Reading Dog Food Labels: The Ingredients List

The average dog food consumer may not do a ton of research before buying a bag of dog food, but may take the time to at least read the ingredients list before purchasing. Most dog owners will be perplexed by all the mysterious and unpronounceable words but have been told to simply look for some form of meat within the first four ingredients. They've also been told that the really good stuff will have meat as the number one ingredient. Sound familiar? Most will also assume that meat as the first ingredient means that the food is mostly made of meat. While this rudimentary label reading advice is okay, it is not necessarily accurate and things are not always what they seem. A serious question still needs to be asked:

“Are these consumers really getting what they think they are paying for?”

Unfortunately, it's not likely. This article will look at two main reasons why consumers may be being misled by the label - Basic Math and Pre vs. Post Processed Weight.

Basic Math

When reading the ingredients list the first thing you must know is that the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. In other words the first ingredient is the heaviest and they get lighter as you go down the list. So, if meat is the first ingredient there should be more of it than anything else, right? Not so fast! While meat may appear to be the most predominant ingredient, in truth this may be an illusion.

For Example: Let's say, hypothetically, that the ingredient list is Beef, Rice, Barley and Millet.  All we know from this list is that these ingredients are in descending order but we have no idea what the weight differences are. What if the relative units were 10, 9, 8 and 7? That would mean that we have 10 units of meat for every 24 units of grains. That would mean that there is more than twice as much grain as there is meat even though meat is listed as the number one ingredient. That’s just basic math and just an example of what could potentially be going on. In reality, dog food labels don’t give the amounts, only the order by weight so it’s mostly guess work. Now for another tricky and important point:

Pre vs. Post Processed Weight

Here's an important question that is often overlooked:

“At what point in the dog food manufacturing process does the weighing take place?”

This is such a vital question yet virtually no one even thinks to ask it. Why would they? I know I never even thought about it until I started to study canine nutrition in more depth. Once the light bulb goes off the next question is inevitably, “Why doesn't everybody know this?” It’s an important secret because ingredients are generally listed by PRE-processed weight. In other words they are listed before being cooked. There may be exceptions to this but manufacturers are not required to specify whether the ingredients are listed by pre or post processed weight. This is a really big deal because raw, pre-processed meat will contain approximately 70% moisture, most of which will evaporate during cooking and processing. Raw grains on the other hand have very little moisture so their weight will remain about the same throughout the process. Think about that for a minute. This means, assuming the calculations happen pre-processing, that there is approximately 70% less meat than the label would have us believe! The bigger question becomes, how far down the list would that put the meat if we measured it post-production? Unfortunately, it would slide down the list for sure, most likely just above the supplements and preservatives and that’s just because they have virtually no weight.

For Example: Let’s use our hypothetical ingredient list from above which if you recall was Beef, Rice, Barley and Millet with relative units of 10, 9, 8 and 7. Our new information tells us that the meat is actually only about 3 units after processing and the grains will remain close to a total of 24 units since they are already dry when weighed. A quick recalculation tells us that 3 units of meat to every 24 units of grain is a whopping eight times more grains than meat in this product! I don’t know about you but I would find it more than just a little significant if a dog food I intentionally bought (and likely paid more for) because it had meat as the number one ingredient turned out to be mostly grains! Seriously, I know vegetarians that eat that much meat! Technically they are vegetarian-ish but you catch my drift.

So What Brands Are Best?

As you can see, dog food labels can be very misleading and require more than just a cursory look at the first ingredient. Much more diligence would be required to have anything close to an accurate idea of the amounts of each ingredient. If you are lucky enough to have a well-informed pet store owner or manager, start by asking them for a top ten list of the brands they sell. Then I would recommend contacting the manufacturers of those brands for more details. If the manufacturers can’t or won’t answer your questions then that’s an answer in and of itself...move on to another brand.

I personally do not use or endorse any brand of commercial dry dog food. I feed my dogs an all-natural, raw diet often referred to as BARF or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. I am aware that a BARF diet may be too controversial or over-budget for some consumers and that’s understandable. I am not trying to sell or condemn anything - simply offering some awareness around a topic that many haven't given much thought to. The intention of this article is to provide information and food for thought so you can feed your dog the best food you are comfortable with and can afford. The message I hope you take away is that you have a right and responsibility to know what is in the food you are feeding your pet but may have to do some digging for that information.

Research For Yourself

Reference: FDA: Pet Food Labels http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/ucm047113.htm

Please feel free to share your own research on the Thriving Canine Facebook wall or by email.

Chad Culp–Certified Dog Trainer, Behavior Consultant, Certified Holistic Chef for Animals

Copyright 2005-2013 Chad Culp, Thriving Canine. All rights reserved. Chad@ThrivingCanine.com

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