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How Do I Know a Pet Food is Good?

January 30, 2011
big brown-eyed white dog with tan spots looks beseechingly at the camera

"Is my food healthy, mommy?"

How to Read Pet Food Labels: “Whole Meat”

Let’s talk about pet food labels. This will be the first in a series about pet food labels in America. While the laws may vary between countries, the tricks used to cheat consumers and increase profits have universal corporate appeal.

“Doc, what do you think of this new food I bought? It is made with whole meat and no by products or meat meal,” said Sanford, the adopted Polar-bear looking dog’s mom.

Sounds good, right? Whole meat must be better than “meal” or meat by- products, right?

Maybe, maybe not. Here’s what you need to understand:

Fact: ingredients on food labels in the US are listed by volume.

Whole Meat is 70% Water

What does this mean for meat? Well, whole meat is muscle. Muscle is 70% water. So, the whole meat that shows up as the first ingredient on the list is nutritionally 70% water. If you counted just the protein, then that meat might not rank so highly on the list. Then corn, beet fiber, wheat by-products, and many other ingredients might top the list. Would you pay top dollar for dog food made from corn, instead of beef? Probably not.

How Much Lamb is in This Food?

In the following popular natural brand’s ingredient list, the deboned lamb shows up first.  The addition of the descriptive “deboned” not only adds substance to the physical size of the “Lamb” ingredient visually on the label, it indicates extra caring in the wording.  The company wants you to know they are looking out for you.  They are not cheating you by counting “bone” in with the lamb meat.

Would you pay more for “oatmeal?”

Thanks for nothing!  “Lamb” with the bone left in is not “Lamb” by US labeling laws, so they are not doing you, the consumer, any favors.  That Lamb is 70% water.  This leading, popular food costs much more than many brands on the market.  Would you pay more for “oatmeal?”  Possibly oatmeal is the major ingredient by dry weight (the weight of the ingredients if you exclude water, called “dry matter basis.”)  Possible lamb is still the most plentiful ingredient; there is no way of telling from a label.

Example of a Popular Ingredient List:

Deboned Lamb, Oatmeal, Whole Ground Barley, Menhaden Fish Meal (natural source of DHA-Docosahexaenoic Acid), Turkey Meal, Peas, Canola Oil (Naturall preserved with Mixed Tocopherols), Whole Ground Brown Rice, Natural Lamb Flavor, Whole Potatoes, Alfalfa Meal,Tomato Pomace (natural source of Lycopene), Flaxseed (natural source of Omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acids), Sunflower Oil (natural source of Omega 6 Fatty Acids), Whole Carrots, Whole Sweet Potatoes, Blueberries, Cranberries, Barley Grass, Dried Parsley, Garlic, Dried Kelp, Yucca Schidigera Extract, L-Carnitine, L-Lysine, Turmeric, Oil of Rosemary, Dried Chicory Root, Beta Carotene, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1),Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Niacin (Vitamin B3), d-Calcium Pantothenate (Vitamin B5), Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Biotin (Vitamin B7), Folic Acid (Vitamin B9), Vitamin B12 Supplement, Calcium Ascorbate (source of Vitamin C), Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Iron Amino Acid Chelate, Zinc Amino Acid Chelate, Manganese Amino Acid Chelate,Copper Amino Acid Chelate, Choline Chloride, Sodium Selenite, Calcium Iodate, Salt, Caramel,Potassium Chloride, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bacillus subtilis,Enterococcus faecium.

Pet Food Labeling = Human Psychology

Pet food companies know how you think. They know you want the best for your pet. They know the meat is 70% water and contains far less quality protein than meat meal of the same volume. They can entice you to buy food with less quality protein because you are seduced by the “whole meat” label.  Perhaps a company listing “whole meat” does it to look good, perhaps they truly believe the produce good diets.  You cannot tell corporate beliefs form a label.  You cannot place your trust solely in a marketing campaign.  Just be aware and use all the best information you have at your disposal to make the best decisions you can.

Learn All You Can About Food Labeling

What can you do about it? With lots of research and support from your veterinarian, including a nutritional consultation with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, you might begin cooking real food for your pets. Preferably organic, local and/or fresh.

(Are you laughing at the thought of cooking for your pet? Are you thinking, “I don’t eat like that, who’s Doc Truli kidding?) You asked for advice! There it is.

Next advice, just do not be quick to buy every new trendy food that gets on TV. Few of them have track records for quality and consistency. When you consider if the cost of your Pet’s food is worthwhile, don’t believe the advertising. Just remember: there is no way of telling from the label.

Next time we’ll talk about AAFCO and why you should care.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2011 11:48 am

    Good post. We all need to educate ourselves on what is best to feed our pets. Wading through deceptive labeling can be tough and even then, you may not be sure you’ve chosen something completely wholesome. When my little dog didn’t react well to 2 name brand kibbles, I switched her over to home-cooked food (Dr. Pitcairn’s diets, supplemented as directed). That was 8 years ago and she has done very well considering she came to us with missing teeth, a heart murmur, heartworm, flea allergy dermatitis and was partially starved. To encourage those thinking about home cooking, it really is not that difficult or time consuming. Use a crockpot — you can throw ingredients in early in the day and have healthy home-cooked meals by evening. I usually cook every 10- 14 days and make enough to freeze. It has been totally worthwhile and an added benefit? I love to see how much she enjoys her food.

    • February 4, 2011 6:57 pm

      Carolyn is referring to Dr. Pitcairn’s New Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats [Paperback]
      Richard H. Pitcairn and Susan Hubble Pitcairn, authors.

      The diet sections of this book are fantastic (about 5 chapters). The dietary minerals, vitamins, and mixes can be difficult to find the ingredients. The *** advises “or a multi-vitamin. The multi-vitamin may be the route to go so you don’t drive yourself crazy looking for rare ingredients.

      Happy Cooking,
      -Doc Truli

  2. January 31, 2011 11:45 am

    Thank you so much for posting this. The only issue I’m wanting to mention is that I found it to be confusing and too complicated and I don’t consider myself to be dumb. I would prefer something in layman’s terms rather than terminology that I consider jargon to that industry.
    I personally feed my dogs, Nutro for Sensitive stomachs with a healthy large scoop of holistic select wet food ….. maybe like a chart of what is good in general versus not so good ingredients.

    Thank you again.

    • January 31, 2011 10:23 pm

      Thanks for the “feed”back Diana. I admit, the post is convoluted. The next post has a little more simplification. Thing is, the topic of what is nutritious and what we should eat combined with advertising and psychology is confusing and complicated. Mostly because I’m not into telling you what to do and not to do. VirtuaVet is about bringing up the issues and the confusions and the misconceptions and exposing them. Everybody is confused about these things because they are confusing.

      Throwing the China melamine thing into the middle probably didn’t help. But my gut tells me there’s something in common there.

      A chart of “good” and “not good” ingredients will not work. Ingredients are only as good as the soil and water and light used to grow them, the integrity of the company manufacturing and packaging them, and the outlets selling them. My philosophy is to take what you know and what your pet is accustomed to and improve gradually as you learn more.

      Thanks for the comment, Diana!
      Doc Truli

  3. Mindy permalink
    January 31, 2011 12:32 am

    Oh, I’m more confused now than ever! The dog food label you used as an example looks like it is from the same company as the food my cats eat. I thought that food was really healthy, but the first ingredient is deboned chicken!

    • January 31, 2011 8:15 am

      Whole meat is good. However, because the label is published by ingredient volume, including water, and not on a dry matter basis, you do not know if the meat truly is the first ingredient. Does it matter? Probably not! But did you think the food was better partly because meat was listed as the first ingredient? Probably.

      “Deboned” is fine. No evil there. It’s the impression you get, like the company is doing you a huge favor, making a way better food. In a convoluted way, I’m saying “beware of the marketing hype.”

      Some of the criteria a food company may say is important is not nutritionally that important (does your cat need fruit?) Some of the criteria is gibberish because the requirements for labeling make it impossible to tell what is really going on. (You want high quality protein. Is high quality protein the largest component of the diet? You cannot tell from the label!!!) Oatmeal might be a fine dietary base for dog food. It is not for cat food (cats are obligate carnivores.) But my point is, did you think the food was better because of the clever “scientific” label? I’ll bet you did!

      The example label is typical of the newly marketed diets with whole meat, all the herbs and fruits and vegetables and probiotics in the diet. I applaud any company doing a good job. I’m just saying you cannot tell the job they are doing from the label and the marketing.

      I choose foods based on track records, my visits to the factories, my gut feeling about the management based on the attitudes I hear and feel from the representatives. I look for a holistic-minded corporate culture. I look for AAFCO “as fed.”

      • Mindy permalink
        January 31, 2011 1:55 pm

        Thank you so much for all the info you have shared with me! I guess I need to just stop being neurotic, but I don’t have children and Phoebe & Zoey are my babies…


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