Understanding Dog Food Labels: The Ingredient List

Dog owners are concerned about the quality of their dog’s food. Their choice is often made based on the ingredient list. Unfortunately, labeling rules allow dog food makers to misrepresent the actual product in the bag or can. The food’s label description also misrepresents the product content.

 Dog Food Labels are Purposely Confusing

The Ingredient List

AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards require that ingredients must be listed in the order of their percentage of weight in the food. Seems straight forward doesn’t it? The following ingredients are from a well-known dry dog food that is labeled “Grain Free Real Duck + Sweet Potato’:

Ingredients: Deboned duck, turkey meal, salmon meal (source of omega 3 fatty acids), sweet potato, peas, lamb meal, potato, duck fat (preserved with natural mixed tocopherols)…

The first ingredient is deboned duck so it should represent the highest percentage of the ingredients, right? Not exactly. AAFCO allows the weight of the meat to also include its water content. The water content of meat is about 60-70% of its weight and provides no nutrients to the diet. After the water is subtracted the actual content of the duck is much less. In fact, the next two protein sources, turkey meal and salmon meal are probably the major protein sources. This food is actually a turkey meal, salmon meal, duck and lamb meal based diet, not a real duck protein food. The actual amount of duck cannot be determined from the label information.

By AAFCO definitions any food meat or meat/carbohydrate combination preceded by the word “with” only have to be 3% of the foods weight. The following is the ingredient list from a popular canned food described as “Grilled Flavors in Sauce with Beef:

Ingredients: Sufficient water for processing, chicken (source of linoleic acid), meat by-products, beef, wheat gluten, wheat flour, liver..

Again, chicken is the first real ingredient but includes its water content which adds to the “sufficient water for processing which is actually the largest ingredient by weight. The next protein is “meat by-products” which can be any meat source. Beef is next but legally only has to be present as 3% of food weight. In other words this is a meat by-product protein based food with 3% beef, wheat gluten protein and an undeterminable amount of chicken.  If beef is 3%, than the amount of liver in this product is less than 3% but cannot be calculated. It certainly has different flavors but which meat flavors is difficult to determine. What actually did we buy?

The bottom line is that the first ingredient rule is a myth. Despite its location as highest percentage by weight, listing a meat first does not make it the leading ingredient. Always look for the second protein source as the major ingredient. If the second ingredient after meat is a carbohydrate, the food is predominately a carbohydrate based diet. As always with most commercial dog food, buyer should beware.

A better choice is to make homemade dog food. That way you know exactly what and how much is in it. It eliminates the need to decipher an ingredient list.

~Dr Ken Tudor

The Dog Dietitian


Homemade Dog Food Recipes and Supplements

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