components of wheat, but they may provide different nutrients. The ingredient list can be valuable when a pet has a confirmed food allergy and must avoid certain ingredients.
  • AAFCO defines how ingredients are named. For example, according to AAFCO, corn gluten is defined as the part of the commercial, shelled corn after removal of the larger portion of the corn’s starch and germ.

What Do the Percentages on the Label Mean?

AAFCO regulations require pet food manufacturers in the United States to include a guaranteed analysis that lists percentages of certain nutrients on pet food labels. These percentages (i.e., minimum protein and fat; maximum fiber and water) are listed on an “as-fed” basis. That simply means the percentage of each nutrient, including water or moisture, contained in the final product consumed by the pet. To compare products on a level playing field, it is necessary to convert the information listed in the guaranteed analysis to a “caloric basis”. When not measured on a caloric basis, canned food appears to have a lower concentration of nutrients than dry food because dry food contains approximately 10 percent water, but canned food contains approximately 75 percent water. Even the comparison of the information in the guaranteed analysis of two products that contain the same amount of moisture can be inaccurate if the products differ in caloric density.

What Are the Chemicals in the Ingredients?

Pet owners may be concerned to see “phylloquinone,” “α-tocopherol,” “cobalamin” and “ascorbic acid” listed on their pets’ food until they learn that these are the technical names for vitamins K 1, E, B 12 and C, respectively. α-Tocopherol is also an antioxidant. Antioxidants are added to foods to balance the nutrient profile and preserve fats. Preservatives are not universally bad for pets and, in fact, help prevent foods from becoming rancid.

What Are the By-Products on the Label?

Many questions about pet food result from a misunderstanding of particular ingredients. Pet owners may incorrectly think that by-products are solely the undesirable parts of animals, such as hooves, feathers and beaks. However, as defined by the pet food industry, meat by-products are clean parts other than meat, such as lungs, kidneys and spleens. Therefore, by-products can be an excellent source of amino acids, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Who Ensures the Quality of Pet Foods?

Several governing agencies have a role in regulating pet food. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority over pet foods. The FDA establishes certain labeling regulations for animal food and enforces regulations about contamination. Feed control officials from the state departments of agriculture work with the FDA to inspect facilities and enforce regulations within each state. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines ingredients and has an agreement to work with FDA scientists to ensure the safety of ingredients. Consumers can voluntarily submit reports using the FDA Safety Reporting Portal: www.safetyreporting.hhs.gov.

Are Organic or Natural Ingredients Better?

Pet food labels are factual, but they are also used to attract consumers. Terms such as organic and natural, and unregulated terms such as human grade, premium and holistic are of little use when determining nutritional value. As more pet foods are manufactured to meet the demand for organic and natural ingredients, pet owners need to understand these terms. AAFCO defines natural as “originating from animals or plants.” AAFCO has no regulatory definition for organic, which refers to the procedure by which organic ingredients are grown, harvested and processed. There is no evidence that organic food is more beneficial to animals than nonorganic food. Pet foods that meet the human standard for organic (at least 95 percent of the content by weight, excluding salt and water, must be organic) may display the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal on their packaging. The FDA uses natural to describe food, and organic to describe both the food and the way in which it was processed.

Are the Feeding Guidelines Right for My Pet?

Complete and balanced pet foods must include feeding directions on their labels. However, one set of feeding guidelines cannot account for the great variation in metabolic rates and nutritional needs among individual pets. In addition, breed, temperament, environment and many other factors can influence food intake. Feeding guidelines provide a good starting point but may overestimate the needs of some pets, leading to weight gain. Therefore, pet owners (with guidance from a veterinary professional) may have to adjust the feeding guidelines on a case-by-case basis to achieve a healthy, lean body condition for their pets.

Why Aren’t Calories Listed on All Pet Food Labels?

Caloric content is not included on most pet food labels, but that may be changing. The format of pet food labels was derived from large animal feed packaging, which does not legally require the inclusion of caloric content. AAFCO has voted to mandate the inclusion of caloric content on pet food labels. In January 2013, the rule was approved, and the transition to revised labeling will occur from 2016 to 2017, for full enforcement.

What Is My Takeaway?

If read correctly, pet food labels can provide important information for optimizing your pet’s health. Owners who are educated about the myths and misconceptions regarding pet foods and their labels are starting from a good place. If you have questions about a pet food or its label, contact your veterinarian or the pet food manufacturer.

For more information on pet food labels, visit the FDA website:  www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/resourcesforyou/ucm047113.htm.

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