Decoding Food Labels

This summer, I participated in a local Pet Day celebration and talked to many people about deciphering food labels, for both cats and dogs.

People are so much more aware of ingredients and food intolerances than 10 years ago, but still struggle with food labeling.  Current labeling practices don’t make it easy.  The guideline used to be to look for meat as most of the first four ingredients.  It’s gotten a little trickier.

Ingredients are listed in order of decreasing weight or volume, but it’s not always as it seems.

If 2 ingredients have equal weights, they are listed side by side, in the order preferred by the manufacturer.  There are no numbered or hierarchical lists.  There is no indication of where volume/weight changes.  So you don’t know if ingredient 5 weighs the same as ingredient 1 ??

Consider this list :

chicken, chicken meal, turkey, turkey meal, whole grain brown rice, whole grain white rice, oatmeal, barley, millet


There could be just as much rice as turkey or chicken.

There could be more grain (4 or 5) than meat ( 4) ??

Watch for “and” combinations.  A list that has beef, bone meal is totally different from beef and bone meal.  The first tells you there is beef or muscle meat.  The second is saying muscle meat and bone meal are mixed and added.

Breaking an ingredient into components is a strategy used by some manufacturers to move less desirable ingredients farther down the list.  If you add the components together, it may mean the weight may exceed a more desirable ingredient.  For example, rice could be listed as:

  • ground brown rice (hulls removed and ground)
  • rice bran (bran layer or rice germ)
  • rice flour (leftovers from milling)

So how can you decide?

My strategy is buyer beware, be smarter than marketing, stay educated and read the label!

Do a quick review of ingredients – look for high quality named animal/fish proteins, named fats and whole foods. Avoid synthesized vitamin and mineral additives (the ones you can’t pronounce). Look for natural preservatives like tocopherols (Vitamin E) and Vitamin C, or antioxidants like rosemary extract.

Calculate the percentage of carbs

Pet food labels always include a Guaranteed Analysis which lists the product’s minimum protein, minimum fat, maximum, maximum fiber and moisture.  What is not required is a carbohydrate content.  Fiber is not the same as carbohydrates.  Recognizing these are approximates, find the carbohydrate content by taking the sum of what is given from 100.

Guaranteed Analysis on a can of food:
Crude Protein (min) 11 %
Crude Fat (min) 6 %
Crude Fiber (max) 1.5 %
Moisture (max) 75 %

100 – (11 + 6 + 1.5 + 75) = 6.5% Carbohydrates

Calculate the protein

BUT wait – the protein content is listed as 11%.  Yes, but it’s a minimum content.  To determine the actual content, you have to look at the content with the moisture removed or a dry matter basis.  Subtract the listed percentage of moisture from 100% to find the total percentage of dry matter for this food:

100 – 75 = 25.

Then find the total percentage of protein on a dry matter basis.  Divide the percentage of crude protein (11%) by the percentage of dry matter (25%):

11/25 = .44

Then multiply this by 100 to give you your total percentage of protein within this food on a dry matter basis: 44%.

Follow the same steps to find DM for fat content as well:  6/25 = .24 or 24%.

Knowing the dry matter basis will also allow a comparison of different food products, across different food styles.

And how does this help?

Keeping in mind the model ancestral diet of 50-56% protein, 25-30%fat and 14% carbohydrates, look for an approximate ratio for your dog’s food.  It will be close to impossible to find a non-raw, processed food that meets the model.

In this example for a canned food, the carbs were really low compared to the model ancestral diet, the fat within range, and the protein was low.  It doesn’t mean it’s a bad food.  This canned food could be used as a topper to complement another food style.  Use the information to your advantage.

Hopefully, you can now look at your current food and decide if it truly is a good choice for your dog.  If the carbohydrate content is over 40%, look for a better product.  If the ingredient list is disappointing or mysterious, look for another product.

Don’t be afraid to contact the manufacturer and ask questions.  The contact information should be on the bag/box.  If it isn’t, or they are elusive in their answers, find another product.

One more bit of helpful information on the label is the metabolizable energy (ME) or caloric content.  It is usually given in kcal per bag and per serving.  Theoretically the higher the ME the less you should have to feed.  My caution here is look at this number as a guideline after you’ve determined the protein to fat to carbohydrate ratios AND have accepted the ingredients as quality.

Look for another article from me in the next few weeks, discussing ingredients and synthetic additives.  I’ll go over naming conventions and specific ingredients to avoid.