If a company sells dog food in the USA, it has to comply with regulations set out by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Chief among these rules is that the product should be truthfully labeled — you can’t sell a beef dog food made from donkeys, for example.
However, as anybody who has ever told a white lie will know, there’s the truth and then there’s the truth. Let’s just say there’s some wriggle room with the facts and some creative language dog food manufacturers can and do use that might mislead customers.
The Dog Food Advisor is on your side, though. This is why we’ve come up with this handy guide to linguistic sleights of hand often seen on dog food packaging.
The ‘With’ and ‘Flavor Rules
Although dogs can technically survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet, their bodies are geared up to digest meat and that’s why it’s found in the majority of dog food recipes. However, the quantities in which meat or fish are present in a product can vary massively, and manufacturers are able to overemphasise that presence by using the right words.
You can get a good idea of how much is actually in the food by looking at the recipe’s name, as these are bound by four rules set out by the FDA.
Number one, the 95% rule. If you see a dog food called something straightforward like chicken dog food, you can be assured that it contains at least 95% chicken by weight. That’s without water by the way — when moisture’s re-added, the proportion goes down to 70%.
Then there’s the 25% rule. When you’ve got dog food for which the named meat is accompanied by a word like entrée, platter, formula, dinner or recipe (salmon platter, for example), you know there’s at least 25% of the named protein in the recipe. That goes down to 10% when water’s taken into consideration.
Now, things get a teensy bit deceitful with the next two rules. Take the ‘With’ rule — dog food with tuna sounds like there’s going to be a fair bit of tuna in, right? Sadly not. When ‘with’ is used in front of a named ingredient, that particular foodstuff only has to make up 3% of the total ingredients’ weight. 3%. Not much, then.
Yet somehow, that’s not the worst offender — that title’s reserved for the ‘Flavor’ rule. When you see a dog food labeled something like Turkey Flavor Dog Food, the only requirement is that there’s enough turkey in the mix to impart its flavor to a specially trained tasting animal. This could be a truly microscopic amount.
So the next time you’re shopping for dog food, take a closer look at the recipe’s name — it could be the difference between feeding your dog a hearty, meat-filled meal and something quite the opposite.
Many parents will be keen to get their dog onto an organic diet, perhaps for health or sustainability reasons.
Any food claiming to be organic must abide by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. At the moment, there are no separate guidelines for pet food — instead, they must meet the same standards for organic human food.
Much like the aforementioned rules pertaining to ingredient percentages and naming, there are guidelines from the USDA that dictate what you can or can’t call a dog food recipe when it comes to organic ingredients.
If all of the ingredients meet the criteria for being organic, the relevant food can be called 100% organic. When at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, then the product can be termed organic.
However, if only 70% of the ingredients fall under the USDA’s definition of organic, the product must be labeled as ‘made with organic ingredients’. To the untrained ear, this sounds pretty much the same as ‘organic’ or ‘100% organic’, even though up to 30% of the food could be as highly processed and artificial as the worst recipes on the market.
There’s a final rule when it comes to organic ingredients. When organic ingredients comprise less than 70% of the total recipe, only the ingredients that the USDA recognise as organic can be labeled as such. This means you might see ‘organic chicken’ or ‘organic peas’ in the ingredient list, but the product can’t be called ‘organic chicken and peas dog food’.
Dog food manufacturers will only be too aware of these guidelines and many will stretch them to the very limit to appear as organic as possible. Again, the Dog Food Advisor cuts through the bluster in our list of the best organic foods available to buy today.
There are some terms used to describe dog food that can only be used if certain criteria are met. As mentioned, organic is one of them. Natural, too, must conform to the definition set out by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which has subsequently been incorporated into many US states’ law books.
However, there are other words you’ll spot on pet food packaging that mean absolutely nothing in practice. For example, anything alluding to the quality of the recipe — gourmet, premium or some variation — doesn’t have to be matched by any minimum standards. Holistic is another descriptor thrown around liberally, but which ultimately means nothing.
If it’s truly top-notch dog food you’re after, you’ll have to wade through the ingredient list and nutritional figures on the back of the packaging — or alternatively, let the Dog Food Advisor do this grunt work and consult our list of the best dog foods.
Take a wander down the pet food aisle of your local pet food aisle and you’ll see no end of packets and cans emblazoned with images of fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and grains. Just going off this, a shopper might assume that the product inside is full to brimming with natural goodness.
Maybe so, but the only way you’ll know for sure is by looking at the ingredient list. This is laid out in order of weight — the ingredient that’s most prevalent by weight in the recipe should go first, followed by the second, then the third, and so on.
However, some of those juicy-looking foodstuffs on the front of the packaging might actually be quite far down the list.
Dr Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University, laid out an easy-to-remember rule in her book, Feed Your Pet Right.
Essentially, if an ingredient comes after salt, it will make up less than 1% of the overall recipe. This makes sense for vitamins, minerals and spices that only need a dash, but you would expect to see other ingredients — such as those pictured on the front — to be present in much larger quantities.
Aside from the recipe’s name and design, some manufacturers have worked out that the ingredient list can be manipulated slightly to make the product look a little better. One underhand technique is called ingredient splitting.
Say a company makes a dog food that has the following first three ingredients: potatoes, rice and chicken. It’s possible to bring the coveted meat ingredient to the front of the queue by splitting the bulky filler ingredients into separate components.
Something like this reads a lot better: Chicken, potatoes, white rice, potato flour, potato starch, rice flour, potato protein. By turning what was originally one ingredient into several separate ones, chicken is able to be bumped up the pecking order.
The main way parents can protect themselves against this practice is by closely inspecting the first five ingredients and looking out for ones that sound similar to one another. Alternatively, opt for a dog food that has a high percentage of meat, perhaps one so high that it couldn’t feasibly be overtaken by accumulative filler ingredients — e.g. a 95% beef recipe.
Using obscure ingredient names
There are certain ingredients that pet food manufacturers know will sound unpalatable to a parent’s ears. However, if they can be renamed as something vague or innocuous, the offending foodstuff can escape undetected.
Here’s an example. MSG, or Monosodium Glutamate, is recognised as safe by the FDA, but it’s an ingredient some dog parents may wish to avoid. This is made harder when it’s down in the ingredient list as something like hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast or soy extracts.
If you ever come across an ingredient with which you’re unfamiliar, type it into a search engine to see if it’s actually masquerading as something else. Another option is to consult the AAFCO’s database of defined ingredients — the only drawback is that it costs money to access this.
However, no amount of research will reveal what makes up ingredients such as chicken meal, beef byproducts or meat derivatives.
According to the AAFCO-recommended guidelines that many US states have welcomed into law, meat meal is defined as ‘exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices’.
Likewise, poultry by-product meal consists of ‘the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers except in such amounts as might occur unavoidably in good processing practices.’
It may not be all bad — as our guide to animal by-products explains — but it doesn’t sound appetizing and may not be nutritionally great either.