How to Read Pet Food Labels?

Anyone who has ever shopped for pet food knows, nowadays there are numerous pet food brands with countless types of ingredients for us to pick from, be it cat food or dog food. The labels are particularly helpful when you are choosing pet food, but they can sometimes be difficult to understand.

Learning how to read pet food labels can assist us in choosing the right pet food for our fur friends.

The Format of Pet Food Label

Generally, all cat foods and dog foods have a similar labelling format which should include the following:

What does this list mean and how do we read all these pet food labels? Let us look into each of them one at a time.

Product Name

Many products highlight the presence of an ingredient or ingredients because a lot of pet owners usually buy pet food based on a specific ingredient. However, the actual amount of the highlighted ingredient in the food can differ, with the presence of some words in the product name. For instance, there is a huge difference between “Chicken Cat Food” and “Chicken Flavour Cat Food”, can you identify what difference it is? 

There are four rules the pet food companies must follow when labelling their product names, which is as per The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)’s rules:

1. The 95 Percent Rule:

Named ingredients must make up at least 95% of the product, excluding the water added during manufacturing; and at least 70% of the product when counting the water. Pet foods with the 95 percent rule usually have simple names such as “Chicken Cat Food”, “Chicken and Liver Dog Food”.

The remaining 5% of the food usually would be synthetic vitamins and minerals, thickening agents and preservatives etc.

Some pet food, like GraceFull RAW Freeze-Dried Pet Food, is made up of 100% pure meat, with no additives such as preservatives and seasonings.

2. The 25 Percent Rule:

Product names such as “Salmon Dinner for Cat”, “Chicken Plate” or “Beef Entrée” are the ones that fall under this rule. They consist of named ingredients with less than 95% but at least 25% (does not include the added water, 10% when counting added water) of the product.

3. The “3%” or “With” Rule:

For instance, a product whose name includes “with tuna” must have at least 3% of tuna in the product. Thus, pet food with a name like “Lamb Dinner with Cheese” suggests that there are at least 25% of lamb and 3% of cheese in the food.

4. The “Flavour” Rule:

As the name itself suggests, the named ingredient merely provides flavour hence just a little amount is needed. A product with a name like “Chicken Flavour Cat Food” may not even have real chicken inside, but with “chicken digest” which is a concentrated flavour enhancer.

So, can you tell what is the difference between “Chicken Cat Food” and “Chicken Flavour Cat Food”? I am sure you are now well aware that the first one consists of at least 95% chicken while the latter name consists of very little or even no actual chicken meat.

Thus, we must be mindful of every word in a pet product name because a single word can make a huge difference.

Net Quantity

The net quantity shows you how much of the food is in the container, without considering the packaging and/or any desiccants and oxygen absorbers. It can be stated in terms of weight, liquid measure or count.

Ingredient List

Ingredient list is one of the must-read pet food labels.

The most important ingredients that make up a large portion of the pet food must be animal protein sources because cats and dogs need animal proteins to thrive. Cats, especially, require more animal proteins than dogs in their diets.

Every ingredient must be listed individually i.e., terms indicating collective ingredients like “animal products” are not allowed. Instead, it should use terms like chicken, salmon, lamb etc..

All ingredients must be shown in order according to their weight from heaviest to lightest. Unfortunately, this includes their inherent water content; in other words, the weight before an ingredient is processed into the final product.

So, we must be cautious not to be tricked by clever wordplay. For instance, ingredients like deboned chicken, whole fish and beef are likely to be listed first, because they are full of moisture which adds weight. On the other hand, some pet food especially kibbles use meat meal powder as the main protein source. As dried powder is light in weight, it may not be listed as the first few ingredients.

Hence, it can be difficult to tell if protein actually constitutes a large portion of the final product since the protein sources are weighed before processing and moisture can then be removed during the process.

The picture is not complete by just looking at the ingredients in pet food.

This is where “Guaranteed Analysis” comes into play. By looking at both labels “Ingredient List” and “Guaranteed Analysis” together, you will understand better whether the product is the one for your pets.

Guaranteed Analysis

As per AAFCO, guaranteed analysis must at least provide information on four nutrients:

  • Minimum percentages of crude protein
  • Minimum percentages of crude fat
  • Maximum percentages of crude fibre
  • Maximum percentages of moisture

Some pet foods, although not required, voluntarily disclose the maximum percentages of crude ash, other vitamins and minerals such as taurine.

Guaranteed analysis does not necessarily give the actual amount of a nutrient because the percentages of nutrients are stated at either minimum level (for protein and fat) or maximum level (for fibre and moisture). For instance, pet food with 30% of crude protein (minimum) in the guaranteed analysis indicates that the food can contain 30% protein or more, say, 35% or 40%.

Guaranteed analysis are normally declared on an “as fed” or “as is” basis, which means nutrient levels are measured including all the water or moisture. When comparing the amounts of nutrients in different pet foods, it is important to evaluate them in the absence of moisture content i.e., on a “dry matter basis”. This is especially helpful in making a meaningful comparison between wet and dry foods because wet pet food has a much higher level of moisture than dry pet food.

A higher level of water content means the nutrients are more diluted. Therefore, most of the time, the protein percentage and other nutrients on the label of wet canned food are significantly lower than the ones labelled on dry food.

The steps of converting a guaranteed analysis from an “as fed” basis to a “dry matter basis” are as follows:

  1. Calculate the percentage of “dry matter” in a product. Use 100% minus the percentage of moisture stated on the label.
  2. Divide the percentage of a nutrient (e.g. protein) stated on the label by the percentage of “dry matter”. Then, multiple by 100.

Let us look at an example:

A wet canned food guarantees 11% crude protein and 70% moisture. This means it has 30% dry matter (100%-70%).

A dry food guarantees 30% crude protein and 10% moisture. This means it has 90% dry matter (100%-10%).

Which one has more crude protein?

The dry matter crude protein of the wet food is 37% (11%/30% x 100), while the one in dry food is 33% (30%/90% x 100).

At first glance on both the labels, the dry food seems to have more protein at 30% while the wet food has only 11%. However, when converted into a dry matter basis (water is removed), the protein in the wet food is actually higher than the dry food i.e., 37% vs 33%.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

One of the most common statements found on a “main meal pet food” is “complete and balanced”. “Complete” means the pet food contains all the nutrients that a cat or dog needs. “Balanced” means all the nutrients in the pet food are formulated in correct ratios. The daily nutrition needs of a pet differ according to life stage or age.

For pet food that is not designed to be a “complete and balanced” diet, it should be labelled accordingly with its intended purpose. For example, booster, supplemental food, snack and treats.

Other than the above, a nutritional adequacy statement also includes:

1) Life stages the food is suitable for, whereby any of the following may appear:

  • Lactation/Gestation (for pregnant or nursing pets)
  • Growth (for kittens and puppies)
  • Maintenance (for normal adult pets who are not engaging in vigorous activity)
  • Senior
  • All life stages

2) Species or breed of a cat or dog:

Most of the commercial pet foods are suitable for all breeds of cats or dogs. The difference between all-breed pet food and breed-specific pet food is not much, although a breed-specific diet could provide some benefits for a few special breeds.

Feeding Directions

This pet food label shows the amount you should feed your pets. Feeding directions can be different among pet foods as they are all formulated in different ways.

However, we should note that feeding directions are merely a general guideline. The amount of feeding may be adjusted according to the cat or dog’s situation such as breed, lifestyle, health issues and many other factors.

A pet food label should also state the expiry date or date of best-used-by because expired pet food can be harmful to your cat or dog.

Manufacturer or Distributor’s Information

The “Manufactured by…” or “Distributed by…” statement identifies the company responsible for the quality and safety of the pet food. It also discloses the company contact so that a customer can easily reach out to the company for any queries.

Conclusion: How to Read Pet Food Labels

By the end of this article, I hope you have learnt how to read pet food labels. We should not only read the front label which normally includes brand name, product name, flavour and the marketing claims such as “all-natural”, “grain-free“, “organic”, but also the labels at the back like ingredients and nutrition facts which will reveal more information about the pet food.

Our pets can’t read pet food labels. They rely on us to make the right decision in choosing the best diet for them. So, reading and understanding the pet food labels is vital because our choice will have a lasting impact on their overall well-being and health.

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