A Beginner's Guide to Reading Pet Food Ingredient Lists
Interpreting the True Value of the Food
Ingredient lists can be confusing and a large majority of them can be misleading. As someone that has studied hundreds of pet food ingredient panels, the industry is full of companies trying to use the least expensive ingredients while trying to make them look like top-quality items. Many people do not even take the time to look at the ingredient list of the food they are feeding and decide based on popularity or commercials.
Let's start with ingredient QUALITY...
There is a wide range of quality when it comes to any ingredient. For example, Chicken By-Product Meal can consist of anything in a chicken other than feathers. This means that it can be something as nutritious as organ meat, to something as lacking in nutrition as bone, cartilage, and connective tissue. That said, some bone and cartilage can be good in a diet as a source of calcium and glucosamine, but it is not healthy to use these low quality by-product meals as the main protein source. Even something that seems whoelsome, such as Chicken or Chicken Meal, can be of less than desirable quality. Once again, the Chicken could be mostly bone and cartilage being made with backs and carcasses that have had most of the meat cleaned off already for human consumption.
'Meal' simply means that it has been cooked and ground before coming into the factory. When a food includes fresh chicken they can count the weight of the water in the meat when listing ingredients. Therefore it may be more cost effective for a company to use uncooked meat than meal because they would need to use less since it weighs more. A meal contains a concentrated amount of protein, so it is more likely that the protein in the food is coming from meat if good meals are included.
On another note, 'meals' as an individual ingredient can vary greatly in quality, the lower quality meals consisting of less nutrition and/or cooked inefficiently. The easiest way to tell the quality of the ingredients being used is to take a look at the feeding guideline.
As a rule of thumb, the less you need to feed, the higher the quality of ingredients because that usually means there are more proteins and other nutrients in less amount.
Therefore, by feeding better food you are reducing the amount of waste your dog will consume and excrete.
Let's take a look at an example of a well known grocery and big box store pet food:
Chicken, brewers rice, whole grain wheat, poultry by-product meal (source of glucosamine), soybean meal, corn gluten meal, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), whole grain corn, fish meal, animal digest, glycerin, dried egg product, wheat bran, calcium carbonate, salt, calcium phosphate, potassium chloride, Vitamin E supplement, zinc proteinate, choline chloride, manganese proteinate, ferrous sulfate, L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (source of Vitamin C), sulfur, niacin, L-Lysine monohydrochloride, copper proteinate, Vitamin A supplement, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin supplement, Vitamin B-12 supplement, pyridoxine hydrochloride, garlic oil, folic acid, Vitamin D-3 supplement, calcium iodate, biotin, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), and sodium selenite
I will break down the ingredient panel and go over how best to interpret this label.
First of all, the name of the food (Chicken and Rice) means that it is at least 20% chicken and at least 5% rice, by weight. However, as we discussed earlier, they did not use chicken meal as their first ingredient, which means that likely very little of that protein is coming from the chicken since it will mostly be water weight putting it in front of some of the other ingredients.
The next ingredient, Brewer's Rice, consists of the leftover kernels from milled rice, lacking most of the nutrition found in whole ground rice and brown rice. This means that they are using the lowest quality rice on the market.
Wheat in dog food is not a good thing for a number of reasons. One reason is that a lot of dogs are developing allergies to wheat, most likely due to its small protein size and processing. Another reason is that a lot of pet foods use wheat to boost the protein; however pet owners should know that a meat source of protein is far superior to a plant source. This is because meat has a much more balanced amino acid and nutrient profile. Many plants are extremely lacking in particular amino acids. For example, corn, rice, and wheat do not contain lysine, while corn also lacks tryptophan and rice lacks threonine. Soybeans are very low in methionine. For these reasons, plant-based proteins should not be the main source in pet foods.
Poultry By-Product Meal. As a general rule, pet owners should steer clear from general terms such as 'poultry', 'animal', 'fish', among others, as this does not denote where these ingredients are coming from. As mentioned before, the By-Product included could be consisting of bones and cartilage and no real meat content. They give us a hint by saying “source of glucosamine.” This statement is meant to instill confidence that the by-product meal is of good quality because it contains that thing people said is good for dogs. However, meat is not a source of glucosamine, cartilage is, which gives us a hint that the meal is actually mostly cartilage.
As stated above, soybeans are a poor protein source, as well as corn gluten meal. In fact, corn gluten meal is often used to boost the protein levels on a package to make up for the lack of protein in the meat sources since the gluten is where most of the protein in corn is stored.
To me, animal digest is one of the scariest ingredients out there. It is animal tissue, which can consist of any part of the animal except hair, horns, hooves, teeth, and feathers, and by that matter any animal since unspecified, that has been broken down chemically or by enzymes. This is included to increase the flavour of the food to your dog because it gives off a protein-like smell, unlike all of the plants used to make the food. That said, would you like your dog to be eating chemically broken down rats? What about horses? Or restaurant waste? At least the animals used can't be decomposing. That's comforting.
I think I have adequately taken apart this food, even though there are even more ingredients that pet owners should take issue with. Let's take a look at a high quality pet food and go over why it is:
Valens Farmer Dog Food
Fresh deboned chicken, fresh deboned turkey, chicken meal, turkey meal, chicken liver, turkey liver, peas, sweet potatoes, freeze dried chicken, flaxseed, chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols and citric acid), tomato pomace, pea protein, natural flavour, cod liver, salt, yeast culture, dried Saccharomyces cerevisiae fermentation extract, chicory root extract, potassium chloride, kelp meal, L-carnitine, blueberries, carob, cranberries, ginger root, apples, dried Lactobacillus fermentation extract, yeast extract, elderberries extract, rosemary extract, thyme extract, Yucca Schidigera extract, carrots, spinach, pumpkins, dehydrated Lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product, dehydrated Lactobacillus casei fermentation product, dehydrated Bifidobacterium bifidum thermophilum fermentation product, dehydrated Streptococcus faecium fermentation product, glucosamine, chondroitin, zinc sulphate, ferrous sulphate, vitamin E, zinc proteinate, iron proteinate, niacinamide, calcium pantothenate, copper sulphate, manganous oxide, vitamin A, copper proteinate, riboflavin, thiamine mononitrate, manganese proteinate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, vitamin D3, calcium iodate, folic acid, sodium selenite, vitamin B12, green tea extract, turmeric root, fennel, paprika, cayenne
First of all, they use a combination of fresh meat and meals to get the high amount of protein they are looking for while maintaining the quality protein fresh meat can provide. Chicken and turkey liver are included to boost the nutrient profile and round out some of the amino acids.
Peas and sweet potatoes, while can be used to boost protein, are low enough down that they are there to boost calorie content and hold the food together, as well as provide fibre. Foods need to contain at least 10% starch in order to be run through the extruding machines.
Freeze-dried Chicken can literally be seen in the food as the small chunks, which helps to keep pets interested in the food while providing a protein punch made of high quality meat.
Flaxseed is a good source of omegas, which are good for the skin and coat, as well as brain and eye development. If this was a cat food then the flax would not be as useful since cats cannot fully utilize plant-based omegas.
The fat source is specified as Chicken Fat, rather than 'Animal' or 'Poultry' fat, so we know the source material.
As you can see, there are many fruits and vegetables listed. Generally, many of these ingredients will be of little use since they will be included in such small quantities and cooked at such high temperatures that they will lose many useful components. This is where all of the added vitamins and minerals come in to play, to make up for the lack of vitamin and mineral content in the end product. However, there are some companies that have managed to cook their foods at much lower temperatures, allowing them to include much less added vitamins and minerals since the fruits and vegetables would retain their potency through the cooking process.
To wrap it up, for a 60lbs dog the grocery store brand recommends feeding 3.5 cups per day, while Valens recommends feeding a little under 2 cups per day. As you can see, although Valens is not perfect, it uses higher quality ingredients and therefore feeds much less. Feeding almost twice as much of a low quality food can also cost more to feed per day, and also cost more at the vet.