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Decoding the Dog Food Label

Ever look at the label on your dog’s food? To the uninitiated, it reads like a cross between a Dietician’s treatise and a Math puzzle. In the first section is all that stuff about protein, fat, fiber, moisture, etc. Then there are the percentages – I don’t do percentages, barely passed them in the sixth grade! Then, as if that was not complicated enough, in the second section, they hit you with a listing of ingredients. After reading the first four or five, my eyes start to glaze over with words I can’t spell, pronounce or understand. Finally, once you hit the bottom of the label (that’s when they put it in English), you get to read about how much food to feed Buster. To most people it just makes sense to blow off the first two sections and skip to the end… figure out how much to feed, put it in the bowl, and call it a day. To most pet owners this pretty much sums up what they think about the Dog Food Label. What’s unfortunate is that boring label is the difference between feeding something substantial and nutritious vs. something not so substantial or nutritious. In addition to nutrition, there is always the financial end, aka the money. In this current economic environment, the determination of what dog food to feed, is often primarily determined by what the pocketbook will permit. Hopefully, this little article will help you in knowing what that label is telling you which could result in more money remaining in your pocket, instead of having most of it processed through Buster. You will soon see that the logic to that statement is as follows: You have to feed more of the cheaper, lower foods which may in the long run turn out to be more expensive, than feeding the higher quality food. So stick with me on this – once you get to learn your way around the label, you will look smart and will be able to explain it to everybody you know (this will make you the life of any party!).   The Good and Bad about Guaranteed Analysis This is the first thing you will see on the label. It shows the percentage levels of what makes up the product and will always be reflected as: Minimum – is saying “not less than” for the Protein and Fat content, and Maximum – is saying “not more than” for the Moisture content, etc. Although these numbers are important, let’s not give them too much credence. Because as you will see the magic word are what qualifies the specific component is “crude”. For example, Crude Protein not less than X% So what are they saying by adding the word “crude”? It says that the element is not necessarily a digestible component of the food. You see the digestibility of certain ingredients encompasses a range of things. This is where reading and understanding the ingredients section becomes paramount in determining how digestible the components are (more about that to come). Of course, the other very important issue to take into consideration on the analysis front is the moisture levels. Okay, so here is where the math comes into play (believe me, it’s not tough math, just grade school stuff). Any food, be it dry or canned, must have a certain amount (read percentage) of moisture. Considering that a can of dog food many can contain up to 80% moisture. Simple math would dictate that if there is 80% moisture in that can, only 20% of that can is actually food stuff. Resulting in poor Buster getting a pretty measly amount of food put in that bowl, but he is getting some mighty expensive water. When you see the moisture percentage on a label, it is always based on what the moisture level is inside the container, be that container a can or a bag. Now, by understanding the moisture percentage relative to the whole, we can now compute those percentages that are reflected on the guaranteed analysis. What this means, and to be fair in making a choice between types of food or brands of food, we really do need a conversion that will compute both foods less the moisture, or to convert a wet food to a dry food, or visa- versa. It is not enough to just look at the label and see that percentage of protein we need to account for the moisture in that food. Okay now here is that math part. Let’s say you are trying to compare two different brands of kibble and are looking for the percentage of protein. That would be in dry matter of the label, of course. First thing you look at is the Moisture. It says Moisture not more than 10%, therefore, 90% of that food is actual food. Now, what percent of that kibble is Crude Protein? The label clearly shows Crude Protein not less than 20%. Simple equation: divide Protein shown in Analysis (20%) by the amount of dry matter (90%) = 22% Protein (calculators are permitted). Same logic applies if you are trying to compare between a can of dog food and a bag of dog food. To make it easy, let’s use the dry dog food example above, which gave us 22% Protein on a dry matter basis. We pick up that same can as above and it shows a whopping 80% moisture. Again, that leaves 20% of dry matter (think food or food-like stuff). The same rules apply – look at the protein on the can. It says Crude Protein not less than 5% (sounds pitiful doesn’t it?), but when you do the math (as explained), 5% Protein divided by the dry matter of 20% = 25% protein on a dry matter basis. Therefore, even though the canned food is only 20% food, that 20% food is actually higher in protein content than the kibble by 3%. Now that you know how to compute the levels to dry matter, it works with all of the guaranteed analysis numbers. Next listing on the label is Ingredients. Dog food labels must list the ingredients, and they must be listed in terms of their weight. As mentioned, this is where you have another tool to help judge the quality. Because of that whole digestible issue, there is a lot of stuff you do not want added to Buster’s food. For example, you see Meat listed as the first ingredient. Sounds good; Buster is a carnivore. But then the question arises of the definition of “meat” – Meat is the clean flesh of slaughtered animals, including other parts like the heart or tongue and parts normally found with that flesh. Like the blood vessels, skin, etc. But if you see Meat by-products, which are the parts of slaughtered animals which do not include the meat. Things like lungs, kidneys, liver, stomach, intestines. It does not include the hooves, horns, teeth. Poultry by-products are the clean parts of the bird, such as the head, feet or internal organs (no feathers). I am sure you can see that having a knowledge of what makes up that ingredient list and what the definition of those ingredients are is of big-time importance. To go into all of the ingredients that could be in dog food would take an article much longer than this. But with the information provided here and a simple search of what’s listed on the label of that food you put in Buster’s bowl (Google is your friend), will give you a lot of information in a very short period of time. Now you can choose a product that is digestible, without any of the unwanted additions. The last section on that panel is the Feeding Instructions: PLEASE do not think of this as an “etched in stone” sort of thing, there is so much more to feeding than just getting some information from the back of a dog food bag. Feeding is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. How much exercise does Buster get? Is Buster a Border Collie and is out working sheep all day? If so, he is without a doubt going to need more caloric intake than a couch potato, whose only movement is going out to potty. Buster’s age and breed also has a bearing on his metabolism. Does he live outdoors and need something extra for those cold and snowy winter months? Do you cheat and slip him some extra fatting treats? These Feeding Instructions are just starting points. If Buster looks skinny or looks like a barrel on legs, use some common sense and adjust what goes into him accordingly. Finally, as with all things DOG, if you have doubts about feeding, ask your Veterinarian. One step to make the label a bit more palatable (it’s a pun), is to look for the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement on the label. AAFCO is a nonprofit that sets standards for both Animal and Pet Feed. Those standards are relative to (1) the production, (2) the label, and (3) the marketing All dog food that shows an AAFCO statement means that the animal feed manufactures must follow AAFCO guidelines/standards to be able to sell their food as Complete and Balanced. The preparation of animal feeds and any claims or statements made must be backed up with scientific evidence. The food may also have a “no drugs” claim. There are two criteria covering AAFCO nutrient profiles: 1) Adult Maintenance (self-explanatory), 2) Growth and Reproduction – covers puppies and pregnant mothers, or mothers nursing puppies. The reward for companies following the standards of AAFCO is the ability to put a statement on their label. There are two statements, each making its own declaration. One of the statements simply says that the food has met requirements to be labeled as a complete and balanced diet by virtue of a Laboratory analysis. * The statement on the bag will read something like this: “Super wonderful dog food company” dog food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles. The other statement explains that in addition to laboratory analysis, actual studies were performed utilizing dogs, and based on AAFCO’s standards, the feed provides a complete and balanced nutritional diet ** The statement for this may read something like: Animal-feeding tests using AAFCO’s procedures substantiate that this product provides complete and balanced nutrition. But if the food does not meet any of AAFCO’s standards for either of their two criteria, the label will read: This product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only. To sum all up: you should now be in a much better position of determine the quality of food that is provided to Buster. I know it was mentioned before, but it bears repeating that if you have any doubts, quell those doubts and talk to your Vet. * In theory that is great but you can get those same requirements from some really gross, unappetizing and incredibly inedible stuff. Ask any Chemist. That’s why you need to read the ingredients. ** The old adage “the devil is in the details” certainly fits this situation and the interpretations of the trials and their results can produce wildly differing opinions.


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