You are standing in the grocery store looking at the basket of items you carefully collected and it dawns on you that you read an article about eggs being good for you, but right as you are about to put the eggs into your cart you remember years ago reading another article that said eggs are high in cholesterol and are actually bad for you. Indecision sets in, suddenly you find yourself thinking about all the items in your cart and how much information, or misinformation, you have read, heard, or seen about each. It is beginning to feel like you need a Ph.D. in nutrition just to feed your family the healthiest, safest options possible. We have all been there. With all the information at our fingertips today and someone ready to hard sell us the next big diet fad with every scroll and click it becomes overwhelming to decide what you should or shouldn’t be eating. Sometimes you wish you could just take a pill to ensure you are getting all the vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients you need but then you remember reading multivitamins don’t work and could be dangerous to your health so you are back to square one. Despite how frustrating that experience is, have you ever had that same dilemma when choosing your dog food? If you are like the majority of Americans the odds are you haven’t. If you ask yourself why you haven’t, you might catch yourself with quite the scary thought, “Why wouldn’t the dog food on the shelf be healthy for my pet?” Then the realization sets in, that choosing healthy food for your dog off the shelf is really no different than choosing healthy food for the rest of your family.
Now that you are properly overwhelmed about not only feeding you and your family correctly but also your four-legged family as well, let me de-stress you a bit. Yes, finding the right dog food has many of the same pitfalls as selecting the best food for yourself. However, it is actually an easier process since most people generally feed their dogs the same food or at least the same brand consistently, it is a process you won’t have to repeat like you do in every aisle of the grocery store. Let’s go into this with a step by step process so you can better understand what you are currently feeding your dog and, if need be, can improve the quality of that food for your furry family member.
Step 1: Understanding the ingredient panel.
Just like with human food the front of the package of dog food is often littered with marketing ploys and tactics to convince you to purchase the product. Colorful arrangements of fruits and veggies, pictures of raw meat, all raining down from the sky into your dog’s bowl. It HAS to be good for your dog, right? Except some of those ingredients may not even be healthy or beneficial for your dog, let alone that there is little in the way of regulation that restricts what can or can’t be displayed on the front of a bag. The ingredient panel, however, does have restrictions put in place by The Association of American Feed Controls (AAFCO) and, once you learn the terminology, reading the ingredient panel becomes one of the most effective ways to determine the quality of dog food. Let’s start with an ingredient panel so you can see what I mean (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Sample Dog Food Ingredient Panel.
An ingredient panel is organized by the weight of the ingredient before it is cooked in descending order. So in the example above, chicken is the heaviest ingredient on the list before it is cooked. Followed by corn meal as the second heaviest and so on and so forth. It is important to remember these weights are done before the cooking process because the cooking process slightly alters the weight of these ingredients. Chicken is 70% water on average, so in the cooked, finished mix most of that 70% is removed making it no longer the primary ingredient of the food in the label above.
Now that you know how the ingredients are ordered, let’s get into some basic definitions set out by the AAFCO for ingredients you will see on a dog food ingredient label:
Chicken: Defined as “the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails. It shall be suitable for use in animal food.”1 The definition for other meats like beef, turkey, salmon, or even exotic proteins like kangaroo is much the same.
Meal: “Meal” is a descriptor for the ingredient before it on the ingredient panel. You will see things like chicken meal, beef meal, and corn meal. All this is telling you is it is the ingredient listed before it but dried and ground into a powder. Because meals are dried, they do not contain much water and are not altered in weight significantly by the cooking process.
By-Products: These are what is left of a processed animal after the parts intended for human consumption have been removed. They include but are not limited to: feet, backs, livers, lungs, head meat, brains, spleen, frames or bones, kidneys, stomachs, intestines, and undeveloped eggs.2 While these ingredients have a certain “yuck factor” to us, bones and some organs do have essential vitamins and minerals for your dog. The issue with by-products is you can’t know which by-products are being included and in what amounts so by-products are not preferred ingredients.
Meat or Animal: These are meat products whose origin is vague and nonspecific. These can generally contain any type of animal and could include things like roadkill, dead zoo animals, dead on arrival animals, and diseased or dying livestock. Because of their vague nature, ingredients listed as meat or animal should be avoided.
Many of the other ingredients will be things you are familiar with such as vegetables, fruits, various grains, and even vitamins and minerals. Keep in mind that vitamins and minerals are sprayed on after the cooking process to replace what is lost during the cooking process. Cooking kibble is done at very high temperatures which destroy a lot of the natural nutrients your dog needs. Because the weights of these vitamins are very small, any items included in, with, or after the vitamins on the ingredient panel are included in such trace amounts, they offer no real value to the kibble and are only there so a food can claim to include their potential health benefits for your animal. They are essentially fairy dust and should not be considered when deciding if the dog food you are considering has the ingredients you are looking for.
Another common form of ingredient panel manipulation is what is called ingredient splitting. It is when a company takes an ingredient like corn and splits it into two corn-like ingredients. This is done because pet food manufactures are required by AAFCO to arrange the ingredients in order of its precooked weight. Since corn is less nutritious to a dog than meat, it is considered a lower quality item and certain manufacturers may not want it to read as the primary ingredient of their formula. Below in Figure 2, you will see sample tables of what this would look like.
Figure 2. Example of Ingredient Panel Before and After Splitting.
Now a normal ingredient panel doesn’t include a content percentage (wouldn’t that be nice?) however it is added in here to better illustrate that both ingredient panels contain the same amount of chicken meal, corn, and rice but the panel on the right reads as if chicken meal is the primary ingredient.
Step 2: What kind of ingredients do you want in a “good” dog food?
Now that you are familiar with how the ingredient panel is organized and definitions of some of the ingredients, it begs the question, what ingredients are you looking for in a healthy dog food? While it is easy to complicate this part as there are many different qualities and types of dog food as well as dogs with special or different dietary needs, I will simplify the process of finding a good quality dog food down to 3 rules:
- Meat First: While meat isn’t the only thing your dog needs, dog’s ancestors were nearly strict carnivores and because of this, they need more meat inclusion in their diet than we do as omnivores. Remember though ingredients such as chicken, beef, turkey, and salmon all include water before they are cooked, so they actually aren’t your first ingredient after the cooking process. They are still great ingredients, but you want to see a meal included. Chicken meal will not lose much weight during cooking. A fine example would be a dog food panel that starts chicken and then chicken meal. Since the chicken water weight is cooked out, the chicken meal will be your primary ingredient. Having multiple sources of chicken is not bad at the end of the day, it just means more meat was included in the making of that kibble.
- No Fillers: While there are a lot of ingredients that can be used as fillers, the three most common ones that serve little nutritional value but suffice as cheap ingredients include corn, wheat, and soy. You will want to avoid dog foods that include any or all these ingredients.
- Avoid Artificial Colors and Flavors. You don’t want to feed your child artificial colors and flavors that could be dangerous to their health, why would you want to feed them to your loving dog? Be sure not to confuse the complicated-sounding ingredients at the middle to end of a dog food label as artificial colors. While many of them have “artificial” sounding names like calcium carbonate and dicalcium phosphate these are just a vitamin and mineral package added to the dog food because kibble is cooked in extreme heat that destroys some of these essential vitamins and minerals. Artificial colors are named as colors in the ingredient panel and are put into dog food to appeal to you as the buyer, not to offer nutritional value to your dog. Many of these colorings may actually be harmful to your pet.
Step 3: What is in your dog food?
This step is simply a matter of using your knowledge to better understand what is in your dog food. If your dog food is in violation of any of the three rules listed above, it may be time to search for a more nutritious option for your pet. If it isn’t, you can now feel better about what you are feeding your pet. After all, he or she has little choice in the matter, and you will have done a good job to make the best choice on their behalf! While this doesn’t cover all the complexities of dog food, it’s a start down the right path to better health for your animal. Now bring this knowledge to any of our locations to find the best food for your best friend. We look forward to seeing and serving you.
As for finding the right food for yourself, sadly I am out of my depth on that one.