How to Read an Ingredient List

golden retriever puppy lying down near empty feeding bowl

The ingredient lists on plenty of foods, for humans and dogs alike, can be as
confusing as they can be alarming. If you aren’t familiar with spying out the bad stuff, it’s easy to get lost and frustrated in the process. To help you decide on the best option for your special pet, we’ve compiled a list of tips to help in your quest to decode confusing labels.

Tip #1: Look for Ingredients You Can Pronounce

When it comes to the ingredient list, keep in mind that if you can’t easily pronounce the first four ingredients, the chances are pretty high that you should choose something else. This is also a great guideline to follow in your own diet.

Tip #2: Focus on the Quality of the First Six Ingredients

Generally speaking, ingredients are listed in descending order, the higher up the item is in the list, the more there is of it in the food. The first 6 ingredients typically will make up the majority of the food. So, given that our pups are carnivores, the first two ingredients should be meat. It’s also best to avoid foods that use more than 2 legume ingredients in the first 6 ingredients to ensure most of the protein is coming from meat.

Tip #3: Not All Proteins Are Created Equal

Protein is essential for a healthy dog, but not all sources of protein are created equal. Just because the crude protein percentage is high, doesn’t mean you’re getting high quality protein. We repeat, a high crude protein percentage does not equal a quality food. When selecting a dog food, it’s important to choose a food that’s high in meat protein and low in plant protein and carbohydrates.

Why it’s about Amino Acids and Not Just Crude Protein

Protein quality is impacted by the concentration of essential amino acids and the bioavailability of each amino acid. Bioavailability refers to how a dog digests and absorbs nutrients. In total, there are twenty-two amino acids: ten of which are essential to dogs. Essential means that the body is unable to produce it (or at least not enough of it to support normal function), so it must be acquired through diet or supplements (1).

Highest Quality Dietary Sources of Essential Amino Acids

Dietary sources of essential amino acids are found within proteins, with the
highest concentrations found in animal protein and lower concentrations in vegetable, legume, and grain proteins. Lower quality foods high in fillers like corn, wheat, or soy contain the fewest amino acids, especially if they are heavily processed. This is why a healthy dog requires more meat-based protein than plant-based proteins (1) .

At Grocery Pup, you can actually see the percentage of meat to ‘non-meat’ proteins in each of our recipes, which is pretty groovy! We’ve also formulated the recipes so 90% of the protein comes from the meat to guarantee your pup is getting the highest quality source of protein to fuel their life.

Bioavailability of Proteins

When it comes to protein, it’s not just the type of protein (animal vs. plant
protein) that matters, but also the bioavailability of that protein – how well your dog absorbs the amino acids from the proteins.

While animal-based proteins have the highest bioavailability, bioavailability also changes with how a food is cooked. Cooking at extreme temperatures can decrease the amount of protein your pet is able to use.

Raw and gently cooked food retain the most bioavailability, followed by freeze-dried, dehydrated and slow-baked foods. High-temperature processing, such as the extrusion process that most dry kibble undergoes, has the lowest bioavailability. The extrusion process affects the amino acid structures, and makes them less usable or unusable for certain important body functions. As a result, two foods may use the same protein source, but the processed foods will have less biological value for your dog (2).

The difference in bioavailability due to how foods are cooked is why dogs that eat fresh food actually poop less than when on a processed diet. Since fresh food is more bioavailable, dogs are able to absorb more nutrients and have to excrete out fewer non-digestible ingredients.

Tip #4 Go for The Low Carb Routine!

You now know to always look for real meat listed as the first and second ingredients. But, how do you know if a food is truly low or high carb?

There are 2 things you can do to check the carb levels:

  1. Steer clear of foods that list starchy carbs twice or more on the label’s first 6 ingredients. For example an ingredient list that has both white potatoes and sweet potatoes early on is going to have a high carb count.
  2. Avoid foods that split out ingredients. Ingredient splitting occurs when many ingredients that are very similar are separated out in the ingredient list, making it appear that there is less of that ingredient in the food. This can make the difference between whether a grain or a meat is the primary protein source in your pet’s food. This oftentimes happens with legumes and potatoes. An example of this is listing ‘potato starch’ and ‘potato fiber’ separately in the ingredient list.

In general, dry dog foods will be higher in carbohydrates than fresh foods because the dry food manufacturers need starches to provide structure and shape to the food in the extrusion process. Even canned food will have gums or harmful gelling agents like carrageenan, which has been linked to ulcers and inflammation, to solidify the food (3). Overall, the higher quality dry and canned foods will have less than 35% carbohydrate level.

High quality fresh foods should have less than 15% carbohydrate levels since starch is not necessary to bind the food together. At Grocery Pup, all of our recipes are less than 10% carbohydrates and 90% of the protein comes from the meat to ensure your pup gets the biologically appropriate and tasty meats he or she enjoys.

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