Forget the Food’s Packaging, Read the Ingredient List

Forget the Food’s Packaging, Read the Ingredient List

By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

There is a great deal of information out there in the world when it comes to pet food – from television commercials to pet store sales people to the internet. However, a good marketing campaign does not always equal good food and much of the information that you receive is misleading or down-right false. In fact, did you know that a manufacturer only has to produce one batch of food that matches the ingredient list on the bag every six months?! Combing through all of this information on your own is overwhelming and when you read a pet food ingredient list there may be unfamiliar terms that may leave you scratching your head. Our goal is to help you better understand the ingredient list linguistics and what they really mean for your pet. Also keep in mind that just because a food is thought to be a high-quality diet, it does not mean it is the best diet for your individual dog. You want to be sure that the food that you are feeding is a food that provides the best nutrition for your specific pet and is not just the latest trend. A few things to pay attention to included the quality of your pet’s coat, which should be shiny and thick, and your pet’s bathroom habits, he/she should only be producing a bowel movement around 30 minutes after eating and it should be nice and firm!

You also want to keep in mind when reading the ingredient list that ingredients are listed by weight before processing. That means that just because “whole chicken” is listed as the first ingredient, instead of “chicken meal”, does not mean that food actually has more chicken. The cooking process will decrease the weight significantly as the moisture and fat are removed so if the ingredient list was based on the weight of what was actually put into the food after it is prepared the list may tell a totally different story.

Pet Food Ingredient List Terms:

1.) Meat: Muscle tissue that may or may not include fat and portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels.

2.) Meat Byproducts: Most of the parts of the animal other than muscle tissue, including familiar parts such as livers, kidneys and tripe, but also udders and lungs.

3.) Poultry: The parts of the bird you would find if you purchased a whole chicken or turkey at the grocery store. This likely includes backs and necks and may include bone, which can serve as a source of calcium.

4.) Poultry Byproducts: This includes most of the parts that are not included in a dressed bird such as the heart, gizzard and liver, but also other internal organs, heads and feet.

5.) Meat Meal: This is a product made from mammal tissues that have been subject to cooking to destroy any harmful bacteria and to remove most of the water and fat, leaving primarily protein and minerals. Meat products are ground to form uniform sized particles.

6.) Meat and Bone Meal: Similar to “meat meal,” but contains added bone.

7.) Animal Byproduct Meal: Similar to “meat meal” and “meat and bone meal,” but may include additional byproducts.

8.) Poultry Byproduct Meal: Essentially the same as “poultry byproducts”, but in rendered form.

9.) Poultry Meal: Rendered part of the whole carcass and skin with or without accompanying bone.

10.) Vitamins and Minerals: Many names are recognizable. But others, like the following, may not be: Cholecalciferol (supplies Vitamin D from animal sources), Ergocalciferol (Supplies Vitamin D from plant sources), Riboflavin Supplement (a source of vitamin B2), Alpha-Tocopherol acetate (supplies vitamin E), Thiamine mononitrate (source of Vitamin B1), Pyridoxine hydrochloride (source of Vitamin B6).

11.) Chemical preservatives: Commonly used ingredients include absorbic acid, benzoic acid, butylated hydroxyanisol (BHA), butylated hydroxyltoluene (BHT), calcium ascorbate, citric acid, ethoxyquin, potassium sorbate, sodium bisulfate and mixed tocopherols.

12.) Conditioning agents, thickeners, emulsifiers, sequestrants, flavors and seasonings: Commonly used ingredients include carrageenan, propylene glycol (prohibited from use in cat food), sodium hexametaphosphate (to reduce dental tartar in dogs and cats), agar-agar and guar gum.

The Difference between Holistic, Natural, and Organic Pet Foods:

The terms “Holistic”, “Natural” and “Organic” get used a great deal and often appeal to us as owners because it seems like these would be healthier options for your pet; however, it is important to understand what these terms actually mean. According to the FDA the term “Holistic” has no legal definition. That means that a manufacturer can place this label on their food without it being any different than the bag next to it.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) released their definition of “Natural” as being anything “derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.” What this ends up meaning to you is that the term “Natural” pretty much covers all ingredients from sources that are not chemically altered, but these ingredients can still go through a ton of processes before the final product is put into your pet’s food. When it comes down to it, just because the ingredients are termed “Natural”, doesn’t mean the end product is any healthier for your pet.

While the terms “Holistic” is not regulated at all and “Natural” just refers to the source of the ingredients and not to any of the processes the ingredients go through before being made into food, the term “Organic” is more strictly regulated. The requirements or guidelines for a manufacturer to be able to put “Organic” on their label are handled by the USDA and require the plant ingredients to be grown without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, genetic modification, irradiation or sewage sludge. The animal ingredients must be from animals raised on organic feed, given access to the outdoors and not treated with antibiotics or hormones. If you are trying to decide between “Holistic”, “Natural”, or “Organic” remember that it takes much more to be allowed to have an “Organic” label than the others.

Understanding Preservatives and Why They Are Important:

There is a great deal of misinformation about preservatives and most of it paints preservatives in a very negative light, but without proper preservation, your pet’s food can quickly spoil and cause illness rather than the good health we are all looking to provide through optimal nutrition. Artificial preservatives in dry dog foods include ethoxyquin, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). These are very effective at preventing fats from becoming rancid (the primary problem we face in preserving dry dog food) and can greatly extend the product’s shelf life. There are natural preservatives, such as vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and plant extracts (like rosemary), which can be added to a dry dog food to prevent fats from becoming rancid. Unfortunately, natural preservatives are effective for shorter periods of time than artificial preservatives, which means naturally preserved foods tend to have a much shorter shelf life. Please keep this in mind when you see labels such as “preservative free” or “natural preservatives only” because rancid food can cause a variety of health issues and the scary thing is that food can spoil weeks before you notice any smell or difference in texture in the food, making it too late to prevent your pet from ingesting rotten food.

The Truth about Raw Food Diets and the Hidden Dangers:

Most people who are interested in feeding a raw food diet are trying to provide a diet that most closely mimics the diet of wolves and wild cats, but almost all raw food diets are not nutritionally balanced or complete, and most are contaminated with harmful bacteria. All pet foods need to be nutritionally balanced and complete in order to avoid health issues in our pets, including everything from heart issues to poor joint health. Most raw food diets lack adequate amounts of certain nutrients or contain dangerous levels of others. Despite the fact that bones do provide nutrients, bones should never be fed to a dog (regardless of whether it is part of a raw food diet or not) because of the danger of the bone splintering in the intestines, resulting in loose and/or broken teeth, oral injuries, and intestinal blockages – which can have serious, even fatal consequences. Since the meat used in these diets is not cooked, pathogens such as bacteria, parasites, and protozoa can be passed from the raw meats to pets. This puts pets and the family members at risk when they come in contact with the food, the dishes, the pet and the pet feces. Studies have shown that at least 80% of these diets had Salmonella present and that a minimum of 30% were shedding Salmonella in the feces. Due to these diets not being balanced or complete, having the ability to transfer dangerous pathogens to your pet, and for the family to be exposed to these pathogens as well are all reasons raw food diets are not recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association.