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How to Read an Ingredient Label

Ingredients are more important than the min’s and max’s of protein, fats and fiber. Did you realize that carbohydrates are not listed in the guaranteed analysis? Did you know that undigestible shoe leather (i.e. animal hide) is high protein? Did you know that the more moisture in the food the lower the protein content will appear? Can you calculate how digestible the food is based on the label information? Remember, it’s not that you are what you eat, but rather what you absorb! Did you know that Vitamin C is not recognized as an essential nutrient by AAFCO’s Dog Nutrient Profile? Is it no wonder that glucosamine is not considered essential either?

With all that in mind, learning some AAFCO definitions and labeling tricks can help you compare foods and choose what is the best for your situation. AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials, an industry organization. Incidentally, there is no AAFCO definition for Premium or Natural.

Always look at the back of the bag or the side of the box for Ingredients:

They are listed in order of weight. Ideally we want to see a meat first. This refers to clean flesh. But we don’t want to see the word “meat” as this refers to any slaughtered mammal. Look for a specific meat such as chicken, turkey or beef. If it is listed as such, it has been weighed with the water still in it. This makes it heavier and brings it to the top of the list, however, the water is removed in processing, meaning less weight of actual meat-derived protein in the food, so another term a “specific meat” meal is rendered tissues (no hair, hoof, hide nor extraneous materials) and by definition, up to 9% of the crude protein in the product may be pepsin indigestible. This product would be more protein dense than the counterpart weighed with water included.

By-products by definition are non-rendered, from slaughtered animals. They include organs, fat and entrails, not hair, horns, teeth or hooves. By-products can be healthy, but we don’t know the quality based on a label listing. Carnivores do need to ingest organs for good health.

If a meat product is followed by more than one grain, than there would be more grain than meat by weight, even though the meat is listed first. A common marketing trick is to list a grain, for example corn, as a breakdown of corn gluten, corn starch, corn middlings, etc. This then puts the corn versions below the meat source, unless you add them all together! Corn is used to fatten livestock. This is not a natural food for a carnivore diet. Think about it!

A Purina study lists wheat as a common allergen. Why is it a major ingredient in their “Milk Bones”?

INGREDIENTS: Wheat flour, beef meal and beef bone meal, milk, wheat bran, beef fat preserved with tocopherols, salt, dicalcium phosphate wheat germ, natural flavor, calcium carbonate, brewers dried yeast, malted barley flour, vitamins (choline chloride, di-alpha tocopheryl acetate [vitamin E], vitamin A acetate, calcium pantothenate, riboflavin, vitamin B12 supplement, d-activated animal sterol [source of vitamin D3]), sodium metabisulfite (dough conditioner), minerals (zinc sulfate, copper sulfate, ethyendiamine dihydriodide [source of iodine]).

Soy has long been regarded by veterinarians as a common allergen. Today most soy is of genetically modified origin, which is now being linked to cancer.

Rice is gluten free and is a better choice for many pets than other grains. Some GI signs resolve, but recur when grains are changed.

Don’t be fooled by “grain-free” diets. This does not mean starch free. The grain is replaced by potato or tapioca. This is still inflammatory or “dampening” in oriental philosophy. To make kibble, there must be a starch source. These diets are often higher protein which could be a positive or negative, so be aware. Many allergic dermatitis or inflammatory bowel pets do improve on these diets, but many don’t.

Next a fat is listed, ideally, specifically chicken fat and how it is preserved (i.e. with mixed tocopherols, a source of vitamin E). vs. avoid, animal fat (from any mammal) preserved with BHA, BHT, or ethoxyquin which have been shown to be carcinogenic in rats.

Avoid added sugars such as corn syrup, molasses, beet sugar, and maple syrup.

Salt should not be too high up on the list, which is often the case in canned foods.

Look for vitamins and minerals which are chelated. This improves absorption. It will read something chelate or something proteinate.

Look for additional healthy ingredients like blueberries, cranberries, broccoli, dried kelp and more. Some foods, like chicory root extract are prebiotics which promote gut flora health. Added probiotics may not be as viable as adding them yourself to the food when serving, but I applaud company attempts to include these.

Lastly, if a food contains dye (i.e. red dye 40), run!

Many informed consumers have become frustrated with poor quality kibble diets and all the recent recalls. There has been a trend toward fresher food options and even raw, prey-concept feeding. Many commercial, quality, balanced, convenient to feed products exist!

Jodie Gruenstern,DVM,CVA is a UW-Madison graduate and has been practicing veterinary medicine in Muskego, Wisconsin since 1987. She is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and food therapist by the Chi Institute. Dr. Jodie is the owner of the Animal Doctor Holistic Veterinary Complex, an integrated small animal practice. She has been an advocate for natural pet care through writing, speaking, radio, television and the manufacturing of unique products. Dr. Jodie is founder of the non-profit iPAW: Integrating People for Animal Wellness.

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