An ingredients list can be confusing, overwhelming and scary for many consumers if you don’t know what those words or ingredients actually mean or their actual definitions. It’s fast becoming a marketing ploy for companies to use their ingredient list to sway owners to purchase their product, by simplified, “dumbed down” ingredients lists and scaremongering by comparing their ingredients to other brands, appealing to owners lack of understanding on the purpose behind certain ingredients.
The first thing to remember when looking at an ingredient list, is to keep in mind everything is there for a reason. There are no inherently ‘bad’ ingredients and as you would have seen in my previous post on pet food marketing, fillers aren’t really a thing. Every ingredient has a purpose.
“The clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that part which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh. It shall be suitable for animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.”AAFCO
Basically, meat is the muscle tissue along with fat, gristle and other tissue. Meat can also include heart muscle, muscle separating heart and lungs, or any other type of muscle regardless of how unappealing it may be. Meat is also mechanically separated from bone and made into a paste similar to hot dog meat. The manufacturer is required to note what species the meat is from, unless it’s from cattle, pigs, sheep or goats.
“Rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices. It shall not contain extraneous materials not provided for by this definition. The Calcium (Ca) level shall not exceed the actual level of the Phosphorus by more than 2.2 times. It shall not contain more than 12% Pepsin indigestible residue and not more than 9% of the crude protein in the product shall be Pepsin indigestible. The label shall include guarantees for minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber, minimum Phosphorus (P) and minimum and maximum Calcium (Ca). If the product bears a name descriptive of its kind, composition or origin it must correspond thereto.”AAFCO
Meat meal, unlike meat or meat by-products doesn’t need describe what species it is from; it can be from mammals other that cattle, pigs, sheep or goats. Manufacturers can label what animal it’s from, if it is only from that animal for example “beef meal” if it only contains product from cattle.
Meat and Bone Meal
“Rendered product from mammal tissues, including bone, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices. It shall not contain extraneous materials not provided for in this definition. It shall contain a minimum of 4% Phosphorus (P) and the Calcium (Ca) level shall not be more than 2.2 times the actual Phosphorus (P) level. It shall not contain more than 12% Pepsin indigestible residue and not more than 9% of the crude protein in the product shall be pepsin indigestible. The label shall include guarantees for minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber, minimum Phosphorus (P) and minimum and maximum Calcium (C). If the product bears a name descriptive of its kind, composition or origin it must correspond thereto.”AAFCO
Meat and bone meal is very similar to “meat meal” but can also contain bone and whole carcasses in the meal, rather than just meat alone.
“The non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially de-fatted low temperature fatty tissue and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs. It shall be suitable for use in animal feed. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.”AAFCO
By-products are nutrient dense and are a fantastic source of protein. They are not hooves, hair, teeth or any other “scary” or “disgusting” part of an animals, that by-products are often given a ‘bad’ name for. Simply put, by-products are the rest of the animal other than its muscle tissue that is defined in the ‘meat’ descriptor. As is the case with meat products, unless the byproducts are derived from cattle, pigs, sheep or goats, the species must be identified. This is why you’ll often see “by-product meal” or “meat by-product” if it’s a beef or pork based diet – the company isn’t being purposely deceptive, it just isn’t legally required to be named on the label.
“The clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. It shall be suitable for use in animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto. If the bone has been removed, the process may be so designated by use of the appropriate feed term.”AAFCO
Again, this is the type of meat you’d find in the supermarket though it’s usually the less popular cuts of the bird, like necks and backs. Unlike the meat definition, poultry can contain bone, which is a fantastic source of calcium – if the bone is removed, it will be called deboned poultry on the label. If a particular species of bird is used, the common name such as chicken or turkey may also be included.
“Animal fats are obtained from the tissues of mammals and/or poultry in the commercial process of rendering.”AAFCO
Fats are used to add flavour and added nutrients, particularly essential fatty acids and support the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Examples of animal fats include beef fat, chicken fat and fish oil. You may also encounter animal fat or poultry fat, beef tallow or lard.
Vegetable or plant based fats usually come in the form of vegetable oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil or canola oil.
Again, you can read more about carbs in other posts but as I’ve covered previously, grains and carbs are not bad for your pet. In most cases, these ingredients are included for a source of fibre. The main sources you’ll see in your ingredient list are;
• chicory root is 68% inulin by weight, contains FOS and acts as a prebiotic
• beet pulp is a high fibre, low sugar by-product from beet pulp used in horse feeds
• fructooligosaccharide sometimes labelled FOS that is a prebiotic fibre source
• powdered cellulose and inulin
Vitamins and minerals:
As vitamins and minerals are not often just added in supplement form, or even labelled as their common name. Sometimes you’ll notice words you don’t recognise or scientific names of things that provide certain nutrients rather than the actual nutrient itself. Occasionally the package will say an ingredient is a source of something, which is helpful but not always…this is where I see most clients start to panic and get stressed that these ingredients are “bad” or that they are “nasty chemicals”. This isn’t the case. Some examples of vitamins and minerals that are often listed by the compound that supplies that nutrient are:
· cholecalciferol supplies Vitamin D from animal sources
· ergocalciferol supplies Vitamin D from plant sources
· riboflavin source of Vitamin B2
· alpha-tocopherol acetate supplies Vitamin E
· thiamine mononitrate source of Vitamin B1
· pyridoxine hydrochloride source of Vitamin B6
These are often used as conditioning agents, thickeners, emulsifiers, sequestrants, flavors and seasonings. Some of these also get bad names because they sound dangerous or clients often question why they are “necessary” in the food.
· carrageenan is used as a gelling and thickening agent, extracted from red seaweed. It is not linked to cancer if used in food, there is a different form used to treat peptic ulcers that is linked to cancer but this is not the form they use in food. Again it’s a common cause for concern from clients when they see it’s added to pet food.
· propylene glycol is allowed in dog food only, propylene glycol is unsafe for cats and is prohibited from use in cat food
· sodium hexametaphosphate is used as an enzymatic dental cleaner that is commonly included in VOHC approved dental products
· agar-agar is a gelatin like product that is often include in wet foods or jelly style canned food
· guar gum is a natural gum extracted from guar bean and is used to prevent separation during the manufacturing process
· common spices and extracts such as ginger, chamomile, fennel and rosemary can be used to add natural flavours
“Generally regarded as safe” ingredients:
This status is based on a safe history of common use in food or feed prior to 1958 (the year American Congress passed a law defining food additives and GRAS substances). Some GRAS ingredients are listed in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations such as spices but many others are obviously safe for use and don’t need to be ‘regulated’ such as sugar and vinegar, despite no one ever officially proving safety.
A GRAS substance can be proven to be safe with sufficient scientific evidence in the public domain which means it is published so that qualified experts can examine it.
Some examples of GRAS substances in pet food include:
· copper sulfate used for supplying copper to the animal’s diet
· tocopherols used as a preservative
· turmeric used as pet food flavoring or seasoning
What ingredients do you find confusing when reading a package? Do you avoid certain ingredients? Did my post help you understand what certain ingredients are for? Leave a comment below!
If you found this post helpful, why not buy me a coffee to help support my work? Your small donation goes back into supporting my studies in animal nutrition and teaching more veterinary professionals about nutrition!
AAFCO Talks Pet Food. Available at: https://talkspetfood.aafco.org/whatisinpetfood
Tufts Petfoodology blog (2019) Stop reading your pet food’s ingredients list. Available at: https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2019/03/stop-reading-your-pet-food-ingredient-list/
Tufts Petfoodology blog (2016) Why you shouldn’t judge a pet food by it’s ingredient list. Available at: https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2016/06/why-you-shouldnt-judge-a-pet-food-by-its-ingredient-list/
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