Looking at ingredients lists to compare dog foods is probably one of the most difficult ways to compare foods. Though it can be simple to glance at ingredients lists to see if foods contain potential allergens if your dog has food allergies or if it contains potentially toxin ingredients – it can be very difficult to infer the composition or proportion of ingredients within the food using the ingredients list. This is why using other items such as guaranteed analysis, AAFCO statements, and product names are actually better ways to see if a food may be more appropriate for our dogs.
There are three main things you should consider when using the ingredients list to compare dog foods.
- Ingredient splitting
- Ingredients to avoid
- Marketing’s influence on Ingredients
Probably the most common tactic that dog food companies use in order to make ingredients appear farther up or down on the ingredients list is by splitting the same item up into pieces. Pet food companies do this in order to move “meat” to be the first ingredient, which is what many dog owners are looking for when choosing a food.
Example #1: Peas may be broken down into pea meal, pea fiber, pea protein. OR Corn may be broken down into cornmeal and corn flour. By doing so these items may move from the first ingredient in overall composition to the second or third.
Example #2: Choosing multiples of the same type of ingredient – for example, a dog food may use red lentils, green lentils, and yellow lentils instead of just lentils. OR they may use kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas, and peas rather than just use one type of bean.
I do think it’s important to point out that even if you do see ingredient splitting it might not be the “end all be all ” when choosing a food. I would argue that having a well-formulated food by a board-certified or PhD nutritionist is probably more important than if the ingredients are listed in a certain order on the bag.
Fresh Ingredients vs. Dehydrated, Powdered, Meals
Another simple way to manipulate the ingredients list is by using powdered or dehydrated forms of products that the company wants further down the ingredients list, and fresh or moisture-rich products of those they want higher on the ingredients list. Ingredients lists are created by listing ingredients highest to lowest weight PRIOR to cooking or processing.
Example: chicken, rice – vs. rice, chicken meal
Comparing dog food based on ingredient specificity is a bit complicated because though we do not want ingredients split so far as to manipulate our perception as to what is within the food, we also want to know exactly what items are. A great example of this is the term “by-products”… Most people HATE this term, however meat by-products are…
“Meat by-products are the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth, and hoofs.” (1)
These organ meats can include many excellent vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients for the dog, and are a great addition to a diet. However, specificity of which organs are used – is ideal for transparency purposes.
Let’s break down how we might see meat by-products become more specific:
- Animal by-products
- Meat by-products
- Beef Liver
The final option is the most specific and gives us as the consumers the most information, and provides the most transparency. However, I should state that the ingredient sourcing and quality control is probably most important for healthy dogs than the specificity of ingredients.
As even if a pet food says a food is “chicken liver” if they do not practice good quality control/sourcing it could just as easily be “turkey liver” or even “chicken gizzard”.
A company with excellent quality control and ingredient sourcing may choose a supplier for animal by-products of a specific composition and grade from a supplier that would still be nutritious to your dog, though not specifically labeled for the consumer.
Ingredients to Avoid
You may be surprised but there are not actually many ingredients that you need to avoid in dog food. Most ingredients are safe for dogs and do not actually pose an issue for a healthy dog. You may choose to avoid certain ingredients due to your own dog’s allergies, sensitivities, or due to a medical condition as well. For the typical healthy dog, here are – in my opinion – the ingredients you should avoid since we now have better options for our dogs on the market.
BHA – Butylated Hydroxyanisole / BHT – Butylated Hydroxytoluene:
BHA and BHT are both synthetic antioxidants that are used as preservatives in pet foods to keep fats from going rancid and reduce mold growth.
Though studies over short periods of time have shown minimal side effects in dogs with the use of BHA as an artificial preservative in dogs (increased liver mass, but no pathogenic or carcinogenic cellular changes). Long-term studies done on rodents have found an increase of hepatic cancer at around mid-life (2yrs of age).
Ethoxyquin is an inexpensive preservative used to keep fats from going rancid and is commonly used in fish meals and fish oils to keep products fresher for longer.
One study done in dogs has found that at higher doses ethoxyquin can cause liver damage and toxicity in dogs – after removal of the ethoxyquin from the diet dogs recovered. Longer-term studies have since re-evaluated the use of ethoxyquin in dog food and found it to now have minimal to no side effects at lower doses in dogs.
PG – Propylene Glycol
PG is used to keep products in a semi-moist state while also reducing bacterial growth.
Though overall safety studies on propylene glycol have shown minimal side effects that are irreversible to dogs, studies did indicate abnormalities in blood values: “anisocytosis, poikilocytes, and reticulocytes were increased, findings indicative of erythrocyte destruction with accelerated replacement from the bone marrow” while dogs were on products containing PG, which may be concerning for some dog owners.
Added colors have no real significant use in dogs – dogs have a much better sense of smell than they do sight. Added colors are mostly used to either distinguish “pet food” from “human food” or to make us (the human consumers) feel like there is more variety to the food items – aka to simulate protein, fruits, and vegetables – with adding colors like green, red and yellow.
Though some artificial colors are safer than others, there are several that have been shown to cause cancer, the overreaction of the immune system, and allergic sensitivities. Since these colors are largely unnecessary, it may be best to avoid them completely.
Ingredients that may give you pause…
The ingredients above are ones that are generally looked at or considered “toxic” for dogs. However, there are other groups of ingredients that have some controversy surrounding their use in pet food. Let’s look at these, and really break down IF your dog should avoid them, or if they are actually generally safe for dogs.
You may be wondering why the heck garlic is found in dog food when places like the Pet Poison Control Helpline have it listed as being toxic to dogs – causing side effects such as hemolytic anemia, cardiac problems, and gastrointestinal problems. But studies have actually shown that it actually requires quite a lot of garlic for dogs to have toxic effects… You would need about 1 clove per pound in order to see toxic effects. That being said – certain breeds are significantly more sensitive to garlic than other dogs – namely Japanese breeds such as the Akita or the Shiba Inu.
However, holistic veterinary practitioners site garlic as being good for dogs in small doses for a variety of things – including gastrointestinal motility, IBS, cardiac problems, and general immune health. Most of these benefits are often inferred based on human research or laboratory research done on other animals.
There are MANY products on the market made to control “fleas” in dogs using garlic. It is important to note that garlic supplements are unregulated, and there is currently no research to support the oral use of garlic for flea or tick control in dogs. Studies done on oral use of garlic in cows have shown a reduction in ticks, but no reduction in flies or other ectoparasites. One study done on three dogs infested with fleas did show a reduction of fleas on the dogs that were kept in the same room in close proximity to garlic. In this study the dogs did not ingest the garlic, nor was it actually touching their skin.
We usually see onion extract used in dog treats to provide an additional flavoring agent. Generally speaking “the dose makes the poison” and small amounts of onion may be fine for your dog. However larger amounts of onions are definitely toxic according to the Pet Poison Control Helpline. So if giving large portions of treats it might be best to stay away from this ingredient within your dog’s food.
There are studies that have looked at the use of Rosemary Essential Oil in dogs that have implicated that at certain doses it can lower the seizure threshold in dogs. At this point Rosemary Extract (which has a different composition than the oil) is considered to be most likely safe for dogs, however, dog food regulators have reserved judgment stating that they are “not in a position to deliver an opinion on the safety and efficacy of the additive rosemary extract liquid of natural origin as a technological additive for dogs and cats.”(2)
Used as a flavor enhancer. Though sugar in small amounts is generally accepted to be safe, there are other ways to impart a flavor on a food besides using sugar – such as using quality ingredients, herbs, fats, and a higher percentage of meat content.
This may be things like “Bacon Flavoring” or “Chicken Flavoring” – these items are not actually required to be composed of the ingredient. Now for dogs with certain medical conditions, artificial flavorings may be a good option to get dogs to continue to eat, however for the typical healthy dogs – using other alternatives like the addition of fats or fresh food may be a better option.
A product of red seaweed that is used in canned and semi-moist diets to provide a certain “fatty” texture to foods. According to reports done by the Cornucopia Institute, chronic ingestion of carrageenan has been proven to cause gastrointestinal inflammation.
There seems to be confusion about what goes into and what doesn’t go into by-products. Meat or Beef By-Products containing the “non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth, and hoofs.”
Poultry By-Products contain the “non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera” along with “giblets (heart, gizzard, and liver) but also other internal organs”
All of these items are nutrient-rich, full of vitamins and minerals, and excellent for your dog – studies looking at wolves and how they eat prey items note that they always start with the organs, and even the gut contents of the animal – it is suggested that they do this because these organs are so nutrient-rich. Items like head and feet are also excellent for dogs – especially dogs prone to joint disease as they are a great natural source of glucosamine, collagen, and chondroitin – along with many minerals that support overall joint health!
What is a meat meal? Basically a “meat meal” is a rendered meat product that has been ground up into almost a powder to make for easy storage, removal of bacteria, and simple processing (aka mixing) in kibbled or canned products.
What does it mean when a product is rendered?
“Rendering is a process where the materials are subject to heat and pressure, removing most of the water and fat and leaving primarily protein and minerals. You will notice that the term “meal” is used in all cases; because, in addition to cooking, the products are ground to form uniform sized particles.” (3)
Since meat meals are usually heated twice – once during the initial processing and once afterward there are concerns that the food will not have the same digestibility as diets using the whole fresh ingredients. However, a good dog food company would perform digestibility studies on their foods to make sure this would not be an issue for dogs consuming the diet. Keep in mind that digestibility studies are not required, and a majority of companies do not actually perform additional research on their diets.
The truth is – though so many people are “anti-corn” it is actually highly digestible for dogs when cooked and refined in a certain way. Corn is not toxic for dogs, but just like any other ingredient – a diet composed of 100% corn would not be balanced. When considering a diet that has corn as an ingredient, making sure the diet is well formulated to account for digestibility and nutritional needs is ideal.
Two other concerns that we do have with corn are Mycotoxins and Pesticides. These are legitimate concerns when it comes to the inclusion of corn in pet food, however, both can easily be remedied with good quality control, and ingredient sourcing.
Bottom line – corn is not toxic to dogs.
Though dogs can digest soy when it is processed and cooked correctly, there is research that too much soy may cause issues with the digestibility of other ingredients and block absorption of certain amino acids that are essential for overall health. Another concern with soy often comes from it being non-organic, but both of these issues are easily remedied with proper formulation and sourcing of ingredients.
Button Line – soy is not toxic to dogs.
Marketing’s Influence on Ingredients Lists
Have you noticed that as soon as a large portion of consumers want something companies flock to find a way to fill that need? This sometimes is a great way to drive positive change in an industry, however, it can also drive unnecessary change due to misinformation or partial truths.
As a dog owner you need to keep in mind that every dog food is trying to market to YOU and YOUR preferences NOT necessarily your dog’s needs.
Let’s start with some simple terms – what you might think they mean, and what they ACTUALLY mean (if anything) by AAFCO definition.
Natural with added vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients
Synthetic ingredients in an otherwise natural product
A feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.AAFCO Ingredient Definition
Eg “Not Natural” chelated minerals, mineral amino acid complexes, vitamin supplements, propylene glycol, calcium ascorbate, and other preservatives, such as BHA and BHT, as well as artificial flavors and colors.
“Natural with added vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients” is a disclaimer—not a boast—that identifies the synthetic ingredients in an otherwise natural product.
Keep in mind that some “not natural” options like chelated miners are actually MORE digestible and provide MORE nutritional value for dogs. So having a whole-ly natural product does not necessarily make it better than one that is not labeled as natural.
Holistic Dog Food
There is currently no definition or standard for foods using the word “holistic”. Meaning there is no standards as to requirements or foods, ingredients, packaging, or processes related to foods labeled “holistic”.
Edible is a standard; human-grade is not. For a product to be deemed edible for humans, all ingredients must be human edible and the product must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations in 21 CFR 110, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food. If these conditions are met for a pet food, human-grade claims may be made. If these conditions are not met, then it is an unqualified claim and misbrands the product.AAFCO Ingredient Definition
Website Claim “Human-Grade” without same claim on Label
The truth is regulators have an easier time policing product labels than they do websites. And there are many claims online for products that are human-grade but that actually do not meet the standards of a human-grade product. Either because they do not actually produce the product in a human-grade facility OR because not ALL the ingredients are actually human grade.
Made with Human-Grade Ingredients
In order to make the claim of a human-grade dog food the ingredients must all individually be proven to be fit for human consumption, AND the food must be produced in a facility that meets human-edible standards for manufacturing.
Raw dog foods have a particular issue meeting the full human-grade standard in the simple fact that the food is not cooked, and by law to be human-edible a raw meat product must have cooking instructions on the package. For obvious reasons, raw dog food companies do not place cooking instructions on the package. (4)
For foods that state they are made with USDA certified meats, but that is not labeled as “human-grade” you will need to do further research as to WHY the food is not labeled as “human-grade” because it could be due to manufacturing practices, it could be due to storage of those human-grade ingredients prior to use, or it could be that the ingredients themselves are just not fit for human consumption because they are raw.
Premium Dog Food
There is currently no definition or standard to foods using the words “premium” or “gourmet”, and products using these words are not required to use any different processing, packaging, or ingredients than those not using those words.
A study was done years back actually showed when comparing digestibility of grocery-store brand, and premium brand products – there was no significant difference in overall digestibility between items. This further proves that these descriptive terms are not helpful when evaluating pet foods.
What I really want you to take away when it comes to choosing a food for your dog is that though you definitely can gain some information from the ingredients list of the dog food, it’s very easy to manipulate the ingredients list to make foods appear on paper to have a different composition than they are.
Using the ingredients list alone to evaluate a dog food isn’t that helpful – and using simple rules like “only choose natural dog foods” or “look at meat as the first ingredient” doesn’t guarantee that a food is BEST for your dog. There are so many different things you need to consider beyond just the ingredients list to choose a food that is best for your dog.
Until next time my canine health nuts!
About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, AS Animal Health -2013) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.
Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!
You should receive your Free Dog Food Recipe Ebook within 24 hours of subscribing! Make sure to check your spam folder. The recipe ebook is over 90 pages long so make sure you have a good internet connection when you go to download it. Afterwards you will receive weekly Canine Nutrition Updates every Tuesday on different topics related to canine nutrition & homemade dog food!