You've probably been told that you need to read the labels on the pet food you're feeding carefully to determine which one is best. But what exactly are you supposed to be looking for? You'll find all sorts of stuff on the internet about what percentages you're supposed to have and what ingredient lists should look like and what should and shouldn't be in there. Is any of that true?
Basically the answer is no. The vast majority of what's on the label of your pet's food is marketing to try to get you to spend more money. This is going to be a long post but it's important to understand why we can't trust the labels because a lot of people are trying to do what's best for their pet and thinking that because there's x, y, and z on the label it's a good food and they're actually just paying a lot of money for foods that aren't very good for their pets.
The first thing to realize about the pet food industry is that it's essentially a “self-regulating” industry. Yes there are official regulations and requirements that exist but there's extremely little enforcement of them. Unless animals start dying nobody really cares what is or isn't in there and whether or not the label is accurate. So companies can put pretty much whatever they want on the label. Things like “human grade” and “organic” sound nice, are they true? It says it's beef but is it? They've actually done studies checking proteins in various foods and about 1/3 of the foods are incorrectly labeled and either don't contain the protein they claim to or contain additional proteins not on the label.
Now there is something called AAFCO which you'll see on label. Most foods will say on them somewhere something like “Meets AAFCO standards for all life stages” or “Meets AAFCO standards for maintenance”. People sometimes thinks this means the food has gone through some sort of testing. Nope. AAFCO is just an organization which publishes some nutritional standards for minimum and maximum amounts of things that should be in pet food for various life stages. They don't regulate, test, certify or approve anything. So there were tests in the 1950's where they figured out if you feed less than a certain amount of Vitamin A to growing puppies they develop problems. They went through all the vitamins and minerals and figured out the minimum and maximum amount they needed to not have obvious problems. So a pet food company just looks at these numbers and formulates a diet that meets these minimums and maximums at least theoretically and voila! They have a diet that meets AAFCO standards for all life stages. Now those vitamins and minerals may not be are in a form that's actually digestible and usable by the animal but it was formulated on paper to meet the standards so they get to put that on there and it's not even untrue.
Now everyone knows that protein, fat and carbohydrates percentages are important and that we're looking for higher protein and fat and lower carbohydrates in food for dogs and cats since that's what their bodies are made to eat. So you just look at the back of the package and pick the one with the highest protein percentage right? Unfortunately it's not that simple. If you look closely you'll see that it says Crude Protein (min.). So that means it's at least that much but could be more, how much more we don't know. So if Food A says 25% minimum Crude Protein and Food B is 30% minimum Crude Protein Food A could actually be 32% and Food B could actually be just 30%. Now they can do an actual analysis of it and figure out the exact numbers but that would be slightly different for every batch so it would be expensive to do that so that's why they just use those minimum and maximums but it means you don't really know how much of anything is in there.
Even if you knew the true amount that's still just Crude Protein. To do these guaranteed analysis they actually take the food and do a series of tests and chemical reactions to remove different components. To figure out the Crude Protein they use a chemical which basically pulls out all nitrogen containing stuff in the food. Since proteins all contain nitrogen it's a good rough (Crude) measure of protein. The key point there is that it's rough. Just because it contains a lot of nitrogen (Crude Protein) doesn't mean that all that protein is digestible and actually usable by the animal. So even if you got the actual analysis you still wouldn't know how much high quality digestible protein your pet was actually going to be getting.
The other thing that makes it really difficult to tell which food has more protein or lower carbohydrates is the moisture content. Those minimums and maximums in the Guaranteed Analysis section are on what's called an “As Fed Basis”, it's for the food just as it is in the package. So for dry kibble it's only 5-10% water so all the other numbers look much higher since it all totals to 100%. For canned foods the moisture content is 30-40% so the rest of the numbers are going to look lower. It's like if you had a granola bar and a bowl of stew. Let's say the granola bar has 6 grams of protein and the stew has 24 grams. If you compare them without the water on what we call a “Dry Matter Basis” it's clear that the stew has more protein. But if you do it on an “As Fed Basis” the granola bar might have say 50% protein because there's very little water so it's mostly protein, fat and carbohydrates whereas the stew might be more like 20% protein since it's mostly water "As Fed". Now you can do some math and convert the percentages they give you from “As Fed” to “Dry Matter” so you can actually compare apples to apples but that's quite a bit of work and even after you convert it it's still just those minimums and maximums so may not actually be the correct percentages anyways.
Ok so the percentages aren't very helpful but I can just look for meat as the first ingredient and it's a good food, right? Nope. That ingredient list is done by weight of the raw ingredients. Which gets tricky because meat and bone are a lot denser (so show up higher in the ingredient list) than your carbohydrates. So for example take a theoretical food made with 1 cup of uncooked ground beef which weighs about 8 oz, 1 cup of uncooked rice which weighs about about 6 oz, some olive oil (1 oz let's say) and vitamins and minerals (0.5 oz let's say). Beef would technically be the first ingredient here but there's an awful lot of carbohydrates in that food. Another issue with the ingredient list is that they only have to list ingredients that make up 2% or more of the weight. This is why they don't have to list the chicken fat that gets sprayed on dry food at the end. All dry food has to have fat sprayed onto it at the end because the high heat it's cooked at actually cooks out all the fat. So in order to get fat and fat soluble vitamins back into it they have to spray fat on at the end. And chicken fat is the cheapest way to do it so that's industry standard. But you won't see chicken or chicken fat (very common food allergens for dogs and cats) on the label on many of the fancy expensive dry foods because it's less than 2% by weight so they don't have to include it.
Well I get one of the really expensive foods that's made with organic, human grade ingredients so it's a good food, right? Not necessarily. Remember how there's really no enforcement of label regulations in this industry? So USDA doesn't certify pet foods as Organic. They certify human foods and that's why you'll see USDA Certified Organic and you'll see that logo on human foods but they don't look at pet foods. So if a food says it's “organic” it's just marketing. Human grade isn't a real thing either. There's no legal or regulatory definition of “human grade”. It's just marketing. Now there is legal and regulatory stuff about what is and isn't “Human edible” which is pretty strict. If anything not human edible is added (like ground bone for example) the whole thing becomes human inedible. Any food claiming to be edible for humans has to follow strict federal regulations that govern the manufacturing, packaging and storage which are expensive and time consuming so not really a priority for companies when they can just put “human grade” on the package and charge you extra without having to actually spend any additional time or money on their end- more profits for them!
People always ask me what brands I recommend and now you can see why I don't recommend any specific brands. If I recommended them I would need to know what was in them and trust them but there's no way to do that from just reading the label.
Stay tuned and we'll go through some common myths about pet food ingredients!