Pet Health Articles

Deciphering Dog Food Labels

dogfoodlabelsDeciphering Dog Food Labels

Evaluating dog food labels is arguably one of the most challenging tasks pet owners face.  On the one hand, the label is an important way for the pet food manufacturers to communicate nutritional information.  On the other hand, in some ways food labeling requirements for dog foods vary significantly from labeling requirements for human food.  It is important to understand some of the rules regulating dog food labels in order to better interpret the information they contain.

How is Dog Food Labeling Regulated?

The dog food label is actually a legal document.  In both the United States and Canada, there are several organizations involved in overseeing and regulating the pet food industry and thus influencing or regulating what is contained on a dog food label.  The most pervasive influence in the U.S. is wielded by AAFCO:  the Association of American Feed Control Officials.  AAFCO has developed model laws and regulations that states use for animal feeds.  AAFCO also serves as the “go to” source for ingredient definitions, standardized testing of food, official terminology, and feeding trial protocols. In Canada, pet food labeling guidelines are regulated by the Consumer Packaging and Labeling Act administered by Industry Canada.  The Canadian government’s Competition Bureau also has an extensive working group that upholds a voluntary code of conduct for the labeling and advertising of pet food.  These guidelines require that feeding instructions appear on the product label, and they cover any misrepresentations of business claims as well as deceptive endorsements or testimonials.

AAFCO developed two nutrient profiles for dogs:  one for growth and reproduction, and one for adult maintenance.  The adult formulation provides for lower amounts of nutrients in order to avoid inappropriate excesses.

While AAFCO provides recommendations and guidelines, it is the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that has the authority to regulate dog food production.  Any health claim on the label of a specific nutrient profile is subject to evaluation by the CVM, for instance, a formulation to help manage chronic renal (kidney) disease.  In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ensures that pet food is labeled so as not to be mistaken for human food, and inspects ingredients to ensure proper handling.

In Canada, multiple federal government departments are involved in the regulation of pet food labeling.  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulates imported pet foods containing certain animal products, and Health Canada enacts legislation to prevent the circulation of unsubstantiated health claims on pet food labels (much like the FDA).  Products that meet nutrient standards display the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Seal of Certification.

What Information is Found on Dog Food Labels?

There are several key elements that are required to be printed on pet food labels in the United States and Canada.  These include the manufacturer name, the product name, the intended species, the net weight, ingredient statement, the guaranteed analysis, the feeding guidelines, and the nutritional purpose (life-stage) statement.  Additional information that may be present on the label but is not required includes calorie content, a universal product code (UPC), a nutrition claim, and a freshness date. The most important information when comparing one dog food to another is the guaranteed analysis.  The guaranteed analysis is expressed in terms of percent maximums and minimums, and on the label each of these will be “as is” or “as fed”.  “As fed” means as the food comes out of the bag or can.  This is an important detail because we cannot really compare dog foods on an “as fed” basis.  Instead we need to compare nutrient profiles on a “dry matter” basis, with all the water removed.  Some pet food companies provide a dry matter analysis on their websites, but most do not, so this means doing a little math before making a product comparison.

"We need to compare nutrient profiles on a “dry matter” basis,
with all the water removed. Some pet food companies
provide a dry matter analysis on their websites, but most do
not, so this means doing a little math before
making a product comparison."

Let’s look at a quick comparison of the major nutrients, protein, fat, and carbohydrates between an “as fed” and a “dry matter” analysis in a canine adult maintenance dry food:

Food A (dry kibble) - -

            As fed:            protein             23.3%

                                    fat                    14.9%

                                    carbohydrate   47.6%

            Dry matter:      protein             25.3%

                                    fat                    16.2%

                                    carbohydrate   51.7%

Let’s do the same comparison for a canine adult maintenance canned food:

Food B (canned) - -

            As fed:            protein             6%

                                    fat                    4%

                                    carbohydrate   8.2%

            Dry matter:      protein             28.9%

                                     fat                    19.5%

                                    carbohydrate   39.3%

As you see, removing the water from the food analyses can make a profound difference in the percentages of specific nutrients.

Understanding Ingredient Lists

Ingredient lists are somewhat useful when evaluating a particular dog food, but it is important to recognize the limitations.  For instance, ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight.  That means a manufacturer may “spin” their ingredient list to be more attractive to the dog owner.  “Whole chicken” may be first on the ingredient list because it has the highest moisture content, but the predominant portion of ingredients once moisture is removed for a dry matter analysis may actually be a mixture of grains.

"A manufacturer may “spin” their ingredient list to
be more attractive to the dog owner. “Whole chicken”
may be first on the ingredient list because it has the
highest moisture content, but the predominant portion
of ingredients once moisture is removed for a dry
matter analysis may actually be a mixture of grains."

One other important element on the dog food label is the nutritional adequacy/life-stage statement.  AAFCO allows a company to formulate a food that, when analyzed, meets the canine nutrient profile.  Formulation is a less involved and less expensive method for food development than feeding trials, but formulation does not demonstrate nutrient availability or palatability.  Alternately, the company can perform an AAFCO protocol feeding trial which is the preferred method for substantiating nutritional claims.  Feeding trials are more expensive and involved than simply formulating a food, but provide information about palatability and bioavailability.  A combination of these two methods may provide the most complete information about a specific nutrient profile.

Deciphering dog food labels can be quite challenging.  It is always best to evaluate and compare dog foods by accessing the dry matter analyses.  Reputable pet food companies are transparent in the data they supply about their dog food products, and are generally willing to provide dry matter data.  Your veterinarian can not only help you sort through the information on dog food labels, but can guide your nutritional choices based on what is most appropriate for your dog based on breed, age, and lifestyle.  It is always best to tailor the nutrient profile to the individual dog as much as possible in order to avoid both deficiencies and excesses of particular nutrients. For example, performance dogs have unique nutritional requirements. For more information on this topic, see the article “Nutritional Needs of Performance Dogs.” Take advantage of the nutritional training and expertise your veterinarian possesses.

Reference: Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th edition; Hand M, Thatcher C, Remillard R, Roudebush P, Novotny B eds.: Mark Morris Institute 2010.

Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM
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