Pet food label shorthand – look for quality protein ingredients

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Learn why it’s important to look for a quality protein as the first ingredient when selecting a pet food for your dog or cat.

Have you ever felt your eyes glaze over when attempting to scan a pet food product label, trying to decipher what the terms mean and how to assess the quality of the food?

Ultimately, what you care about is providing the best diet you can afford for your furry family members, because you know there is a direct relationship between the quality of the food your dog or cat consumes and quality of life.

Pet food overall has improved greatly in recent years, as the premiumization of the pet food industry continues and the food quality bar keeps rising with it. Still, labels can be difficult to navigate if you’re not sure what separates best from better. Trend reports show the growing interest in higher quality diets.

A recent study of pet food consumers by Packaged Facts determined that 75% of survey participants strongly or somewhat agreed with this statement: “I am willing to pay more for pet foods that are healthier for my pet.”

Nielsen, the research company that tracks sales in many consumer categories, recently published a report that showed that between 2015 and 2017, the sales volume of dog food shifted 7.4 points in favor of brands in which meat is the number one ingredient.

Additionally, Statista Research found that, in 2018, sales of GMO-free pet food rose nearly 29% over the previous year. Similarly, other “free from” claims continue to rise in popularity among consumers, including “free from” corn, wheat, soy, hormones, fillers, artificial colors and preservatives.

Recently, I was appointed to the first Transparency Council in the pet food industry, established by Champion Petfoods, makers of ORIJEN and ACANA brands. Their goal is to invite outside third-party animal lovers and experts such as myself to observe and report on how they make pet food, and the details behind their recipes.

If there’s one takeaway from my experience touring Champion’s DogStar Kitchen and visiting one of their regional fish suppliers, it’s the quality of the ingredients that ultimately establishes how good the food will be for your dog or cat. During my visit, Champion’s pet nutrition experts shared background on the physiology and eating anatomy of dogs and cats that helps us understand why protein from real meat, poultry and fish sources is so important to their natural diet and physical needs.

This understanding provides some valuable easy-to-follow guidance on what to look for when reading a pet food label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.

  1. The very best options for your dog or cat will be primarily meat- or fish-based, and the ingredients should begin with deboned beef, chicken, bison, poultry or various fish species. This tells you that fresh or raw meat was used in the food’s preparation. That’s important, due to the bio-availability of amino acids and other nutrients that exist naturally in these real-food ingredients. Meat meals are also frequently used, but should fall after the fresh proteins on the label. They are essentially dehydrated proteins made from meat and are best when described by the source – beef, chicken, fish meal, etc.

    Biologically appropriate pet food is going to be protein forward – ideally, anywhere from 60% to 85% of the ingredients are from proteins, hopefully mostly from fresh or raw sources. Some pet foods that claim to be grain-free replace the grains with vegetable-based proteins like peas and lentils that don’t offer the same amino acid benefits as meat and fish options.

  2. The second item to look for on the label is the number of synthetic supplements used in the food. Some diets will show up to 20 different supplements added into the food to meet the standards for a complete diet. What this tells you is that the ingredients used in making the food are likely highly processed, and the meat is mainly powder-based, in which some of the essential nutrients have been literally cooked out of the food – thus, supplements must be added back in.

    Fewer supplements means the naturally-occurring nutritional building blocks are available in the food ingredients used. This suggests the ingredients are also of higher quality and the preparation techniques (cooking temperature) didn’t strip away those benefits, so there’s no need to use synthetic supplements.

  3. Finally, it might also be helpful to visit the company’s website to get a closer look at their food philosophy, and to see how they describe their point of view on nutrition and food preparation. Look for the use of whole prey ingredients, which means using the whole animal including muscle, organ and edible bones and cartilage. Check to see how much importance is placed on using fresh and raw proteins, and be sure to avoid foods with artificial preservatives such as BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin.

In sum, for guidance when choosing a food, you’re looking at the meat and fish ingredients at the top of the list, and the number of supplements at the bottom. When I toured Champion’s DogStar Kitchen and entered the fresh ingredients area, I saw the fresh beef, chicken and fish going into the food. Not everyone can see it firsthand like I did, but the label will help tell the tale.