Dog Food Nutrition: Making Sense of Label Lingo

You’re a responsible pooch parent. You make regularly scheduled appointments with the vet. You keep Roscoe well-groomed, and he has more toys than most human children. You want to feed him well, too, but that’s where the trouble starts. Reading a dog food nutrition label can seem like reading a foreign language and, sometimes, it’s just as enlightening. When you’re trying to stay on top of dog food nutrition, it helps to know how to understand labels.

The Misunderstood First Ingredient

Most people look for the first ingredient on a dog food nutrition label to be meat, but that can be misleading. Though the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center1 confirms that the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) does require ingredients in dog food be listed in descending order starting with the ingredient that weighs the most, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the first ingredient on the list is the primary ingredient. The meat’s weight includes a significant amount of water weight, and the natural water content is almost entirely removed during processing, even in premium dog food brands. Additionally, pay attention to ingredients immediately following the first item on the dog food nutrition label. For instance, two or more grain products listed after chicken as the main ingredient likely means that grain, not chicken, is the primary ingredient.

Not All Byproducts Are Created Equal

Consumers have been conditioned to steer clear of byproducts, but you should find out what those byproducts are. For example, Web MD2 points out that liver is considered a byproduct, and it’s a nutritionally valuable one that is used in many natural dog food brands and premium dog food brands. If a label is vague about exactly what byproducts are used, contact the company and request more detailed nutritional information. Most commercial dog food nutrition labels include a phone number or at least a web address where you can find or request the information you’re looking for.

Deciphering the Chemistry Lingo

Even when in a sealed bag, the fat in dry food can go stale and even rancid. That’s why synthetic preservatives such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and ethoxyquin are in many dog foods, even premium dog food brands. If you don’t want to feed your dog food that contains artificial preservatives, look for ones that list natural preservatives. However, you might not find “vitamin E,” “vitamin C” or rosemary extract on a dog food label. Instead, keep an eye out for more words from chemistry class such as mixed tocopherols (vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). These natural preservatives are healthier for your pooch, although natural dog food brands that use them instead of synthetic preservatives typically have a shorter shelf life.

Listen to the Experts

When it comes to nutritional claims, the most reliable and valid ones are those based on feeding tests. After all, the best dry dog food is one that’s been fed in supervised tests and has maintained or improved canine health. The North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine3 says that when a dog food passes a feeding test you can trust the safety of the ingredients and know that it’s formulated appropriately. Also, when doing a dog food nutrition comparison, always look for food that’s gone through the AAFCO for testing.

1 http://vet.osu.edu/vmc/companion/our-services/nutrition-support-service/understanding-pet-food-labels
2 http://pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/how-to-read-a-dog-food-label?page=2
3 http://www.cvm.ncsu.edu/news/2011-03-01-CVM-Nutrition-Expert-on-What-to-Look-for-in-Pet-Food.html