Pet Food Label Literacy

15 December 2020

Lewis Mekbel, Territory Sales Manager, Trouw NutritionBy Lewis Mekbel 
Territory Sales Manager

In my 25 years’ experience in the pet food industry, I have encountered many different viewpoints on how to read and assess a pet food label. The fact that different methods for reading a pet food label even exist points to how this seemingly scientific ingredient analysis can actually be quite ambiguous. Let’s decipher the mysterious pet food label as best we can, viewing it from a typical retailer’s point of view.

1. Ingredients Panel

As pet parents increase their knowledge of nutrition and actively seek nutritious pet food more than ever, the pet food label has become much more of a marketing tool than the label requirement it once was.

Pet food retailers read a pet food label differently than pet parents, but often their guidance influences purchasing decisions.As pet parents increase their knowledge of nutrition and actively seek nutritious pet food more than ever, the pet food label has become much more of a marketing tool than the label requirement it once was. Although consumers are more educated, they often wrongfully assume that ingredients they don’t recognize are not actual food ingredients. A pet food store owner, who would like to remain anonymous, said that in the eyes of the pet parent, “the vast majority of dog foods on the market are comprised of ingredients that bear only a passing resemblance to food.”

As such, pet food retailers seek ingredients that they can promote to consumers as actual food ingredients. If retailers can’t readily identify the ingredient, they know their customers won’t likely either. This is a tough one to swallow in the fact that many great ingredients are disqualified due to lack of common recognition. Company websites, statements on the pet food bag, or even better, using well-known terms (as permitted by the Association of American Feed Control Officials [AAFCO]) can help demystify ingredients. BENEO’s Orafti® Inulin is a great product, for example, but the average consumer likely doesn’t know what inulin is or its benefits. Labeled in layman’s terms as all-natural prebiotic fiber from chicory roots, consumers better understand what it is and its value.

Protein and Fats

Meat meals, which go through a rendering process to significantly reduce the water contained in the meat, may actually contain more protein than whole meat due to its concentrated state, but due to its lower weight, meat meal may appear at the lower end of the bag, suggesting a lower inclusion rate.

When educating a pet parent about a pet food label, one of the first points that a retailer will make is how ingredients are placed on the label as a percentage of weight to the total formula. They will remind the consumer that fresh meat typically contains 70% +/- water. This leads to one of the biggest debates of all time: Is real meat essential to pet food? 

Some retailers believe that if it doesn’t have fresh whole meat, it’s not as high-quality or nutritious as pet foods with only meat meals. More knowledgeable store owners, on the other hand, assert that to compare foods, one should ignore the whole meat because its weight is exaggerated due to all the water it contains. Meat meals, which go through a rendering process to significantly reduce the water contained in the meat, may actually contain more protein than whole meat due to its concentrated state, but due to its lower weight, meat meal may appear at the lower end of the bag, suggesting a lower inclusion rate.

Fats are an underrated pet food category, but they are a source of essential fatty acids, serve as a carrier of fat-soluble vitamins, enhance palatability and supply an adequate caloric density, according to AAFCO. Fats that are specific, such as chicken fat, is viewed as superior to poultry fat, which fails to identify what type of poultry it is.

Fish oils are also perceived similarly with salmon oil being preferred over non-descript fish oil. The fat category also contains straight oils, such as canola, sunflower, avocado, etc. Most U.S. canola crops are genetically modified (GMO), making them less desirable to many consumers. When retailers are asked if a compromise needs to be made to lower production costs, they generally prefer to make a compromise in the fat category, such as using canola oil instead of sunflower oil, as opposed to compromising the protein.

Initial 5-8 Ingredients

Ignoring the fresh whole meat due to its water content skewing its placement in the ingredient list, pet retailers will begin assessing a pet food label by reviewing the top five to eight ingredients.

Ignoring the fresh whole meat due to its water content skewing its placement in the ingredient list, pet retailers will begin assessing a pet food label by reviewing the top five to eight ingredients. Next, they identify the true protein source, which is likely a specific meat meal (e.g., chicken meal, lamb meal, egg protein, etc.).

These meat meal sources, containing 300% +/- more protein than fresh whole meat due to its concentrated state, are the true source of most of the protein. If the protein is sourced only from plants, it would be called a vegetarian-based food, even if the label lists fresh whole meat first. Does that mean real whole meat is a ploy or a ruse? Not at all! The retailer will typically communicate that the end product will absorb some benefits of the whole meat, namely taurine, protein and fat.

Byproducts
On to the next debate: Are byproducts bad for the pet? According to AAFCO, byproducts are “secondary products produced in addition to the principal product.” In other words, byproducts are what’s left over after the intended product has been made. Byproducts are not unsafe or lack nutrition; they just aren’t part of the primary product.

AAFCO does not allow heads, feet, beaks or feathers in byproducts, leaving the hearts, lungs, liver, etc. as byproduct ingredients. Organ meat can actually have higher levels of natural minerals and vitamins than the primary product. Manufacturers should be applauded for reducing waste and adding nutrient-rich ingredients to its pet food diet, and yet the term byproducts retains a negative connotation among many pet parents. This begs the question: Should we review the nomenclature or create another class of meat with organ meat?

But the byproduct debate doesn’t stop with meat. Brewer’s yeast and wheat middlings, for example, are viewed as byproducts, even though these ingredients are great sources of dietary fiber.

Superfluous Descriptors
Whereas pet parents may appreciate the superfluous adjectives often lauded on wholesome ingredients, such as whole ground brown rice, sun-cured alfalfa, red delicious apples, ancestral grains and gently steamed pomegranate, pet retailers, by contrast, ignore the fancy descriptors and focus on the actual ingredient. To pet retailers, these excess words are included merely to manipulate consumers. To pet retailers, “fresh, whole, red delicious apples” are apples, “sun-cured alfalfa” is alfalfa, “whole ground brown rice” is brown rice.

2. Fairy Dust and Chemicals

Fruits, veggies, protein supplementation, etc. are generally viewed as “fairy dust,” items included in very small amounts, often contributing no measurable nutrients to the pet food, but they lead the consumer to view the pet food as healthier because pet parents identify fruits and vegetables as healthy.

Let’s look at the middle of the pet food label: fruits, veggies, protein supplementation, etc. These ingredients are generally viewed as “fairy dust,” items included in very small amounts, often contributing no measurable nutrients, but they lead the consumer to view the pet food as healthier because pet parents identify fruits and vegetables as healthy.

But this is not to say that all plant-derived ingredients are just for show. Tasco® sun-dried kelp, for example, provides a wonderful prebiotic effect for the GI tract and is an excellent source of dietary antioxidants, measurably supporting pets’ immune resistance. Effective marketing and sales departments should advise retailers of the health benefits of atypical ingredients, such as Tasco, and educate them on how to most successfully communicate this information to pet parents.

Although retailers do review the ingredient panel for concerning items, such as meat and bone meal, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)/butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), carrageenan, food dyes, etc., they are not looking at the vitamin or mineral supplements. Retailers know most of the chemicals listed provide some type of vitamin or mineral benefit. When it comes to minerals in particular, retailers prefer to see organic minerals, such as Optimin® organic trace minerals, which are more available to the pet.

3. Guaranteed Analysis

When reviewing the Guaranteed Analysis on a pet food label, focus only on the protein and fat numbers because the other stats are just minimums and maximums, which disclose very little about the actual inclusion rates, which would be better identified by the average or typical analysis.

How effective is a Guaranteed Analysis label at comparing foods? The label doesn’t address the quality of ingredients; it only compares numbers, which can be good and bad. Why? There really isn’t a single “ideal” number for all cats or dogs. Rather, a number of factors affect your pet’s ideal nutritional profile, including:

  • Age
  • Breed
  • Size
  • Weight
  • Activity level
  • Health condition(s) 
  • Allergies

Although AAFCO specifies the dietary requirements for dog and cat food, the range of protein and fat levels can vary significantly from one brand to the next. Although the pet’s needs should come first, retailers can’t deny that consumer preferences also play a role in pet food selection, including:

  • Budget
  • Grain-free
  • Ancient grains 
  • High protein
  • Low-fat

Retailers generally pay no attention to marketing phrases, such as Lite, Healthy Weight, Reduced Calorie, etc. These phrases are not regulated by the industry and communicate very little about the actual quality of the pet food. For example, one company’s “Reduced Calorie” pet food may contain twice as much fat as another company’s regular Adult food. This is another example of how retailers ignore the superfluous adjectives and instead focus on the facts.

When reviewing the Guaranteed Analysis, focus only on the protein and fat numbers because the other stats are just minimums and maximums, which disclose very little about the actual inclusion rates, which would be better identified by the average or typical analysis.

4. AAFCO Statement

Any manufacturer selling pet food in the U.S. market must meet AAFCO’s nutritional standards of a “complete and balanced” food. If a formula or item does not meet this standard, the label must state that the product is intended for supplemental use, signifying that the product is not complete and balanced and should be used as a topper or in conjunction with a properly balanced food.

But what does that even mean? The phrase should mean that the product contains all the nutrients your dog or cat requires. Here is the tricky part: “Complete and balanced” could mean the pet food meets the standards for AAFCO’s “animal feeding trials” and that the study’s results support the nutritional adequacy claims of the pet food OR it could indicate that the pet food has been formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profile or the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profile. Is a “complete and balanced” statement derived from a feed trial more substantiated than the same claim founded on formulation efforts? That is a topic for another day.

Pet retailers focus on different aspects of a pet food label than pet parents, but appealing to both target audiences can support pet food sales because retailers decide what pet food to put on their shelves and consumers make the final buying decision. Ultimately, the pet’s nutrient demands should be of chief concern. If their pet is experiencing health complications, a veterinarian should be consulted for both medical and dietary needs.

By default, retailers and consumers base their purchasing decisions on the training provided by the manufacturer’s sales representatives and the company’s website. Unfortunately, sometimes the information can be misleading, laden with half-truths and superfluous wording to “sell” an ingredient. Ideally, the manufacturer explains what each ingredient is and why it was chosen.

As this article illustrates, the content of a pet food may not be clearly represented by the label. Regrettably, the vision of the manufacturer and its nutritionists may not necessarily be the picture that the retailer interprets from the label. As an industry, we need to be wiser consumers of pet food labels, become better educated on the nutritional value of ingredients and utilize best practices when creating pet food labels.