Decoding pet food labels – part 2

Continuing from my last post, decoding pet food labels is an involved process. There’s a lot of information on the label and not all of it is as important as manufacturers will have you think. This post explains, in simple terms, the guaranteed analysis panel and ingredients list; it is by no means comprehensive, particularly when discussing ingredients as this could be written as a post all on its own.

Guaranteed Analysis

An infographic on what information is displayed on the Guaranteed Analysis panel. (Tufts University, 2018)

The guaranteed analysis panel gives you an idea of the minimums and maximums of nutrients that a diet contains. This is more of a regulatory requirement rather than giving an idea of the content of the diet. Some people say the guaranteed analysis is the best way to compare diets, however this isn’t necessarily the case; if you try to compare say a wet and dry diet, the percentages will be completely different, especially the moisture content, and this won’t tell you the quality or nutrient density of the diet’s when compared to eachother. The main thing you can use the guaranteed analysis panel for is really to work out the minimum or maximum weight of a nutrient in the food. For the average pet owner, this information isn’t terribly helpful though. If you want to actually know the exact amounts (rather than a min or max) of nutrients, which is far more helpful as a side by side comparison and if your pet needs targeted nutrient levels, I’d recommend asking the manufacturer for a ‘Typical Analysis’. This gives you an average amount of every nutrient in the diet across multiple tests – if a company can provide this, the manufacturer, and the diet is usually very good as it means they are performing multiple, rigorous quality control tests and feeding trials to determine these analyses and are investing in vast amounts of research on their products. Smaller, newer, companies rarely provide this information because they don’t usually have fixed recipes to be able to provide a typical analysis across multiple tests and batches. Veterinary prescription diets have this information available from the manufacturer as they always have fixed recipes and carry out testing on every single batch.

Ingredients

Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

Ingredients! Everyone is so worried about ingredients! And let me tell you a secret…forget the ingredients. Honestly. In majority of cases, this section of the pet food label is the absolute least important part. This is because unless your pet has a diagnosed allergy to a component of food, the ingredients should not form any part of your decision in choosing a diet for your pet. This is because this list is simply a legal document that lists ingredients in descending order by their pre-processing weight. It actually provides no information on the quality of the diet. Often companies will try to make this list look better than it really is to appeal to pet owners. Some tricks and traps to be aware of are:

  • Meat as the first ingredient: Some manufacturers even place this on the front of the label as a claim to fame! They use this to make pet parents think this means the diet contains mostly meat therefore is more natural or better for your pet. A diet with meat listed as the first ingredient does NOT mean the diet contains more meat or protein than a diet with meat as the third or fourth ingredient. Remember, the ingredients label is listing pre-processing weight, so this means ‘meat’ contains more water in pre-processing than a meat meal, therefore will be heavier and higher on the ingredients list – it does not mean the diet is richer in protein or nutrients, simply higher in moisture. In fact, meat meals are far more nutrient dense than meat alone, so a diet containing meat meals is usually higher in protein AND nutrients than a diet with ‘meat as the first ingredient’.
  • ‘Whole food’ ingredients: If you see “whole chicken” as the first ingredient, this is simply because whole chicken is a lot heavier (see above), and it looks more appealing to owners than meals or by-products. Chicken by-product or by-product meal is actually higher in protein than whole chicken.
  • “No by-products”: By-products are not bad! The AAFCO definition is ‘meat by-product allows this ingredient to include organ meat and bone but not intestinal contents, hair, horns, teeth, or hooves.’ Despite this clear definition, many pet owners believe by-products to contain unfavourable ingredients and some pet food labels will perpetuate this myth as above with using whole food ingredients on the label instead.
  • Ingredient splitting: Diets that contain ingredients from the same source can be split into component parts on the ingredient list which makes it almost impossible to tell how much of each ingredient is present, or where its actually sourced from.
  • Lots of ingredients: Often manufacturers will add lots of ingredients or add ingredients to appeal to the pet owner. Ingredients such as “apple, carrot, blueberries” or anything claiming to contain superfoods (one of the latest trends I’ve noticed) have unproven benefits and likely are present in miniscule amounts, which provide nothing to the diet but added expense. More ingredients also means more quality control (and more time and expense) is necessary adding more potential for issues in formulation.

So there you have it, just a few hot tips to look out for when deciphering a pet food label. Next time you pick up a bag or can of pet food, you’ll hopefully have a better idea of what is a marketing tactic, and what is actually important to look for. There is so many marketing techniques that I could write about all day, but the main takeaway is don’t place too much stock in your ingredient label, and always look for an AAFCO statement, and research the manufacturers of your pet’s food.


What do you look for when selecting your pet’s food?

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