Suite101.com asks, ‘What’s in your dog’s food? Does the brand of dog food really matter?’
According to Jess Braun, DVM:
“Nutrition plays an extremely important role in your dog’s overall health and life span, just as it does with humans. What all living, breathing beings eat, matters. The trick is figuring out exactly what you are feeding your dog when you look at a pet food label!”
For many dog and cat owners, the continuing problem of widespread pet food recalls is cause for concern.
And I certainly agree the deadly contaminants turning up in commercial pet food formulas present a significant, immediate danger to your dog’s health.
But it is my belief the substandard ingredients found in the majority of affordable pet foods present an important, if longer-term threat to your beloved dog’s health as well.
It takes research and practice to make sense of pet food nutrition labels. Whether or not it’s deliberate, pet food companies seem to go out of their way to make ingredient labels confusing and even misleading.
Actual Product Label Comparison of a High Quality and a Poor Quality Dog Food
|Raw, Sold Frozen||‘Premium’ Dry Dog Food|
|Guaranteed Analysis (as fed)||Guaranteed Analysis|
|Protein (not less than)||12%||Crude Protein (min)||25%|
|Fat (not less than)||8%||Crude Fat (min)||10%|
|Moisture (not more than)||71%||Moisture (max)||14%|
|Carbohydrate (not less than)||3.5%||Carbohydrate||??|
|Fiber (not more than)||0.5%||Crude Fiber (max)||4%|
|Free-Range Meat = 69%
chicken meat including bone, chicken gizzards, chicken hearts and chicken livers
Organic Vegetables = 29.3%
Special Nutrient Mix = 1.7%
|Ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), soy protein concentrate, soy flour, water, rice flour, pearled barley, sugar, tricalcium phosphate, propylene glycol, animal digest, dicalcium phosphate, salt, phosphoric acid, sorbic acid (a preservative), calcium carbonate, potassium chloride, L-Lysine monohydrochloride, dried spinach, dried apples, dried sweet potatoes, choline chloride, calcium propionate (a preservative), added color (Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 2, Yellow 6), Vitamin E supplement, zinc sulfate, ferrous sulfate, manganese sulfate, niacin, Vitamin A supplement, copper sulfate, Vitamin B-12 supplement, DL-Methionine, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, garlic oil, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin supplement, Vitamin D-3 supplement, calcium iodate, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), folic acid, biotin, sodium selenite|
As you can see, at first glance the guaranteed analysis doesn’t tell much of a story. The actual ingredients, and the order in which they appear, gives a better picture of the difference in quality of the two foods.
Noteworthy on the guaranteed analysis comparison, however, are a few items:
- The lack of carbohydrate content of the dry food. This is important information to have, because your dog has no biological requirement for carbs (notice the carb content of the raw food is less than four percent). Food with a high carb content is therefore not species-appropriate for your carnivorous canine. Chances are the carbs in the food are displacing some percentage of protein your dog’s body really needs.
- The use of the term ‘crude’ protein, fat and fiber on the dry food label. Crude can mean a lot of things. Shoe leather, for example, is a ‘crude’ protein. Bottom line: there’s no way to determine how much of an ingredient categorized as ‘crude’ is digestible or will provide nourishment to your pet’s body.
- The difference between the protein and moisture contents of the two foods. At first glance, it appears the raw food has less than half the protein of the dry food. This is misleading. It’s a comparison of apples to oranges.
In order to compare apples to apples, we need to calculate the guaranteed analysis ingredients on a dry matter basis using the following formula:
100 Percent – Percent Moisture = Percent Dry Matter (DM)
Using this formula, we can determine the percent dry matter (DM) of each food as follows:
|Raw food has 71% moisture
100% – 71% = 29%
The raw food is 29% DM
|Dry food has 14% moisture
100% – 14% = 86%
The dry food is 86% DM
Now that we know the dry matter content of each food, we can compare the true protein amounts with this formula:
Percent Protein / Percent DM = Percent Protein on a DM Basis
Using this formula, we can determine the percent protein of each food as follows:
|Raw food: 12% protein, 29% DM
12% / 29% = 41%
Raw food has 41% DM protein
|Dry food: 25% protein, 86% DM
25% / 86% = 29%
Dry food has 29% DM protein
You can use the same calculations to compare the other guaranteed analysis ingredients on a DM basis as follows:
|Raw food: 8% fat
8% / 29% = 28%
Raw food has 28% DM fat
|Dry food: 10% fat
10% / 86% = 12%
Dry food has 12% DM fat
|Raw food: .5% fiber
.5% / 29% = .02%
Raw food has .02% DM fiber
|Dry food: 4% fiber
4% / 86% = .05% fiber
Dry food has .05% DM fiber
As you can see by this apples-to-apples comparison, the raw food has significantly higher percentages of the three most important pet food ingredients: protein, fat, and moisture.
A Few Things You WANT to See on a Dog Food Label
- Human grade (USDA approved) ingredients. This can be a tricky area, because the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has very effectively prohibited the use of the term ‘human grade’ on pet food packaging. As a result, very few pet food labels contain the phrase. According to TheBark.com:
AAFCO says “human-grade” is false and misleading, and constitutes misbranding, unless every ingredient in the product—and every processing method—meets FDA and USDA requirements for producing, processing and transporting foods suitable for consumption by humans, and every producer of the ingredients is licensed to perform those tasks. Few pet food companies can meet these criteria.
What you want to find out is whether the ingredients in the brand you buy are fit for human consumption. Despite the fact manufacturers can’t list ‘human grade’ on the ingredient panel, if they are using ingredients fit for human consumption, you’ll know by the information provided on the bag, as well as their marketing materials. The company will want you to know why their food is more expensive.
The better the brand (and higher the cost), the more likely it is the ingredients are human grade. If all else fails, you can visit the manufacturer’s website or call their toll free number to get your questions answered.
Even better is if the protein source is either free-range or pasture-raised and hasn’t been shot full of hormones and antibiotics.
- A whole food protein source at the top of the list of ingredients. The key here is to look for named meat, typically one-word descriptions of the protein in the formula, for example: beef, turkey, lamb, chicken, etc. Avoid any product with non-specific descriptions like ‘animal,’ ‘meat’ or ‘poultry.’
Most commercial pet foods also contain meat meal, which is fine as a secondary ingredient to a whole food protein source. Meal consists of meat with the moisture removed, with or without bones and has the right calcium/phosphorus balance. Like the primary whole food protein source, meal should be from a named, specific meat.
- Grain-free. Your carnivorous pooch has no biologic requirement for grains. Many grain-free formulas use potatoes instead, but potatoes or other starches should not be added in excess simply to offset meat content.
- AAFCO guarantee. AAFCO has established minimum standards for complete and balanced pet nutrition. Most of us concerned with animal health realize there’s room for improvement in the AAFCO guidelines. However, you can be reasonably sure a pet food meeting those guidelines will provide all the elements of nutrition your dog needs to sustain life. A formula without AAFCO certification will likely be deficient as a sole source of nutrition for your pet.
… And a Few Things You DON’T
- Meat by-products, digest. Meat by-products, especially those not specified as a certain kind of meat (chicken, beef, turkey, etc.), contain unsavory ingredients ground into the mix during processing like beaks, feathers, feet, hooves, hair, entrails – even tumors. The exception would be by-products derived from human grade organ meats like liver and kidney.
- Poor quality, incomplete proteins. These include corn gluten meal, wheat gluten meal, rice protein concentrate and soy protein.
- Formulas containing corn or soy. Corn is a cheap filler ingredient with no nutritional value. It is also a known allergenic. Soy is estrogenic and can wreak havoc on your dog’s endocrine system.
- BHT, BHA, ethoxyquin, propyl gallate. These are all artificial preservatives. Ethoxyquin is banned from use in human foods, but is used to preserve the fish meal found in many pet food formulas. You won’t find it on your pet food label because it is added before the fish meal arrives at the manufacturing facility. When considering dog foods containing fish, look for written manufacturer assurance on the label or web site that the fish meal does not contain ethoxyquin. Otherwise, assume that it does or contact the manufacturer directly to inquire.
Look for foods preserved with vitamins C and E, also called tocopherols.
- Artificial colors, flavors, sugars, sweeteners or propylene glycol.
How to Avoid Contaminated and Poor Quality Pet Food
The very best nutrition you can feed your dog won’t be found in a bag or can of processed food.
As I discussed in 13 Pet Foods – Ranked from Great to Disastrous, your best bet is to feed your dog a balanced, raw, species-appropriate, homemade diet. It’s really the only way to exercise complete control over what your pup eats.
If you’re tired of worrying about the next pet food recall and sick of trying to understand confusing pet food labels, maybe it’s time to consider making your dog’s meals from scratch right in your own kitchen. If so, I’ve co-authored a cookbook you should find useful, Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats.
This book explains how to buy and prepare fresh foods in quantity, and it also contains recipes – both raw and cooked – so you can fix worry-free, ultra-healthy meals for your favorite four-legged family member.