Reading Pet Food Labels - What They Really Mean

With so many different options, how do you know which food to pick for your pet? You can start by looking at all the bags at your local pet store. However, it is crucial you understand the meaning of the pet food companies' lingo. You may be surprised by some of the companies' common marketing gimmicks which are essentially "little white lies."

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the group responsible for definitions of ingredients, setting the rules for labels, and providing standards for healthy pet food. AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods. It is the pet food company's responsibility to formulate their products according to the AAFCO standard. AAFCO does not have the ability to enforce these rules! It is the state feed control official's responsibility to regulate pet food to ensure that the laws and rules established for the protection of companion animals and their custodians are complied with, so that only unadulterated, correctly and uniformly labeled pet food products are distributed in the marketplace and a structure for orderly commerce. AAFCO is like the law-maker, and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets is like the police. Just like people who drive over the speed limit but don't always get caught, some pet food companies may not always follow the rules and don't always get caught.

Comparing and evaluating different pet food diets is very difficult. The massive amount of information and misinformation about pet foods online, in books and publications, and elsewhere has led to much concern and confusion by pet owners. Many online sources, books, magazines and journals that offer pet food advice are not based on scientific articles or medical journals. Their advice and reviews are based on opinions only, not on scientific facts or only use partial facts. These reviews are often based on food myths and advertizing hype. Do not believe information is true because it is on the Internet or has been published. And remember, most people selling food do not have any formal education in nutrition.

Start With the Front of the Bag

The main label should indicate the name of the brand and/or manufacturer (these are not always one and the same), the name of the food (product name), and the type of pet for which this food is indicated.

Some bags have nutritional claims orhealth claims on the front, where a company may claim or suggest special benefits of their food.AAFCO states that the only claims allowed on a label must relate to the intended use of the product as providing taste, aroma, or nutritive value of the food. Other claims are considered to be drug claims. Drug claims are unacceptable on an animal feed label. Examples of drug claims include "reduces inflammation", "cures cancer", or "improves joint function".The only rule for these claims states that they cannot be false or misleading.

A claim that something is "human-grade" or "human-quality" simply implies that the ingredient or food is edible for people in legally defined terms. The terms "human-grade" or "human-quality" have no legal definition. Thus, for all practical purposes, the term "human-grade" means the product is to be eaten by people. For pet food, AAFCO has declared that using the term "human-grade" is "false and misleading". A single or a couple ingredients cannot be called "human-grade" in a pet food. For a product to be human edible, all ingredients in the product must be human edible and the product must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations for human food. If these conditions do not exist, then making an unqualified claim about ingredients being human grade misbrands the product.

The food labels "premium", "ultra premium", "natural" or "holistic" currently have no legal meaning.

"Organic" refers to the processing of a product, not the quality of the product.

What Next?

Look for the AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement. This MUST be somewhere on the bag of food. Two variations of the statement are as follows:

  1. "(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for Maintenance."
  2. "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance."

Why Two Versions?

The difference is that version A above looks at just the nutrient profiles to say what the food contains. For example the diet has X amount of protein, Y amount of fat and Z amount of carbohydrates.

Version B is not necessarily better, but it states that the food has actually been fed to a minimum of 8 animals for a minimum of 26 weeks in order to pass for a maintenance diet. For a growth diet the trial must only last for 10 weeks using 8 dogs.

Interestingly, some manufacturers with a family of similar diets can get away with doing a feeding trial on only one diet while still applying the nutritional adequacy statement to their other similar diets.

Feeding For Life Stages

AAFCO guidelines are designed for dogs and cats according to their life stage. AAFCO diet profiles are for their defined life stages:

  1. Growth for growing puppies and kittens. This also includes lactation, so a nursing mom and pups can eat the same food for a time.
  2. Maintenance for all adults.
  3. All Life Stages means that it has met the growth requirements, but can be fed in a lesser amount for maintenance. Keep in mind that a food for All Life Stages will be high in calories and can be too much for some adult pets, ultimately causing them to gain weight.

AAFCO does not have any rules for breed or size differences. These diets may or may not be different from any other growth or maintenance diets. Some companies have invested time and research to specially formulate their diets to meet the needs of certain breeds or sizes of dogs. An example is a large breed growth diet that is truly formulated to meet the special needs of the large breed growing puppy. While Company A's research has guided their diet formulation, another company, Company B, can market a diet for large breed puppy growth that is nothing more than their growth or all life stages diet in a different package. Unfortunately you cannot tell the difference by only looking at the labels on the bag. There is not any way of knowing which company is producing the better diet without knowledge about the food companies, and calling and asking the companies for their published research and information about their diets.

AAFCO also does not have any standard regulations specially made for senior pets. Thus, many senior diets are really just maintenance or all life stages diets with (or even without) adjustments made by the manufacturer, and labeled for senior pets.

Unfortunately many diets are marketed and sold with inferred benefits, but without any research to support their misleading statements. Preferred diets are produced by reputable companies that are performing quality research that drives the development of their pet diets.

Next in the series we will discuss food ingredients and diet myths!