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How To Read An Ingredient Panel


By Dr. Al Townshend

The number of pet foods available in North America is overwhelming, and each one is claiming they are the very best. Without doing a little bit of homework, it is almost impossible to decide what foods might be best for your pets.

Certainly, the staff at all Pet Planet stores are well trained, passionate and eager to help you make the best choices for each of your pets. They are a great resource for every Guardian.

It’s still important for you to understand some of the very basic information available to help you make the right choices.

Every pet food, no matter it’s form, dry, wet, near-raw or raw is required to list the ingredients in their food, provide a guaranteed analysis of the food and a suggested feeding guide for the product. In order to fully understand that information, there are a few bits of basic information necessary.

Guaranteed Analysis

Each finished product is required to provide a very basic analysis of the food. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires the percent of Protein, Fat, Fiber and Moisture to be guaranteed on the bag. Consumer demand has encouraged many quality manufacturers to go beyond the basic requirements and include a much larger list of guaranteed nutrients.

The Guaranteed Analysis, by itself, does not provide the best information. Yes, it is important to know the levels of protein and fat in a diet for dogs and cats because they have evolved as carnivores and do best when the bulk of their nutrition is from meat.

You can make a high protein and fat analysis out of old shoe leather and motor oil but we all know that would not be a good diet for any pet. So, it is important to use the information in the Guaranteed Analysis along with the items in the ingredient panel to determine where the protein and fat are coming from.

Ingredient Panel

Items are listed on the ingredient Panel according to their weight as they go in the mix to make the food. The first ingredient is the heaviest or the predominant ingredient in the food by weight.

The average dog food has approximately 38 ingredients listed (How Many Ingredients are There in Pet Food?). That’s a lot but the first 5-6 are the most important.

The general rule is that the ingredients that are listed before the first fat are the most significant.

Ingredients to Look For

  • Every ingredient should be specific. Chicken fat and never animal fat or even poultry fat. General ingredients can be derived from more than one species and usually change every time the food is made based on the price. In order to maintain a consistent and firm, stool, the recipe needs to be the same each time it is made.
  • The first ingredient in a diet for a carnivore (dogs and cats) should be a specific species of meat. There are several classifications of meat for pet foods, especially dry kibble.
  • Chicken is often the first ingredient listed. Chicken, lamb, salmon etc are the fresh meat of the animal mentioned. That sounds good because it is the predominant ingredients by weight since it is listed first. That’s not exactly true. Fresh meat, like the chicken we eat, is approximately 65-70% moisture (water) and what do we do when we make dry pet foods? We take most of the water out. Nutritionally, specific fresh meat will fall 6-7 places on the ingredient list once the water is removed. That makes the second ingredient the predominant ingredient.
  • A concentrated specific meat meal like chicken meal is an ideal first or second ingredient on the list. It is the fresh meat but the majority of the moisture has already been removed.
  • One pound of a concentrated meat meal provides nutrition comparable to 3 pounds of fresh meat.
  • Meat by-products are found in some less expensive foods and are of questionable value. Some by-products are highly nutritious but others are not so good. The problem is that you can’t tell so we tend to avoid animal by-products
  • Grains are considered by many to be bad, but the truth is, whole grains are good. Low Glycemic Index grains like rice and barley are ideal carbohydrates for pets.
  • Legumes like peas, lentils, and garbanzo beans are also low Glycemic Index carbohydrates.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are natural sources of vitamins and minerals for pets.
  • Natural preservatives like mixed tocopherols (vitamin e), ascorbic acid (vitamin c), rosemary, sage or clove.

Ingredients to Avoid

  • Watch for and avoid preservatives linked to cancer like Ethoxyquin, Propylene Glycol       Tertiary Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) or Butylated       Hydroxytoluene (BHT).
  • Carbohydrates like corn, soy and wheat are known allergens and should be avoided
  • Man-made, synthetic ingredient s can encourage food intolerances
  • Artificial Pet Food Dyes like Yellow No. 5 and No. 6, Blue No.2 and Red No.40 are not natural and are common artificial substances known to cause food intolerances and cancer.
  • Simple Sugars are becoming more common in foods. Sugars enhance palatability and are addictive to pets. This will deter pets from eating healthier foods. Examples of these sugars are molasses, corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, and sugar. They increase calories and encourage obesity and can increase the risk of diabetes

Feeding Guide

The feeding guide on the package can also be a good indicator of the quality of the food. They are a general guide to the amount of food needed daily based on a pet’s weight. High-quality ingredients are usually more easily digested and utilized by the pet and therefore you need to feed less.

The age-old adage “we are what we eat” is equally true for our pets. Quality ingredients can cost more. Feeding less each day can mean the bag will last longer and in the long run, cost less to feed a pet on a daily basis.

Be sure to take advantage of the Free Pet Planet Nutrition Consultation at a Pet Planet Health location near you.

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