Decoding Pet Food Labels

Posted on December 1, 2015

It is clear that when choosing food and treats for their dogs buyers of dog food closely study the ingredients labels– far more than people study the labels on human food.

What we have tried to do here is to provide some advice on what to look for and to explain some of the more confusing terminology

What does complete meanIt means the food contains all of the essential nutrients, except water, to meet the dog’s daily requirements as defined by FEDIAF (European Pet Food Industry Federation).  The term complementary food is used for treats and mixers and means that it does not meet all of the nutritional requirements so a dog cannot be solely fed on a complementary food.

Whilst there are many Complete foods on the market some are better than others – so how can you use the ingredients labelling to rate a food.

Protein the number 1 priority: The single most important thing to look for is high quantities of high quality protein.  Proteins can come from meat and fish but also from vegetables.  Vegetable based proteins are often cheaper, but of much lower nutritional quality to dogs and cats, as their amino acid balance is less suited.  So make sure that there is a high percentage of meat or fish in the product.  The ingredients are listed in order of inclusion with the most plentiful first.  So the meat or fish content should be first in the list. 

You should be looking for single source proteins with a description that makes it clear where it comes from, such as “Salmon” or “Chicken”.  If you see it described using a generic term like “meat meal” or using the term “animal derivatives” then be wary. 

Whilst we are talking about protein it is worth explaining what meal is.  In our food we use a mix of wet fish and Salmon meal.  We often receive comments that we use meal because it is cheaper.  That isn’t true – the salmon meal is a lot more expensive than the wet fish.  Salmon meal is made from drying the fish and grinding it into a fine powder.  Because there is very little moisture left in the meal it provides a very concentrated form of protein – we use it to get higher protein levels than we could from using wet fish alone.

Look to the type of Carbohydrate:  It is not possible to produce a kibble type food without using carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates are needed to create the biscuit like texture of kibble.  It is also worth noting that carbohydrate provides an excellent source of energy for the dogs.  However grain free products are less inclined to cause an allergic or food intolerance response so look for foods that use carbohydrates other than grain such as pea, potato, sweet potato or cassava (tapioca). 

What the different sections mean.

Analytical Constituents:  This refers to the levels of nutrient in the food.  These cover protein, fat, fibre and ash. The use of the word “Crude” refers to the technique used for measuring the figures
Crude protein figures are obtained by a chemical analysis of the nitrogen levels which are used to estimate the amount of protein in the food

Crude fat is measured by dissolving the ingredients in a solvent, evaporating the solvent and analysing what remains to provide an estimate of the level of fat in the food

Crude fibre measurements are obtained diluting the food with acid and alkali to dissolve many of the contents and then measuring what remains

Ash: This does not mean ash has been added but is a measure of the minerals.  The food is incinerated at very high temperatures burning off all except the inorganic matter – the remaining inorganic matter is called the ash. It can also be described as ‘incinerated residue' or 'inorganic matter'


Composition: Simply put this is the ingredients list.  These are listed in order of inclusion with the most plentiful first.  Generally speaking the first 5 listed will be the vast majority of the product.  It is only compulsory to show the percentage level of ingredients mentioned elsewhere on the pack.  Some brands claim they do not show percentages in order to prevent competitors copying their food.  That may or may not be true but if a product is not showing percentages, at least for the main ingredients, then we would worry that they may be trying to hide low levels of inclusion.  If you have high quantities of good quality ingredients then why would you not want to shout about that?


Additives:  Whilst this may sound bad – why add stuff – additives are not necessarily bad.  Vitamins and minerals added to the food are classed as additives and are essential  nutrients.  However other additives are used to add flavour or colourings, and that is generally less good – if you are using good levels of high quality protein then flavourings should not be needed – as for colourings why – dogs don’t eat with their eyes and the colourings are rarely natural.


Trace elements: A sub section of the additives, trace elements are minerals needed by the body in very small quantities.  Ideally look for chelated minerals – these are bound to an organic molecule improving the body’s ability to absorb them.




Allergies and Food Intolerances


Given the levels of discussion of allergy / food intolerance it is worth briefly discussing these.  Allergies and Food intolerances are often lumped together but they are different.  An allergy is the result of a response by the body’s immune system. Food intolerances are more common and are a response from the digestive system.  Food is often seen as the primary source of allergic responses in dogs and it is often the case.  However the most common cause of allergic response are a reaction to fleas, followed by allergic reactions to inhaled substances and thirdly reaction to foods. 

 A thorough reading of the ingredients listed will be essential in managing the elimination diet.  And if in doubt about any ingredient – contact the company, they will know and any decent company will be happy to answer your questions

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