8 Simple Steps for How to Read a Dog Food Label

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Like us humans, what dogs eat matters to their longevity. Unfortunately dog food labels

can be super sneaky. At Grocery Pup, we’ve worked to simplify this process by:

  • Providing only human-grade ingredients to guarantee premium quality

  • Making food with easy to see ingredients so you know what’s in our meals. No more canned mush or dry pellets that make it impossible to tell what’s in the food.

Despite taking these steps, we still hear a lot of confusion and noise around how consumers can know what they are feeding their dogs.  Below, we list 8 key steps to read a dog food label confidently. This will help you pick the best food for your dog’s needs. Better yet, it will eliminate the need to hope that paying more will get you better quality.

Step #1: Don’t Be a Fool to the Pretty Imagery on the Front of the Packaging. We know those pictures of juicy steaks are tantalizing. And, those farm fresh vegetables evoke memories of delicious Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house. But, whatever you do, don’t let them seduce you into thinking they represent what’s in the dog food. If you want to know what you’re actually feeding your dog, it’s important to ignore that lovely imagery. Instead, focus on the ingredient list and nutritional facts listed on the back. In too many cases, you’ll find out those yummy looking pictures don’t represent what’s actually in the food.

Step #2: Don’t Only Check if Meat Is the First Ingredient, Look at the First Five Ingredients: Dog food companies list ingredients in order of descending weight. Consumers that know this, often check if a dog food brand lists meat first. They assume that if meat is the first ingredient, then the food must be premium quality. Unfortunately, is isn’t always true.

What you need to keep in mind is that these labels list uncooked, ingredients by their weight. This means that labels list meat is at its raw weight, which includes quite a bit of water weight. As a result, meat is oftentimes the heaviest ingredient listed first. Once the cooking process removes water from the meat, the meat is reduced in weight. With dry dog food, ingredients are cooked at extremely high temperatures and the weight of the meat can be reduced by roughly 80%! This means that the bulk of the food is likely coming from ingredients two, three, four and five. For these ingredients, look for another meat or meat meal (a high protein source), vegetables or fruits, and one grain source. If most or all are grain or potato sources then it means the food is very carb-heavy and not ideal for your pupper. Below are two examples of this. You’ll see both have meat listed first, but Example 1 has all carbs in the four ingredients that follow. Whereas, Example 2, has a good combo of meat and veggies listed in the next four ingredients.

Example 1

Beneful Label

Example 2

Zignature Label

Step #3: Look for Human-Grade Ingredients. Ideally the food you buy uses ingredients fit for human consumption. Looking for humane-grade isn’t about finding food that you and your dog could eat together. Instead, it’s about finding ingredients that truly are high-quality and premium. Due to lax FDA labeling requirements, humane-grade ingredients are the only way to guarantee your dog’s food contains high quality ingredients.

According to the FDA: “Products labeled as premium or gourmet are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any other complete and balanced products.” As a result, you can only know for sure that you’re getting good cuts of meat if you get human-grade dog food. Without human-grade ingredients, there’s no guarantee that the meat recipe that’s marketed and priced as premium is indeed premium. And, there’s no guarantee the meat is from a good source and not from an animal that was deemed unfit for human consumption due to a disease such as cancer.

Step #4: Avoid Meat By-Products and Digest. Animal by-products and digest include what’s leftover after all of the parts fit for human consumption have been removed from a carcass. As a result, by-products and digest are often inedible waste materials like heads, feet, lungs, and even tumors. There are exceptions to this with by-products that can include livers, kidneys, hearts, or gizzards (all good things for dogs). But, to be safe, if a label doesn’t specify what’s included in the by-products, we recommend avoiding the food.

Step #5: Avoid Corn or Soy. Both are cheap filler ingredients that are often used as low-quality protein substitutes. Corn has minimal nutritional value and is one of the most common causes of food allergies in dogs. Soy has been shown to negatively affect the thyroid gland and disrupt the endocrine system.

Step #6: Avoid Artificial Colors, Flavors, and Sugars. These are ingredients with no nutritional value. Dog foods include colors such as Yellow-6 or Red-40 to enhance the appearance of the food for you as the consumer. Ever seen those playful hearts or bone shaped kibble bites in various colors? As cute as those seem, it’s best to stay away from them as they aren’t providing any nutritional benefits to your pup. Brands will also add flavors and sugars to dog food to boost the taste of inferior ingredients.

Step #7: Know that Guaranteed Analysis Tells You Nothing About the Sources of Protein, Fat, or Fiber. A high protein percentage on a label may seem like a good thing, but it’s not enough to know if the food is high-quality food. Dog food brands can boost their protein percentage by adding in low-quality protein ingredients like soy or inedible parts of animals such as feat, heads or frames. Because of this, it’s best to reference the ingredient list to determine food quality.

Step #8: Don’t’ Rely on Guaranteed Analysis to Determine the Amount of Protein, Fat or Fiber. This is one of the more frustrating and confusing parts of dog food labels. Unfortunately, the percentage of protein, fat and fiber is not something you can 100% rely on. The worst part is that it’s a real pain to use the Guaranteed Analysis to compare dog food brands while shopping. To show why this is the case, we run through how to properly look at the Guaranteed Analysis below.

As you can see in the table, at first glance, it appears that Grocery Pup food has less than half of the amount of protein of the dry food. This is very misleading. It’s a comparison of apples to oranges. This is due to the different ways dry dog food is cooked (at extremely high temperatures) and Grocery Pup food is cooked (at very low temperatures).

Grocery Pup Food ‘Premium’ Dry Dog Food
Guaranteed Analysis Guaranteed Analysis
Protein (min) 10.5% Protein (min) 25%
Fat (min) 3.2% Fat (min) 10%
Moisture (max) 73.1% Moisture (max) 14%
Fiber 0.39% Fiber (max) 4%
Ingredients Ingredients
Human Grade Meat = 56.46%

Vegetables = 31.88%

Rice = 10.19%

Vitamin & Mineral Supplement = 1.47%

Ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), soy protein concentrate, soy flour, water, rice flour, pearled barley, sugar, tricalcium phosphate, propylene glycol, animal digest, dicalcium phosphate, salt, phosphoric acid, sorbic acid (a preservative), calcium carbonate, potassium chloride, L-Lysine monohydrochloride, dried spinach, dried apples, dried sweet potatoes, choline chloride, calcium propionate (a preservative), added color (Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 2, Yellow 6), Vitamin E supplement, zinc sulfate, ferrous sulfate, manganese sulfate, niacin, Vitamin A supplement, copper sulfate, Vitamin B-12 supplement, DL-Methionine, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, garlic oil, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin supplement, Vitamin D-3 supplement, calcium iodate, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), folic acid, biotin, sodium selenite

In order to compare apples to apples, we need to calculate the guaranteed analysis ingredients on a dry matter basis using the following formula:

100 Percent – Percent Moisture = Percent Dry Matter (DM)

Using this formula, we can determine the percent protein of each food as follows:

Grocery Pup has 73.1% moisture

100%-73.1%= 26.9%

Grocery Pup food is 26.9% dry matter

Dry food has 14% moisture

100% – 14%=86%

The dry food is 86% dry matter

Percent Protein/Percent Dry Matter = Percent Protein on a Dry Matter Basis

Using this formula, we can determine the percent protein of each food as follows:

Grocery Pup: 10.5% protein, 26.9% dry matter

10.5%/26.9%=39%

Grocery Pup has 39% dry matter protein

Dry Food: 25% protein, 86% dry matter

25%/86% = 29%

Dry Food has 29% dry matter protein

As you can see by these calculations, Grocery Pup has a higher percentage of protein than the dry dog food. Yet, you would have never known this without the calculations.

Obviously, we don’t expect you to do these calculations while shopping at the store or online. But, we do want you to know that it’s not enough to compare foods by looking at the guaranteed analysis alone. You’ll be better informed by using steps #1 to #6 to compare the ingredient lists.

We hope this helps you navigate the dog food arena. If you have any questions or have anything to add, please don’t be shy about speaking up in the comments section!

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