How to Decode a Dog Food Label

Hands up if you find pet food labels confusing!


This is annoying because you want to make an informed choice and give your dog a healthy diet. It's also ironic becauses it's a legal requirement to provide a nutritional breakdown on the packaging… so why is it so darn hard to understand?!


Never fear! By the end of this guide you'll know at least one top tip that will give you more confidence about which foods to choose. So let's dig in.


#1: Know This


First, take a general view of the food type.

Look for a 'Life Stage' diet, such as puppy, adult, or senior.

Steer clear of foods that say "Suitable for all life stages." These work by being high in all minerals and proteins, so all bases are covered. But since the needs of youngsters and seniors are very different, this means one or the other is getting too much of something - which can strain the organs.


Next, take "natural" claims with a pinch of salt.


What does "natural" actually mean? A lump of coal is natural, but you wouldn't want to eat it. So is lard… At best, natural means the product is free from artificial chemicals, but it's no guarantee of the quality of the food.


#2: Compare Foods Using the Dry Matter Analysis


Canned foods are 75-80% water, whilst dry foods are around 15 - 20% water. The water content also varies between brands and flavors.


This is relevant because it's misleading to directly compare the nutritional makeup of one food with another. To be accurate, you must always look at the dry matter analysis. This analysis has removed the water content, making the nutrients that remain a reliable comparison. you're looking at a comparison of the percentage of protein, fat, fiber, and minerals. And surprise, surprise, even this isn't straightforward.


The drawback is these are values worked out in a test tube, not in an animal's body. Not all food stuff can be processed 100% in the body (This is known as their bioavailability) whereas they are in the test tube.


This is like saying something is 100% carbon - now coal and diamonds are both carbon, but they're very different in value…The same goes for protein: Shoe leather and steak look similar when processed in the lab...but not when fed to a dog.


Which means, you need to know how to understand what the ingredients are.


#3: Decode the Ingredients


Think of the ingredients as a game of Top Trumps. In this game, certain ingredients outrank others.


For example, meat tops meat meal, and animal protein outranks vegetable protein.


To understand this better, here are some foodstuffs decoded:

  • A named meat: Perfect! This tops everything

  • Meat by-products: An OK deal consisting of body parts excluding muscle, bone, and hoof.

  • Poultry by-products: Pretty much any part of the bird (excluding feathers)

  • Fish meal: Any part of the fish (as long as it's not decomposed!)

  • Soy protein: True it's a protein but it’s also true it’s harder to for a dog to process than meat.

  • Ground corn: The entire corn milled to a fine finish

  • Corn gluten meal: A corn byproduct that excludes the bran, germ, and starch


So, for example, protein derived from a named meat tops protein derived from soy… Always aim for the best quality ingredients you can afford


And finally…


The take home message when selecting food is:

1 - Choose a life stage diet. (e.g., puppy food)

2- Then compare brands based on a dry matter basis. Then for a normal healthy dog, choose the food with the highest protein content. So 25% protein beats 22% on a dry matter basis. But if your dog has a health problem, speak to your vet first.

3 - Then look at the ingredients to check if that protein works as well for the dog as it did for a test tube. So 'beef' trumps 'fish meal'.


All clear now?


Psst: Want to know a super-easy top tip? Look for a food with a named meat (i.e., lamb, rabbit or chicken) as the first and second ingredients….This isn't foolproof but it helps eliminate lower quality foods.

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