2 important things to know about pet food labels

Having trouble understanding what’s in your fur babe’s food? Here are two things that’ll help you avoid confusion when reading pet food labels!

Pet food labels don’t always look like the labels you’re used to seeing on human food. There are two different types of labels that you might find on your dog or cat’s food, both of which can be full of jargon that can be tricky to navigate. Keeping the following two things in mind will help you make sense of what you’re looking at!

1. Pet food labels have two key parts

There are two key parts of a pet food label: the principal display panel and the information panel.

The Principal display panel is the marketing-type labeling on the front of the packaging. This colorful, eye-catching panel is designed to promote the product. Research shows that people make purchases for their pets based on emotion, which is why the principal display panel often features an attractive dog, people, impressive infographics, and product images.

The information panel provides nutritional information written according to regulatory guidelines. AAFCO, which provides the pet food manufacturing guidelines for the US, requires an information panel. If you buy your dog’s food from a big box, grocery or pet supply store, the information panel may not be in prominent view since this label is typically located on the side or back of package. To comply with AAFCO guidelines, an information panel needs to include the following:

  • Product name and brand name
  • Species name: the food must be identified as being for a specific species, such as for dogs.
  • Guaranteed analysis: To advise buyers of the nutrient content of pet foods, labels provide maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture and minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat.
  • Feeding directions
  • Manufacturer’s name and address/guarantor: This part of the label identifies the entity responsible for the quality and safety of the product and its location. Many manufacturers also include a toll-free number on the label for consumer inquiries.
  • Nutritional adequacy statement: This indicates that the food is complete and balanced for a particular life stage or all life stages. Products conspicuously identified on the principal display panel as a supplement, treat or snack are exempt from including this information. Why?
  • Net quantity statement: brief explanation
  • Ingredient statement: All ingredients in the product must be listed by weight, meaning the most prominent ingredient goes first, usually the protein.

2. Labels can contain misleading information

There are a few ways a pet food label can be misleading, either by using marketing terms like “holistic” or “clean” which don’t have concrete definitions or by listing vague ingredients. Here are a few things to look out for:

  • “Meat”: When the word “meat” is included generically in an ingredients list, instead of specific proteins like beef or chicken, that’s usually a red flag. Look for pet foods with specific proteins listed, sourced from USDA-inspected facilities.
  • Meat byproducts or meals: “Meal” typically refers to rendered meat, often from dubious sources. It’s not considered fit for human consumption by the USDA but is a common ingredient in many pet foods. Similarly, “byproduct,” which refers to leftover meat from processing, is also unfit for humans but served in pet food.
  • Synthetic preservatives: There’s no indicator on most pet food labels identifying natural or chemical preservatives, making it difficult to know what type your pet’s food contains. Here are a few common synthetic preservatives to avoid.:
    • BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated Hydroxycolene)
    • Ethoxyquin
    • Propyl Gallate
    • Propylene Glycol

No need to stress next time you’re attempting to assess your animal’s food. Just remember to look at both parts of the label – and look out for misleading information!