Take confusion out of pet food labels

As a follow up to an earlier article on pet obesity, I want to discuss pet food labels to help you make an informed decision when you shop.

How do you know if the food you buy is any good or is appropriate for your pet?

To address this issue, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) was developed in 1909.

American Feed does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way. Instead, it establishes nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods and leaves it up to the pet food companies to formulate their products accordingly.

The consumer must trust that this self-regulation works and the pet food they purchase really meets the stated requirements.

Some pet food companies choose to put their products through long and costly feeding trials, which earns the strongest AAFCO labeling. The AAFCO label may read “The animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiates that ‘food X’ provides complete and balanced nutrition for the growth and maintenance of dogs (cats).”

Alternatively, AAFCO allows food manufacturers to meet certain biochemical analysis and become certified without going through actual feeding trials. However, the chemical analysis may not show the true picture of the ingredients since many nutrients may be derived from indigestible sources such as hides and hooves.

Surprisingly, because of the excessive cost and time involved with feeding trials, even the highest quality pet food companies are opting for the biochemical analysis. This is where your veterinarian or specialty pet food store owners can help you filter the good from the bad.

Then there’s the issue of product identity. This is more than just the brand name; it also indicates flavor and content, and AAFCO is very strict about terms used to describe a pet food.

For instance, a food labeled “beef” for dogs (or chicken, fish, etc.) must contain at least 70 percent beef, “beef dinner” needs only 25 percent beef, “dog food or formula with beef” needs only contain 3 percent, and “beef flavor” can contain less than 3 percent beef.

Knowing what the wording of the labels means can help you make sure you are feeding your pet what you think you are feeding them.

The final piece of the pet food label mystery involves a little math. You need to know how to compare one label to another in order to know which food has the desired levels of nutrients be it proteins, fats or carbohydrates.

I won’t get into the recommended levels of these nutrients for each stage of life. These can be found at the AAFCO website or the National Research Council website.

What’s important here is that you can objectively compare two different labels. Let’s look at two typical labels, one from a canned food and the other a dry food.

BRAND A (Canned)

Guaranteed Analysis (AS FED)

Crude Protein: Min 8 percent

Crude Fat: Min 2 percent

Crude Fiber: Max 1.5 percent

Moisture: Max 82 percent



Guaranteed Analysis (AS FED)

Crude Protein: Min 20 percent

Crude Fat: Min: 5.5 percent

Crude Fat: Max 9.0 percent

Crude Fiber: Max 26 percent

Moisture: Max 11 percent


Looking at the labels it seems obvious that the dry food contains more protein (22 percent) compared to the canned (8 percent). But we need to compare labels with the moisture removed or what is termed the “dry matter basis” by using the formula 100 percent — percent moisture/100.

Why? Because water has no protein, fat or carbohydrates. The canned food is 82 percent water which leaves 18 percent as the actual food while the dry food is 11 percent water and 89 percent food. The protein content of the canned food then is 8 percent/18 percent or 44 percent protein while the dry food protein content is 20 percent/89 percent or 22 percent. That’s a big difference!

The bottom line is that a tremendous amount of information can be found on a pet food label. Instead of relying on advertising to decide what food is best for your pet, learn the facts and separate fact from hype.

Drs. Tom and Tara Suplizio own Animal Medical Clinic in Grand Junction. The Suplizios are graduates of the Colorado State University Veterinary School. Email them at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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