When you pick up a bag of dog food, there
are three different places you can look for
information about the ingredients: the
front label, the guaranteed analysis, and
the ingredient list. Understanding what the
bag is trying to tell you though, is not as
simple as you might think.
Decoding the Label The FDA has put certain regulations into effect to control how dog food is labeled. This can make determining the general meat content of your dog food easier, but the differences are subtle:
Naming the meat specifically (e.g. Beef for Dogs) translates to at least 95% meat.
Using phrases such as "Dinner," "Formula," "Platter," etc (e.g. Beef Dinner for Dogs) translates to between 25% to 95% meat.
Using "with" (e.g. Dog Food with Beef) translates to at least 3.0% meat.
Using "Flavor" (e.g. Beef Flavored Dog Food) has no set % of meat. It just needs to be a measurable amount.
There are also a myriad of words such as Gourmet, Premium, Holistic, and Human Grade, which have no legal definition when applied to dog food marketing. This means dog food companies can use these terms whether their products are truly superior or not.
De-Emphazising the Guaranteed Analysis The guaranteed analysis provides the minimum or maximum percentages of at least four vital nutrients:
Crude Protein (minimum): Necessary for all aspects of growth and development as well as for maintaining the immune system.
Crude Fat (minimum): Necessary for the absorption, storage, and transportation of fat soluble vitamins as well as providing vital fatty acids.
Crude Fiber (maximum): Improves colon health and helps stabilize blood sugar levels.
Moisture (maximum): To accurately compare nutrient percentages between dog foods, they must have the same moisture level. This means you'll need to do some math before comparing protein levels between wet and dry foods.
The problem with the guaranteed analysis is that the categories are all very broad. For instance, the crude protein percentage includes all protein regardless of quality, type or digestibility. It could be derived from either bison meat, chicken bones, or corn. This is significant because a lower percentage of protein is acceptable if it's derived from a quality source, such as lamb meat.
So, how do you determine the quality of the protein listed in the guaranteed analysis? You look at the ingredients of course.
Deciphering the Ingredient List The ingredient list is the best source of information about the quality of your dog food, but there's also a trick to reading it.
Items are listed in order of weight prior to being added to the formula. This includes their inherent water content, so an item such as meat, which is approximately 75% water, can be placed deceptively high on the ingredient list. The water is removed during the kibbling process so the actual physical presence of meat in the kibble is significantly lower. This is why it's so important meat be the first ingredient of the food.
Be careful though, some companies will list meat as their first ingredient and then follow it up with three different kinds of corn (whole grain corn, corn meal, corn bran, etc). In this situation, the corn content is actually higher than the meat content.
In Summary. . . Pay attention to the phrasing on the label, but ignore the gimmicky words and pretty pictures. The guaranteed analysis is a useful tool, but not necessarily an accurate representation of nutritional value. The best indicator of a dog foods quality is the ingredient list so read it carefully.