Do words like “premium” and “gourmet” actually mean anything? Are foods labeled “natural” and “organic” actually healthier? The truth is, when it comes to pet food, many of these terms have no standard definition or regulatory meaning. There is no one perfect source for comparing kibbles and chows. There is, however, some basic information that you can use to evaluate what you feed your four-legged family members.
Pet food labels have two basic parts: the principal display panel and the information panel. The first takes up most of the packaging – it includes the brand and name of the food, and descriptive terms and images. But the most important part of the label is the information panel, which is the parallel of a human nutritional information label. It contains the guaranteed analysis, ingredient list, feeding guidelines and nutritional adequacy statement.
You won’t find as much detail here as on human foods, but the nutritional information does give minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. “Crude” refers to the method of measuring that is used, not the quality of the protein, fat or fiber. These percentages are on “as fed” basis, so foods that contain more water (canned foods) appear to have less protein than foods with less water (dry foods) – but that’s not usually the case.
Ingredients in a pet food must be listed on the label in descending order by weight. One detail to remember, though, is that the weight includes the moisture in the ingredient, so certain ingredients may appear higher on the list even if lower – moisture ingredients contribute more actual nutrients. The order isn’t by nutritional value, but by weight.
For example, the first ingredient on a label may be “chicken”, which weighs more than other individual ingredients because it may contain 70% water. But wheat may be present in various forms that are listed as individual ingredients, such as “wheat flour”, “ground wheat” and “wheat middling”. Thus, the diet may actually contain more wheat than chicken. Just because a protein source is listed first does not mean the diet is high in protein.
Feeding guidelines are also on the information panel of the label. Like human food labels, pet food labels give broad feeding guidelines. Pet food guidelines are based on average intake for all dogs or cats. But a pet’s nutritional requirements can vary according to his age, breed, body weight, genetics, activity level and even the climate he lives in. So, these guidelines are a starting point, but may require adjusting for your particular furry friend. If your dog or cat starts gaining weight, you may need to feed her less, and vice versa.
Let’s look at the nutritional adequacy statement, developed by an advisory organization that standardizes pet food nutrient contents called the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This statement assures pet parents that when the pet food is fed as the sole source of nutrition, it meets or exceeds nutritional requirements for a dog or cat at one or more life stages. However, the AAFCO recognizes only “adult maintenance” and “reproduction” (which includes pregnancy, lactation and growth) as life stages; or, if the diet meets both, “all life stages”.
The nutritional adequacy statement also shows how manufacturers have met the AAFCO’s standards, either by calculations or by feeding trials. Calculations estimate the amount of nutrients in a pet food either on the basis of the average nutrient content of its ingredients, or on results from laboratory testing. Such a food will carry a statement like: “Brand A is formulated to meet the nutritional levels lofet established by the AAFCO Food Nutrient Profiles for (stated life stages)”.
Feeding trials signify that the manufacturer has tested the product by feeding it to dogs or cats under specific guidelines. These products carry a statement such as: ” Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand A provides complete and balanced nutrition for”.
The ingredient panels on pet food labels contain a lot of information for pet parents to digest, but there’s still more to savor, including getting a taste for the terms on the principal display part of those labels. For instance, a pet food can claim to be “light/lite” or “lean” only if it meets the AAFCO’s standard definitions for these terms, which differ for cat and dog food and depend on the dietary moisture content.
“Less calories” and “reduced calories” mean only that the product has fewer calories than another product, and the same goes for “less fat” or “reduced fat.” Pet food labels are not usually required to provide calorie content.
Some pet parents try to eat an organic diet, and often they want their pets to eat that way, too. Keep in mind, though, that even if a pet food is “natural” or “organic” it usually contains added synthetically-produced vitamins and minerals. To date, there are no studies showing that natural or organic foods provide any health benefits over conventionally manufactured processed cat or dog foods.
More recently, there has been a trend for feeding “biologically appropriate raw food” (also known as BARF) and “grain free” pet food.
Barf diets have been reported to have many health benefits over conventionally processed foods, such as being easier for pets to digest. While no scientific publications have documented the health benefits of raw diets, they have not been shown to be detrimental, either. When feeding any raw food, there is always concern about the risk of bacterial infection, such as Salmonella, but of course, conventional pet foods have also been recalled for contamination.