Decoding the dog food label

After reading about digestibility last week, you’re probably realizing that not all dog food is created equal. And the ambiguity of the labels on the bags and cans doesn’t make it easy to decipher the differences.

But digestibility isn’t the only factor to consider when choosing a high quality food for your best friend. The food label provides lots of information about the quality of the food inside. But you need to know how to decode it.

This week I will help you understand that label. From Guaranteed Analysis to Ingredients, from the AAFCO pledge to Dry Matter Basis, understanding these terms will make you an educated dog food consumer.

And a better pet parent.

Reading and understanding the food label is really the only way to know what you’re feeding your dog. Here’s what to look for.

Dry Matter Basis

Dog food, whether canned or kibble, has water in it. Dry food less so than wet, obviously. Canned food can be up to 80% water and dry food can be as low as 6% water. This is a huge disparity so keep that in mind if you are ever comparing a dry food to a wet food.

To figure out just how much protein, fat and fiber your dog is getting, you need to calculate the percentages of these nutrients on a dry matter basis. Basically, take the water out of the food when doing your analysis.

When calculating dry matter basis, start with the percentages of protein and fat. You’ll find this info on the Guaranteed Analysis part of the label.

We’ll use Husse Optimal as an example. Optimal has a 12% moisture content and 23% crude protein. The protein number is on an “as fed” basis meaning as it’s fed from the bag with the water content. We need to convert to a dry matter basis to see how much protein your dog is really getting.

If the dry food is 12% moisture, then 88% is dry matter. If that dry food has 23% crude protein, we divide 23% by 88% to find out how much protein it has on a dry matter basis. It’s 26% protein on a dry matter basis.

Let’s analyze an actual canned food that shall remain nameless. This food is 79% moisture—so it’s 21% dry matter—and has 8% crude protein. We divide 8% protein by 21% dry matter and we get the protein on a dry matter basis—38%.

If we were comparing these two foods and hadn’t converted to a dry matter basis, we would have assumed that the canned food had much less protein than the kibble. When in fact, canned food is typically higher in protein and lower in fiber than dry food.

Guaranteed Analysis

This section of the label is equivalent to the Nutrition Facts on people food. It tells us the nutrient content of the food.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requires pet food manufacturers to disclose the minimum amount of protein and fat, and the maximum amount of fiber and moisture in the food.

Any other nutrient guarantees in the Guaranteed Analysis are voluntary unless the manufacturer makes a claim on the label like “high in vitamin E” or “high in calcium”. Then they must support their claims by including those nutrients in the Guaranteed Analysis.

Husse Optimal’s Guaranteed Analysis includes calcium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium and omega 3 and 6, in addition to protein, fat, fiber and moisture.

The percentages in the Guaranteed Analysis are minimums and maximums but not exact amounts. AAFCO expects that there will be batch-to-batch variations.

But manufacturers must be careful to account for those fluctuations by being conservative in their estimates. If state authorities test the food, they expect those percentages to be accurate or there will be penalties.

Protein and fat are listed as crude sources, not as digestible sources. This is where digestibility percentages come in. The body will only use some of those nutrients. The digestibility of the food will affect how much the body absorbs and uses.

Ingredient List

Just like people food, dog food must be labeled with a list of the ingredients in the food in order of weight.

High quality foods will have a protein source as their first ingredient, not corn, wheat or rice. That protein source might be chicken, beef, salmon, or a chicken, beef or salmon meal. Whatever it is… be sure it’s protein.

Be careful here! This is where manufacturers can be deceitful.

If the maker breaks the ingredients down into smaller components, each one will weigh less and can be added towards the end of the list. But when grouped together, these ingredients could weigh more than the protein source.

For instance, ground corn, corn gluten and corn bran can be listed separately. If they were listed together on the ingredient list as corn, which is what they are, they would be higher on the list… possibly before the protein source.

If a manufacturer uses a protein meal, it may be further down the ingredient list if it’s considered in its dehydrated form (without moisture).

For this reason, you must read through the whole list—right to the end— to understand what’s in the food. Also, if they’ve used preservatives and artificial colorings, they’ll be listed at the end.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

AAFCO establishes standards for the production, labeling and sale of animal foods. There are two different adequacy statements that can be used on the label.

The first one which is on the Husse Optimal label, says “Optimal is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for Maintenance.”

On a puppy food label, the statement might read “This food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for Growth.”

This means the food maker tested the food in the lab and it had the recommended levels of protein, fat, etc. But… it doesn’t say what those proteins and fats are. And they could be anything.

I’ve read that manufacturers have submitted mock products to AAFCO for guaranteed analysis testing that consisted of shoe leather, motor oil and coal. They met the 10% protein, 6.5% fat, and 2.4% fiber on the guaranteed analysis but certainly weren’t nutritious… or safe.

The other permissible statement reads, “Animal-feeding tests using AAFCO’s procedures substantiate that this product provides complete and balanced nutrition for…”

To carry this label, the manufacturer must have tested the food on animals and the food provided proper nutrition. That would avoid the shoe leather and motor oil concerns, but this statement has its own problems.

With this label, a manufacturer allowed to use it on one food—a food that’s been tested on animals—can use it on any of their foods with equal or greater nutritional value, even if that food was never tested on dogs.

Neither certification gives any guarantees of nutritional quality. But at least the food has met some standards.

Feeding Instructions

The last part of the label to pay attention to is the section that tells you how much to feed your dog. These recommendations are only a starting point. Every dog is different.

Read my article How do I know how much to feed my dog? If you aren’t sure what’s right for your dog.

Or, if you’d prefer to just use the guidelines on the label, start with the middle of the suggested range and see if your dog is gaining or losing weight. Or, if they’re hungry all the time.

If in doubt, always talk with your vet. They’ll tell you how much to feed your dog… and they can help you pick a high quality food too.

Deciphering pet food labels, that are often misleading, can seem daunting. But a little knowledge can go a long way in choosing the food that will keep your dog happy and healthy.

What confuses you most about dog food labels? You’re probably not alone. Share in the comment section at the top.









3 thoughts on “Decoding the dog food label

  1. I want to be a better parent for my pet. And you’re absolutely true that through reading and understanding the food label is really the only way to be a good parent and owner to them. We can give them the right and proper food.


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