How to Understand Pet Food Label Ingredients – the basics
Sung to the tune of ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’ (Tomato, To-mah-to, Potato, Po-tah-to)…
I say Premium,
You say Natural,
I say Kibble,
You say Canned,
Premium, Natural, Kibble, Canned,
Let’s call the whole thing off.
You walk into the pet store, stroll towards the dog food section or cat food section; the confusion begins. Hundreds of different varieties; your heart starts to race, you begin to feel light headed; how are you going to choose? Your mind is screaming ‘I don’t know how to decide! Someone Help Me!’ Fear no more, weary pet owner. Welcome to Understanding Pet Food Label Ingredients 101.
The first rule of pet food selection is to ignore the front of the bag or can. The quality of nutrition a pet food can provide to your dog or cat, can ONLY be as quality as the ingredients IN the pet food. Bypass all the pictures of ingredients on the front of the food label, and look for the ingredient list on the back or side of the pet food. Understanding just a few things about this ingredient list can help you find a healthier food for your pet.
Ingredients are listed on a pet food label in order of pre-cooking weight; heaviest to lightest. The first five or so ingredients – by weight – make up the majority of the pet food. Some pet food ingredients can be considered a red flag; a potential health risk to your pet. Other ingredients are not ‘red flag’; however, they provide the pet with little to no quality nutrition. Learning to spot these ingredients is easier than you think.
Here is an example list of ingredients in a dry cat food:
Chicken, Chicken Meal, Brewers Rice, Corn Gluten Meal, Ground Corn, Animal Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols), Natural Flavor, Beet Pulp, Dried Egg Product, Canola Oil, Potassium Chloride, Vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, L-Ascorbyl-2 Polyphosphate, Niacin, Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamin Mononitrate, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Riboflavin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Folic Acid, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement), Choline Chloride, Minerals (Zinc Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Manganese Sulfate, Calcium Iodate, Sodium Selenite), Dicalcium Phosphate, Taurine.
In a bold type, are the first six ingredients. Chicken and Chicken Meal are meat ingredients providing a cat with essential meat protein. Chicken is obviously chicken meat; Chicken Meal is chicken meat with the moisture removed. Any meat contains a high amount of moisture, up to 70% moisture. Chicken Meal is chicken with the moisture removed and thus provides the dog or cat with more protein nutrition by weight. These are both quality ingredients.
The next three ingredients, Brewers Rice, Corn Gluten Meal, Ground Corn, are grains that provide little to no nutrition to a cat (or dog if this was a dog food). None are ‘bad’ pet food ingredients, that is, unless the corn gluten meal came from China. Seeing this ingredient means you need to call the manufacturer to learn the Country of Origin of the pet food ingredients. You should also be aware that any grain ingredient in pet food is at risk to contain a deadly mold, aflatoxin. Pet owners that feed their dog or cat a food that includes grains must trust that the manufacturer did proper testing for aflatoxin contamination of grains. Pet food regulations do not require this testing, it is only recommended.
The next ingredient is Animal Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols). The pet food ingredient animal fat was determined by the FDA to be one of several ingredients that are commonly known to contain a diseased euthanized animal, AND the drug used to kill the animal. When you see Animal Fat listed in the ingredients of a dog food or cat food, unless you want to take the chance of feeding your pet a sick, euthanized animal, AND lethal drugs, look for another pet food.
Here’s another example pet food label ingredient list, this is a dry dog food:
Chicken meal, ground rice, pearled barley, chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols), lamb digest, salt, potassium chloride, yeast culture, minerals (zinc proteinate, ferrous sulfate, zinc oxide, iron proteinate, manganese proteinate, manganous oxide, copper sulfate, copper proteinate, calcium iodate, sodium selenite), vitamins (vitamin E supplement, L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate, inositol, niacin supplement, vitamin A supplement, d-calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, beta carotene, riboflavin supplement, pyridoxine hydrochloride, menadione sodium bisulfite complex, vitamin D3 supplement, folic acid, biotin, vitamin B12 supplement), choline chloride, yucca schidigera extract, rosemary extract.
Ground rice is not a bad ingredient, however, brown rice would be better. ‘Rice’ listed on a pet food label would be white rice unless it specifies brown rice; white rice is processed and provides little nutrition. Pearled barley is an ingredient that provides protein and vitamins. Barley can be an allergen to some pets. Chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols) is a good ingredient, preserved naturally. Lamb digest is a rendered ingredient that can contain diseased, euthanized animals per a FDA report (as well as any other animal digest ingredient); this is another suggested ingredient to avoid.
Zinc Proteinate is a mineral that has been altered to enable the body to absorb the mineral easier. Chelated or proteinated minerals in a dog food or cat food is considered optimal.
Later in the ingredient listing is menadione sodium bisulfite; this is a synthetic vitamin K linked to serious disease. Another suggested ingredient to avoid.
Here is another example pet food label ingredient list, a dry cat food:
Ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, chicken by-product meal, meat and bone meal, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), soybean meal, turkey by-product meal, brewers dried yeast, phosphoric acid, animal digest, tetra sodium pyrophosphate, potassium chloride, salt, dried chicken liver, added color (Red 40, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Blue 2 and other color), choline chloride, taurine, zinc sulfate, ferrous sulfate, Vitamin E supplement, niacin, manganese sulfate, calcium carbonate, Vitamin A supplement, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate (Vitamin B-1), copper sulfate, riboflavin supplement (Vitamin B-2), Vitamin B-12 supplement, pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B-6), folic acid, Vitamin D-3 supplement, calcium iodate, biotin, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), sodium selenite.
Ingredients to take note of in this pet food, which have not been previously discussed, are chicken by-product meal. By-products are NOT meat; according to the ingredient definition, they are left-over pieces of an animal not used for human consumption. Meat ingredients are optimal for your pet, left-over animal parts are not; this is another suggested ingredient to avoid. Meat and bone meal is another ingredient on the FDA list that can contain a euthanized diseased animal and the lethal drug used to kill the animal; an ingredient to avoid. Red 40, Yellow 6, and so on are added dyes in this pet food; pet food dyes are scientifically linked to serious disease.
There are three other red flag ingredients in this pet food ingredient list, can you spot them? They were mentioned earlier.
Answer: Animal fat, animal digest and menadione sodium bisulfite.
What else in the above example pet food ingredient list is less than optimal?
Answer: Corn gluten meal, could be a dangerous Chinese imported ingredient; minerals are not chelated or proteinated for better absorption. This pet food contains NO meat (none, zero, zippo). According to pet food ingredient definitions set by AAFCO, a by-product meal and meat and bone meal are NOT meat.
One more thing that makes this example pet food ingredient list, and all of the previous example pet food ingredient lists above, less than optimal is that none of these pet foods contain probiotics. Probiotics are friendly bacteria that science has proven to benefit the immune system of humans and animals. Here is a list of some probiotics that are used in pet food (what to look for on the label): Lactobacillus Acidophilus Fermentation Product, Lactobacillus Casei Fermentation Product, Bifido Bacterium Fermentation Product, Enterococcus Faecium Fermentation Product, Aspergillus Oryzae Fermentation Product.
Here is another pet food ingredient list, a dry dog food:
Ground Whole Corn, Meat and Bone Meal, Corn Gluten Meal, Animal Fat (preserved with BHA/BHT), Ground Wheat, Natural Poultry Flavor, Wheat Flour, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Carmel Color, Vegetable Oil (Source of Linoleic Acid), Rice, Wheat Gluten, Vitamins (Choline Chloride, dl-Alpha Tocopherol Acetate [Source of Vitamin E], L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate [Source of Vitamin C*], Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Biotin, d-Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin Supplement [Vitamin B2], Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement), Minerals (Zinc Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Potassium Iodide), menadione bisulfite, Added FD&C and Lake Colors (Yellow 6, Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5).
Your turn; can you spot the red flag ingredients in this dog food?
Answer: Meat and bone meal, animal fat – plus this ingredient is preserved with BHA/BHT, a chemical linked to tumors and cancer; and menadione bisulfite.
What other less than optimal ingredients are in this dog food?
Answer: There is NO meat in the dog food, minerals are not chelated or proteinated for better absorption, no probiotics, and it contains added dyes.
See? You can do this. It’s not difficult; it just takes a little understanding of ingredients.
Now, let’s look at some canned foods. Some pet food experts firmly believe that every dog and cat should be eating canned foods only; one reason is that canned foods provide the pet with lots of moisture. Cats especially can benefit from the moisture. Most of the ingredients in canned dog foods and cat foods are similar; however canned foods do not contain probiotics.
Here is an example list of ingredients from a canned cat food:
Chicken, Chicken Broth, Sunflower Oil, Salt, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Tricalcium Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Choline Chloride, Taurine, Iron Sulfate, Zinc Sulfate, Vitamin E Supplement, Manganese Sulfate, Vitamin B1 Supplement, Vitamin B2 Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid.
Every canned food contains a broth or water ingredient; typically it makes up 75% to 85% of the contents of the can. Guar Gum is not a bad ingredient, it is used as a thickening ingredient, however, provides little to no nutrition. Minerals in this canned cat food are not chelated or proteinated. As typical in canned foods, it does not contain probiotics.
Here is another example list of ingredients from a canned dog food:
Turkey, Chicken, Chicken Broth, Brown Rice, Potatoes, Carrots, Herring, Natural Flavors, Whole Eggs, Apples, Alfalfa Sprouts, Cottage Cheese, Guar Gum, Potassium Chloride, Sunflower Oil, Seaweed Extract, Sodium Phosphate, Garlic, Vitamin C, Inulin, Sea Salt, Choline Chloride, Beta Carotene, Vitamins/Minerals.
Can you spot the differences in this canned food compared to the above canned food? Do you see any potential risk ingredients?
Answer: The difference in this canned food and the above canned food (other than being a dog food, above is a cat food) is the number of meat proteins included in this food. This second canned pet food lists four meat protein sources; turkey, chicken, herring, and egg. Variety of protein is a bonus for your pet. This second canned food also contains two health promoting ingredients; alfalfa and seaweed. The potential risk ingredient is garlic; some pets have health problems associated with garlic.
Ok, think you’re ready to judge a few pet food ingredient lists? Here’s your test…look at the ingredients of both foods, take note of any risk ingredients and any health promoting ingredients (before you look at the answer!).
Two example dry cat food ingredient lists;
Ground Yellow Corn, Chicken By-product Meal, Corn Gluten Meal, Animal Fat (Preserved with BHA/BHT), Rice, Brewers Dried Yeast, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Choline Chloride, Shrimp Meal, Tuna Meal, Salmon Meal, Calcium Carbonate, dl-Methionine, Taurine, Whitefish Meal, Trace Minerals (Zinc Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Manganese Sulfate, Potassium Iodide), Vitamins (dl-Alpha Tocopherol Acetate [Source of Vitamin E], Folic Acid, Vitamin A Acetate, Niacin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement [Vitamin B2], Vitamin D3 Supplement, d-Calcium Pantothenate, Thiamine Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Biotin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride [Vitamin B6]), Red 3.
Chicken Meal, Brown Rice, Chicken Fat, (Preserved with mixed Tocopherols), Eggs, Flax Seed Meal, Fish Meal, Sun Cured Alfalfa Meal, Sunflower Oil, Chicken, Lecithin, Linoleic Acid, Amaranth, DL Methionine, Taurine, Kelp, Cranberries, Apples, Monocalcium Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Choline Chloride, Sage Extract, Yucca Schidigera Extract, Zinc Amino Acid Chelate, Manganese Amino Acid Chelate, Iron Amino Acid Chelate, Copper Amino Acid Chelate, Cobalt Amino Acid Chelate, Vitamin A supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Ascorbic Acid (source of Vitamin C), Niacin, Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (source of B2), Beta Carotene, Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Calcium Iodate, Folic Acid, D-Biotin, Sodium Selenite, Papaya, Vitamin B12 Supplement.
What is your review of these two cat food ingredient lists?
Cat Food Number 1 contains several risk ingredients; chicken by product meal, animal fat and BHA/BHT chemical preservatives, and a food dye. The minerals are not chelated, it contains no probiotics.
Cat food Number 2 contains no risk ingredients, the minerals are chelated, however, it does not contain probiotics. This food does contain several health promoting ingredients; flax seed, alfalfa, and kelp. Furthermore it contains several meat proteins; chicken, egg, and fish meal.
Ok, that was fairly easy. Here are two more pet food ingredient lists, this time two dry dog foods. Which one would you prefer for your pet?
Chicken, Chicken Meal, Whole Ground Brown Rice, Whole Ground Barley, Rye, Oatmeal, Chicken Fat (preserved with Natural Mixed Tocopherols), Potato Flour, Tomato Pomace, Whole Carrots, Whole Sweet Potatoes, Ground Flax Seed, Alfalfa, Barley Grass, Sunflower Oil (preserved with Natural Mixed Tocopherols), Calcium Phosphate, L-Carnitine, Dried Kelp, Whole Garlic Cloves, Glucosamine, Spirulina, Yucca Schidigera Extract, Green Tea Extract, Lactobacillus Acidophilus, Bacillus Subtilis, Bifidobacterium Thermophilum, Bifidobacterium Longum, Enterococcus Faecium, Zinc Amino Acid Complex (source of Chelated Zinc), Choline Chloride, Iron Amino Acid Complex (source of Chelated Iron), Turmeric, Vitamin E Supplement, Manganese Amino Acid Complex (source of Chelated Manganese), Beta Carotene, Copper Amino Acid Complex (source of Chelated Copper), Potassium Amino Acid Complex (source of Chelated Potassium), Vitamin B12 Supplement, Vitamin A Supplement, Calcium Ascorbate (source of Vitamin C), Niacin, Calcium Pentothenate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine Hydrochloride, Potassium Iodide, Biotin, Cobalt Proteinate (source of Chelated Cobalt), Vitamin D3 Supplement, Sodium Selenite.
Turkey, Brewers Rice, Ground Whole Grain Sorghum, Potato, Ground Whole Grain Barley, Chicken Meal, Fish Meal, Chicken Fat (preserved with mixed Tocopherols, a source of Vitamin E), Dried Beet Pulp, Chicken Flavor, Dried Egg Product, Fish Oil (preserved with mixed Tocopherols, a source of Vitamin E), Potassium Chloride, Brewers Dried Yeast, Salt, Vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, Ascorbic Acid, Beta-Carotene, Vitamin A Acetate, Calcium Pantothenate, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate (source of vitamin B1), Niacin, Riboflavin Supplement (source of vitamin B2), Inositol, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (source of vitamin B6), Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid), Sodium Hexametaphosphate, Choline Chloride, Dicalcium Phosphate, Minerals (Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Oxide, Manganese Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Manganous Oxide, Potassium Iodide, Cobalt Carbonate), DL-Methionine, Rosemary Extract.
Pet food Number 1 has no risk ingredients, minerals are chelated, it contains probiotics and several health promoting ingredients. However, it contains garlic. Pet food Number 2 does not contain any risk ingredients, however the minerals are not chelated, it does not contain probiotics, and it contains no health promoting ingredients. Number 2 does contain a variety of meat protein sources, Number 1 did not.
Choosing between these two foods, more plus’s are with Pet Food Number 1; Number 2 had only one advantage with variety of meat protein. If your pet has sensitivity issues with garlic however, you could not feed pet food number 1.
Once you examine pet food ingredients, and decide which one looks best to you, the next information you should discover is the grade or quality of meat ingredients AND the country of origin of all ingredients. When a dog food or cat food contains several plus’s (such as variety of meat proteins, chelated minerals, probiotics, health promoting ingredients), more than likely the pet food manufacturer is using a high quality grade of meat. By-products of any kind, by ingredient definition, are NOT a human grade of meat (not the same quality of meat you would purchase in your grocery). Despite the deadly pet food recall of 2007, and the on-going problems with Chinese imports of any kind, many pet food companies are still importing pet food ingredients from China. Call the pet food manufacturer and ask if any ingredients are sourced from outside the U.S.; if so, where? Every pet owner will have to decide if the risk is worth it; however, every pet owner doesn’t always bother to get this information. Without it, you have no clue of what risks your pet is taking.
Also take note of the ‘Best by’ date on the bag or can. Expired foods can be risky, the fresher the pet food, the better nutrition provided to your pet.
There is much more to comparing dog foods or cat foods than the above; it is only a beginning. Unfortunately, there are many pet food regulation obstacles that stand in the way. One example, pet food regulations allow nasty things like diseased animals and diseased animal parts to be camouflaged under the ingredient name by-product meal. Pet foods that contain even the tiniest piece of a diseased and/or euthanized animal are a violation of Federal law and should be prohibited. The Food and Drug Administration does NOT enforce these Federal laws that were developed to protect people and our pets; in fact, they illegally provide their permission to pet food to violate them. When you consider lax regulations and non enforcement of Federal law, pet owners are left almost defenseless; the best you can do is understand a few pet food ingredients, discover as much information as you can from the pet food manufacturer (that the label doesn’t tell you) and keep complaining to law makers.
Wishing you and your pet(s) the best,
What’s in Your Pet’s Food?
Is your dog or cat eating risk ingredients? Chinese imports? Petsumer Report tells the ‘rest of the story’ on over 2500 cat foods, dog foods, and pet treats. 30 Day Satisfaction Guarantee. www.PetsumerReport.com
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