How to Read the Ingredient Labels and Guaranteed Analysis on Dry Pet Foods
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
There are so many different options when it comes to pet food for our dogs and cats out there right now! That’s why when you’re trying to make the best choice for your pet, you should be as informed as possible. This is not easy, especially since the pet food industry in Canada remains unregulated, resulting in potentially misleading or vague ingredient labels. Today, we want to talk about what you’re really reading when you’re looking at the ingredient label or guaranteed analysis on dry pet food bags. Unfortunately, the ingredients and analysis can sometimes be counterintuitive and difficult to really understand!
That’s why our experts are here to explain. We’ll be looking at three different unnamed dry foods (for adults) within the following categories:
Other topics covered:
What to consider when you see lots of added vitamins and minerals
During our analysis of each of these common dry pet foods for dogs and cats, we’ll look over the ingredients (focusing on the top five, since they’re the main ingredients), explain what they mean and take a look at what the guaranteed analysis is telling us. Let’s dive right in!
Watch the full video of Sarah Griffiths, Pet Nutritionist and Inna Shekhtman, Founder and CEO of Red Dog Blue Kat discussing dry pet food labels below:
1. Grocery Store Dry Pet Food
Top 5 Ingredients: Chicken, ground whole corn, ground whole grain sorghum (which is a cereal alternative for corn, very similar to it), chicken by-product meal, and dried beet pulp.
The first thing that you should notice here is that chicken is the first ingredient - that is good! However, the next two ingredients are highly processed grains, which is just starch, or sugar when you get down to it. The next ingredient on the list, chicken by-product meal, is questionable since AAFCO’s definition of what this is must be paid for to be accessed! That means it’s very confusing and unclear for consumers - exactly what is in this ‘meal’ ingredient?! The final ingredient in this pet food’s top 5 is dried beet pulp. Although it is a great source of fibre, it is the heaviest sprayed roundup ready GMO-ed food in the world, especially in North America. So when you see this combined with the other corn ingredients (i.e other highly round-up ready products), then there’s a hidden ingredient in your pet’s food: herbicides. This is not something you want to be feeding your pet every day!
This is why it is very important to consider not just what ingredients are being used, but also how they are farmed and what processing they go through.
After seeing these ingredients, it could actually mean that this grocery store brand could be made of more than 50% corn. Even though chicken appears first in the ingredient list, its content percentage may only be slightly higher than the second ingredient - and with both the second and third ingredient being corn/cereal grains this means the overall corn/grain content could be significantly higher! In this situation, the label makes it seem as though there’s more chicken, when in reality, it’s not quite that simple.
Rest of Ingredients: Natural flavour (we have no idea what that means…?), flaxseed, dried egg product, chicken fat, colouring from caramel, added vitamins & minerals, and rosemary extract.
When you look at this guaranteed analysis for this pet food, it’s super basic… All they show here is percentages of the protein, fat, fibre, and moisture. It’s important to note that the fibre labelled in the guaranteed analysis is not the same as starch (ie. sugar), and it’s just as important to know how much starch/sugar you’re feeding your pet. You must understand that there is in fact nothing that identifies starch levels on the guaranteed analysis; however, you are able to see it on the ingredient list. As a consumer, you definitely need to be aware of these things because pet foods aren’t transparent about this.
In conclusion, if your pet has conditions that require you to look for diets with less starch/sugar, you must look at the ingredients. The guaranteed analysis will not give you the information you need in this situation.
When You See Lots of Added Vitamins & Minerals On Dry Pet Food Labels
When looking at an ingredient list for dry pet food for dogs and cats, you may see meats, vegetables and legumes first, but then also a large number of vitamins and minerals near the end. For instance, the grocery store brand we looked at had vitamins and minerals that took up almost two thirds of the ingredients! Some people think this is a very good sign… However, if we think about this more carefully they are being added on because the food ingredients aren’t providing this.
Why aren’t the food ingredients able to give pets the nutrients they need? It’s because dry pet food is so overly processed (using extremely high pressure and temperatures) that there’s no vitamins and minerals left in the ingredients. So after this processing is done, the companies must add in mostly synthetic vitamins and minerals to meet AAFCO standards. Think about the level of processing that chicken (or corn, or other food ingredients) needed to go through that there’s nothing nutritional left?
So, when you see a very long list of vitamins and minerals on your pet’s bag of dry food, it is very indicative of the quality of the food portion of the product. The longer the list, the more they needed to add vitamins and minerals to do their best at balancing out the food again. Inna, CEO & Founder of RDBK, gives us an example: “It’s like eating mac and cheese (all the time) and taking multi-vitamins to make up for the fact we’re not eating any vegetables or fruits”.
2. Prescription Diet Dry Pet Food
Top 5 Ingredients: Corn, chicken by-product meal (which is not chicken), brewer’s rice, brown rice, and chicken fat
Rest of Ingredients: Dried plain beet pulp, wheat gluten, vegetable oil, fish oil, and vitamin & mineral (pre-mix)
Immediately after seeing this ingredient label, Sarah Griffiths, pet nutrition expert, commented “It’s very disturbing to see that this is being accepted as a very good way to feed your pet… because it’s primarily starch”.
Once we took a look at the guaranteed analysis of the prescription dry pet food, Sarah was very surprised to find that it only presented the macros (protein, fat, fibre and moisture). It didn’t list any of the other nutritional content, so it’s basically a surprise! With such limited information, how are you as pet parents supposed to know what you’re feeding your pet? You can’t.
It is interesting that this is a company that has a particularly good reputation, and still doesn’t provide the amount of information that is deserved by pet owners. Based on what Sarah saw on their packaging she mentioned “They’re [the company] basically saying to me as a nutritionist that they are so good at what they do that they really don’t have to explain themselves”. This is frustrating for someone like Sarah, who is educated in nutrition, so it’s even more concerning for pet parents who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about or access the proper information.
Are Grain-Free and Raw Pet Diets the Same?
Before we move onto looking at our last dry pet food brand, which is a grain-free dry food, it’s important that we talk about the difference between grain-free and raw food. They ARE NOT in the same category!
Learn more about the differences by reading through our blog: Is there a problem with grain-free dog food?
The principle behind “grain-free” is that dogs and cats should be deriving most of their nutrition from meats and some vegetation - that’s how they eat in the wild. Since raw pet food started becoming more popular during a time where many other pet food options had grain in them, the core message that raw companies decided to put out was that pets should not be fed grains. The message they wanted to send is that instead pets should be eating meat! This whole campaign somehow became twisted into the theory that “grain-free” foods are better.
However, the question isn’t about whether the food has grains or not, it’s about what the main source of protein of the pet food you’re using. Originally, grains were put into pet food because grains do contain proteins. The issue is that grains, and the replacements for grains that are used in “grain-free” pet food, are not biologically appropriate for our dogs and cats. Therefore, whether or not you’re using grain-inclusive or grain-free, dry pet foods are usually using ingredients that are not biologically appropriate.
The whole idea behind the raw movement was not about grain-free diets; instead, the point to raw feeding was supposed to be using more meat instead of trying to replace it with alternative sources of protein.
3. Grain-Free Dry Pet Food
Top 5 Ingredients: De-boned chicken, de-boned turkey, Atlantic flounder, whole eggs, whole Atlantic mackerel
Rest of Ingredients: Organ meat, dehydrated chicken, dehydrated turkey, dehydrated fish, whole red lentils, whole pinto beans, whole green peas
By looking at this ingredient list, it’s clear that the ingredients are more biologically appropriate for dogs, and that there is a larger portion of meat in this food compared to many others. Protein is very high, at 38%, which is very important for dogs to get energy from. If you look at other adult brands we were looking at, it’s common to only see about 13% - 20% protein.
Let’s address the legumes (lentils, pinto beans, and green peas) that are part of the ingredient list. Yes, these ingredients sound very healthy, but for humans. However, dogs don’t normally eat these things, and there is a reason why! When you look at the amino acid profiles of legumes, they’re very different from the amino acid profiles found in meat. Therefore, although humans often thrive on plant-based proteins, dogs and cats need meat-based proteins to experience optimal health.
Another issue with some legumes, like lentils, is that when they’re highly heat-treated, they become very starchy just like grains. So we go back to the idea that it isn’t possible to find out how much starch is in the food. This is why Sarah is concerned about feeding grain-free pet food brands that still have starch in it, because there is no nutritional analysis that will give you the information required to make smart choices. Instead, you must make an educated guess based on the ingredients you see on the labels.
This food is more expensive and is definitely a step up from the other foods we’ve looked at today! It has vegetables in it, it has a very short vitamin and mineral premix profile, and it also has some probiotics added in as well. Even with this quality of food, Sarah still recommends adding some fresh food additions - things such as bone broth, eggs, or vegetables. Even adding cooked meat or water is a very good idea, as moisture is always lacking in dry pet foods. In fact, this lack of water in dry food is one of the main reasons this type of diet is so hard on pets’ bodies.
This guaranteed analysis is better because it gives you more information than just the bare minimum macros. It gives you numbers on the protein, fat, fibre, moisture, omega-3 fatty acids profiles, calcium, phosphorus, and even some other interesting factors. By looking at this, we can see that this company really pays attention to what they’re putting in their food.
Is It Bad to Feed Your Dog or Cat Kibble?
It’s hard to use a blanket statement that all dry foods are bad. There are some that are way more nutritious; however, the concept of feeding only one thing all the time to achieve “balance” is not what we believe in at Red Dog Blue Kat. Our pets, like us, need a variety of foods, preferably fresh, in rotation to make sure they’re getting the most nutritious, natural diet. So, if you are continuing to use kibble, try rotating through different proteins within the same brand (ex. Using fish-based kibble and also a kibble made primarily from red meat), or start to add fresh food. Fresh food will really help your dog get vital nutrients, enzymes, and other things that AAFCO doesn’t even consider essential ingredients.
Like we say repeatedly, it’s a process to create a healthy, balanced diet. As a pet owner, you should feel that you have the power and knowledge to use variety and explore the different food options for your pet. It’s not about just sticking the same one thing in your dog or cat’s food bowl every day.
We hope that this has been an informative little peek into how to better view ingredient labels and understand the guaranteed analysis you see on your dry pet food bags. As you can see, it’s important to use both of them in combination to get a general food value, even when companies use phrases like “scientifically formulated” or “meets AAFCO requirements”.
As a main takeaway, we hope that you choose to feed more than one food (a variety) to ensure your pet gets a healthy, balanced diet. Rotating through dry food, adding fresh food etc. are both good steps towards a healthier overall diet, and none of these actions need to be mutually exclusive. In nature, balance comes from variety and the more variety we can give our pets, the more diversity they have in their digestive system and their gut flora - and this is what ensures that their bodies have what they need to stay healthy and in homeostasis.
No matter how great one food is, feeding it alone will not achieve the same healthy diet as variety. This applies to dry food or raw food! So, start rotating your food a bit more or add in some fresh food treats to your pet’s bowl every morning. If you need help we’re here! We want to help pet parents feel empowered to take their pet’s health in their own hands, because you CAN do it!
If you have any more questions about this topic or need help with your specific pet, please reach out to us via social media, email, or phone. You can also fill out a feeding guide right here on our website that will be reviewed by our Vet Nutrition Advisor on staff. Happy feeding!