Decoding pet food labels – part 1

Pet food labels can contain a lot of helpful information for owners and the vet team alike, but can also contain a lot of marketing. I often get asked what you should look for on a label; this is a loaded question. While the label tells you a lot of things, it doesn’t always tell you everything you need to know about the diet and it isn’t always the only way of determining the quality of a diet either. This is part one as pet food labels really do contain information overload – there’s so much to cover, so I’ve split it into some easy to digest chunks!

AAFCO Statement/Nutritional Adequacy Statement

This is THE MOST important thing to see on a pet food label. If a pet food does not have this on it, run far far away. The AAFCO statement tells you what lifestage the food is formulated for and if the diet has gone through feeding trials. Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets nutrient standards for the substantiation of claims on pet food labels and defines specific nutrient minimums for certain life stages. They also describe minimum testing protocols for feeding trials to determine metabolizable energy for dog and cat foods. So what does an AAFCO statement look like? The main types of statements you’ll find (usually near the ingredient list or guaranteed analysis panel) are;

This product is formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles for [species] and [life stage] .

This statement means that the manufacturer has used the profiles laid out for a specific life stage (maintenance, growth and/or reproduction) to formulate the diet but has NOT undergone feeding trials to determine that the final product actually contains those levels when eaten and digested by the pet. These products are usually things like freeze-dried raw diets, or home-made recipes, but can also be found on some store-bought products too.

Animal feeding tests substantiate that [product] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [species] and [life stage].

This means the diet HAS undergone feeding trials to determine this diet provides the levels laid out on the package when the pet eats it. Basically this is the best way to determine that your pet will actually benefit from eating this diet and get the nutrients they need, however it helps to know about how the manufacturer conducts feeding trials, as AAFCO guidelines for feeding trials are only bare minimums.

This product is intended for intermittent and supplemental feeding only.

This product should only be given as a snack or treat, never a complete diet as it is not designed to be fed long term and could potentially be harmful. These products can be fed in conjunction with a complete and balanced diet

Principle Display Panel

The Principle display panel is the first thing you see when selecting a food – its used to grab your attention.

The Principle Display Panel is on the front of the bag (or can) of food. This will usually give you information like the name of the food, the manufacturer’s name and/or brand, the flavour of the food, a picture of it and the size/weight of the product and if it’s dog or cat food. It may contain some or all of this information and typically this is where all the fancy marketing claims come out such as “grain free” or “contains super foods” and it’s all about being eye-catching and appealing to the buyer and their tastes – not your pet. Despite this, the Principle Display Panel does contain some useful information;

Manufacturer: this actually does provide some idea of the quality of the diet. A manufacturer with a good history of quality control and strict manufacturing protocols is a good sign at the quality of the diet. Particularly big companies such as Hill’s, Royal Canin, Purina, Eukanuba and IAMS are trustworthy and have high quality diets that are stringently tested and researched before they reach the shelf. Even their cheaper ‘supermarket’ product ranges are usually still of decent quality if they come from a reputable company. Some pet food labels won’t say the manufacturer, only the brand name or company name but you should be able to locate somewhere on the package who or where it’s manufactured. If you still can’t determine it, you can Google it and investigate further, but usually you want to go with a company you trust and a recognisable name you know.

Pet food descriptor: statements like “Chicken flavour” or “tuna for cats” are actually defined legally. A product that states it is a flavour, means the food only contains 3% of the product. A diet that states “tuna” means tuna makes up 70% of the final product. So these terms are important in giving you an idea of what the food is actually made up of. Typically you want to go for something that has a higher percentage of meat, rather than just a flavour.


Stay tuned for next week where we discuss the guaranteed analysis panel, and ingredients list!

Do you ever get bamboozled by the marketing and buzzwords on pet food labels? What do you look for when selecting your pet’s food?

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