Deciphering Dog Food

*some questionable but not quite red-flag ingredients have not been highlighted

All dog foods that are AAFCO certified as nutritionally balanced will indeed sustain a dog–as in they will not starve from lack of nutrition if you feed that food in a suggested amount.  However, there is a very big difference between a life that is being sustained and one that is thriving.  Imagine for a moment you only ever ate meal replacement shakes or bars (ie: ensure, slim fast, powerbars, luna bars, etc.)–while these would give you the calories you need to survive, your body would likely not be thriving or at it’s best.  These bars/shakes are highly processed with most of the vitamins/minerals/etc. coming from synthetic or non “whole” sources and as we discovered (for humans) some vitamins are not actually absorbed unless accompanied by others (calcium and vitamin D for example).  Honestly, what do you think is the healthy choice… a meal replacement bar that has 420 calories or a meal with the same number of calories that includes fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, lean protein and whole grains?

I have so many thoughts/ideas/information/questiosn but I’m going to hit on the major red flags and myths about deciphering dog food.

Red Flags:

Meat or Meat By-product meal or Meat meal (and animal fat)big, Big, BIG no no.  When dog food companies use “meat” it can be almost anything.  It just has to be a meat from some animal… meat by-product meal can any pieces of some animal (nose, beaks, feet, tails, cheeks, feathers)–it’s essentially what is left over after processing for human meat.  When a protein source is not specified and it is just called “meat” you could be feeding beef, chicken, pork or you could be feeding horse, dog, cat, rat… or any mix of these protein sources.  The point is, an unspecified “meat” could be anything and, in my opinion, is something that should absolutely be avoided.

Grain Heavy–If you are reading your dog food label and the first ingredient is a grain or there are 3 or more grains in the first 5 ingredients,  you are feeding a food that is mostly grains.  Dogs really do not process grains terribly effectively.  There is a difference between having some grains (which is up to you to decide whether or not you think that is the most biologically appropriate) and having a mostly grain food.  If your food has 3 or more grains in the first 5 ingredients you are likely feeding your dog more than 50% grain and I wouldn’t consider that biologically appropriate and really do you want to spend all that money for corn/rice/wheat/soy?

Ingredient Splitting–Okay, so this isn’t really a red flag but it’s something to be aware of when selecting a dog food.  In an effort to effect the arrangement of the ingredients list (to push protein sources and other “good” ingredients to the top of the list), many companies will split the ingredients so they appear further down the list.  For example “Rice” may appear as rice flour, rice bran, and rice protein on the ingredients list.  Since the list is based on the weight of each ingredient, it would take rice from the top 5 ingredients and move each part of the rice lower in the list.  Some of these items are considered the waste of the grain industry because they cannot be effectively digested and have no nutritional benefits.

BHA or BHT or Ethoxyquin preservatives–These are listed as preservatives in the ingredients list.  BHA and BHT are artificial preservatives that are used in a wide variety of food brands.  These preservatives are connected to a variety of side effects from dry skin and allergies all the way to kidney and liver function problems.  Ethoxyquin is a chemical preservative that some studies have indicated may be a carcinogen.  It is regulated as a pesticide by the FDA if that gives you an idea about what type of chemical it is–so it’s one to be avoided, in my opinion.

Myths of Dog food:

Named meat as first ingredient means it’s a good food– Well, not exactly.  The ingredients list is based on the weight of the food BEFORE processing.  So, if the first ingredient is CHICKEN, BEEF, FISH, LAMB they are talking about a hunk of raw meat.  Raw meat is about 70% moisture but before the meat goes into the kibble it must be dehydrated.  In the process of dehydration, the mass of the protein will drop significantly.  So in actuality, based on weight after processing, the meat would probably be more like the 4th or 5th ingredient on the list.  Now if there is a “meal” (chicken-meal or beef-meal) as the first (or second behind “chicken”)  ingredient that is a little different.  A “meal” is the dehydrated weight.  So that would keep a protein as the first ingredient but if it’s just “chicken”, you are still actually mostly paying for grain and fillers.

My vet/breeder recommended it so it must be good–Unfortunately, not only are vets not trainers but they are also not experts on nutrition.  Most vets get one nutrition class sponsored by a certain dog-food company during their entire education.  As you can guess, this class is pretty biased in its information.  There are some vets that have taken it upon themselves to learn about nutrition but they are few and far between.  Breeders fall into a similar category.  They are only as good as the work they’ve put into learning about nutrition… some breeders are very knowledgeable and others are not so much.  It’s not much different from the fact that human primary care physicians are not always well versed on nutrition–which is why they refer people to nutritionists and dieticians.  In fact, I’d guess that most primary care physicians would pass along any specific nutrition questions to a dietician/nutritionist.

The brand is well-known so it must be reputable and healthy.

Most well-known brands come from a few things… money, good marketing, good public relations, and strong parent company.   IAMS, for example is owned by Proctor and Gamble who also own Bounty, Tide, Charmin, Pampers, Duracell, Crest, Cover Girl, and Tampax.  Purina is owned by the Nestle Company which owns Butterfinger, Hotpockets, Nesquick, Nestea, and Toll House baking.  These companies are ridiculously huge and capable of crazy big marketing schemes (tv, radio, and internet ads, plus event sponsorships).  With all the capitol and prestige, they can afford to get endorsements from professionals and they can pay for their own studies that show… pretty much whatever they want.  People are very conscious of brand loyalty and the perception of name-brand merchandise and these are very well known brands that everyone knows so they assume they are the best.  These brands are also available in one-stop shopping stores so they are convenient and are well-known in the community (so when John Q. Public finds a puppy, they are probably going to the store to buy Puppy Chow because that’s a brand name that they have heard of before).  Most of the premium brands of food are just now making it into the mainstream market so they are simply not as widely known yet.

YAY… we got some of the sad stuff out of the way today!!  Tomorrow I’ll tell you what I look for in a kibble (if this post hasn’t given you some clues).


About Success Just Clicks

I'm a dog trainer and enthusiast who moonlights as a blogger and custom tug-toy maker.
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6 Responses to Deciphering Dog Food

  1. I like the comparison between human primary physicians and vets.

    • Y’know I try to be really respectful when I talk about the limitations of Veterinary expertise but they really are not experts in all areas of animals in the very same way primary care physicians are not experts in everything human–it IS why we have psychologists, dieticians, dermatologists, dentists, teachers etc.

  2. Great topic. One of my favorites. I got to learn all about that stuff when Toby had food allergies and I was on the hunt for the Holy Grail of Dog Foods. The labels and claims are so hard to decipher. And many of the ingredients are just awful.

    • People often don’t think about these things until there is a problem. The first “health-food” pet supply store was born out of a HORRIBLY allergic dog and the struggles to find a food locally because none of the stores carried the premium brands. Some of the ingredients in foods really do terrify me!

  3. Ximena says:

    I am loving this series you’re doing. 🙂
    My pup’s food has no corn, wheat, or soy, but it does have brown rice, millet and cracked pearled barley as three of the first five ingredients. Do you think those are as bad? It’s really the only food I feel comfortable feeding her right now, monetarily, especially.

    • I think it depends. For me, i’d want to know the first two ingredients. If they are both meat-meals then i could tolerate the next three ingredients being a grain, but it wouldn’t be ideal for me. Money is certainly a factor. With many of the premium foods, you actually feed less… so while the bag costs $10 more, you are getting more calories for your buck (if that makes sense).

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