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"We just seldom see the so called inevitable diseases in our patients, when we can get the owners to raise their pets on their natural foods."

Marty Goldstein, DVM;
Robert Goldstein, VMD;
H. Robertson, DVM;
Richard J. Kearns, DVM

Located in Calgary, AB
Proudly Canadian

Calgary Based Locally Owned and Operated Pet Stores

How to Figure Out Pet Food Labels


The Truth About Pet FoodsChicken and turkey as the first ingredients, this pet food must contain a lot of chicken and turkey, right? Chances are there is very little, if any, chicken or meat in your pet food. Read on to find out why.

The Ingredients Label

As with human ingredient product labels, the ingredients on your pet food label are listed by weight in descending order, beginning with the heaviest first, ending with those of least weight, typically vitamins and minerals.

Unfortunately these labels can be very deceptive. Often a very good looking ingredient panel may actually produce a poor pet food, with limited animal ingredients that dogs and cats as carnivores require.

We'll take a look at two brands of pet food from the previous article, skip the poor options and choose the best, "healthiest" options they have to offer, and decipher what they are actually composed of.

First it is necessary to compare apples to apples, as most ingredient panels are akin to comparing grapes to shriveled raisins.

Since kibble is a dry, cooked product, all ingredients must logically be compared to each other in their final form: a dry matter basis.

With pet food ingredient labels the opposite is true.

The order of ingredients on a label use the the pre-cooked weight of ingredients, with water content included.

Unless the product is a meal or specified dried product, it is in its raw state, with moisture content included.

This is significant because "Chicken" or other non-meal meats contain 78-80% moisture (water content) in their raw state.

When the mixture is cooked and dried you are only left with only 20% of the original meat, realistically placing the Chicken content much lower on the ingredient list.

The difference between a meal (ie. Chicken Meal) and Chicken and their true ordering become apparent.

So, let's begin. We will look at two popular "healthy" pet foods and decipher their contents.

Pet Food A - Analysis


Chicken, Brown Rice, Whole Grain Wheat, Cracked Pearled Barley, Soybean Meal, Chicken Meal, Pork Fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols and citric acid), Dried Egg Product, Natural Flavor, Whole Grain Oats, Apples, Cranberries, Soybean Oil, Peas, Carrots, Dried Beet Pulp, Iodized Salt, Flaxseed, Broccoli, Vitamins (L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate (source of vitamin C), Vitamin E Supplement, Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate, Vitamin A Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Vitamin D3 Supplement), Vitamin E Supplement, Choline Chloride, Taurine, Minerals (Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Oxide, Copper Sulfate, Manganous Oxide, Calcium Iodate, Sodium Selenite), Preserved with Mixed Tocopherols and Citric Acid, Calcium Carbonate, Beta-Carotene, Rosemary Extract.

is the raw uncooked flesh and skin, with or without accompanying bone derived from the carcass of a chicken, exclusive of feathers, head, feet and entrails. [1]

Raw chicken is composed of approximately 78-80% moisture or water content. Chicken is listed as the first ingredient, which leads us to believe it is in great abundance in this pet food.

When the Chicken ingredient is processed, cooked and dried, it is reduced to just 20% of its original weight, thus placing it much further down the ingredient panel list.

In this case this ingredient is not a significant contributor to the composition of this pet food.

Brown Rice, Whole Grain Wheat, Cracked Pearled Barley
are the second, third and fourth ingredients in this pet food. Now that we know the chicken ingredient actually belongs much further down the list, combine these and it becomes obvious the majority of this pet food's contents are the above grains.

Soybean Meal
is used as a cheap source of protein as an alternative to the more expensive animal proteins.

Chicken Meal
is the dry rendered product derived from parts of whole carcasses of chicken. The moisture is very low thus making it a concentrated source of animal protein. However since the chicken meal is listed as the 6th ingredient, below the majority of the grains, we can conclude there is little chicken meal in the product.

Pork Fat
is an animal based fat.

Egg Product
is liquid extract from the processing of eggs, not including shells.

Natural Flavor
, according to AAFCO, is "A substance, such as an extract or spice, that add flavor to a product." It is not specified what these actual substances are. [2]

Whole Grain Oats
, another grain product.

Apples, Cranberries
as fruits, it is unknown what little quantity is used this far down the ingredient list.

Soybean Oil
as an inexpensive vegetable based fat.

The ingredients that follow would be in limited quantity.

Notably flaxseed and brocolli are below Salt in this formula, which begs the question how much salt is really included? Is there less flaxseed and brocolli in the product than salt, which would result in an abundance of salt, or is there only a very small amount of flaxseed and brocolli is included?

An important distinction is that no matter the quantity, even a pinch of product in an entire bag would still qualify on the ingredient list.

and minerals. These are trace substances, often in synthetic form, added to a dry pet food to replace the natural elements lost during processing. Mixed tocopherols are a source of Vitamin E, along with citric acid and rosemary extract they are used as natural preservatives.

Conclusion from Ingredients

Overall the ingredient panel tells us there are very minimal meat ingredients, despite chicken being the first ingredient on the list.

The majority of this pet food is composed of grains, with additional substituted protein from soy sources, before the limited amounts of actual animal based ingredients.

There are some fruits and vegetables, though the quantities are likely minimal given their order in the ingredient list. No probiotics are included in the formula.

This Pet Food: Science Diet Nature's Best Chicken and Rice Dinner Dog Food

Ironically, on the product's website you will find an "Ingredient Table" just before the actual ingredient list. In the table it depicts ingredients in the following order, explaining each benefit:

Chicken meal
Soybean meal
And so on

This is clearly misleading given what we now know, and even moreso it does not line up with the actual ingredient panel. If we were to re-order this truthfully it would look something like this:

Soybean Meal
Finally the the real chicken ingredients
And so on

But who would buy that? Great pet food or great marketing?


The Guaranteed Analysis Label

This is another very important label. Unless the pet food maker actually tells you how much animal, grain, and vegetable ingredients are in the bag, we have to discern it ourselves. The ingredients and guaranteed analysis give us some idea.

Guaranteed Analysis

Crude Protein......................................Min. 21.5%
Crude Fat............................................Min. 12.5%
Crude Fiber.........................................Max. 3.5%
Moisture..............................................Max. 10.0%
Ash.....................................................Max. 5.5%
Calcium...............................................Min. 0.5%
Phosphorus..........................................Min. 0.4%
Vitamin E.............................................Min. 400 IU/kg
Ascorbic acid*(Vitamin C).....................Min. 120 mg/kg

These values are determined by laboratory analysis. The important components follow:


Crude, as in total, protein is composed of protein content from all sources, including meat, grain and vegetable. This does not depict actual usable protein.

Grain and vegetable proteins are not complete in themselves, they must be mixed with other ingredients, including meat based proteins to create a usable amino acid profile for carnivores. [4]

So how much meat is in the bag?

It turns out to be not much. Given this low a protein percentage, approximately 21.5%, we inherently know this is a low meat food.

Responsible pet food manufacturer Champion Pet Foods, maker of ACANA and Orijen, tell us what percentage of animal ingredients are included, in addition to carbohydrate content.

Examples of various formulations and the resulting protein percentage points follow.

40% Animal ingredients equals ~ 27% protein
60% Animal ingredients equals ~ 33% protein
70% Animal ingredients equals ~ 40% protein

Since most manufacturers will not tell us the composition, we can quickly use this as a reference point. As an estimate lets extrapolate this to the pet food we are analyzing:

(21.5 / 27) * 40 = 32% Potential meat ingredients


Soybean Meal
Chicken Ingredients
So on...

Compared to our above estimate of the actual ordering of ingredients, let's assume the protein content from the grains plus soybean meal, which is high in protein, composes approximately half of the protein content.

This is fair considering the animal meats are listed after the vegetable and grain sources. We can reasonable assume only 16% of the total bag contents are meat based, perhaps less.

We know humans eat far more meat than this in their diets, so what are these carnivores being subjected to?


Crude, total fat from all sources.


Crude total of all indigestible fiber.


Water content.

Calcium and Phosphorus

Typically dry kibble foods contain a calcium to phosphorous ratio of 1.2:1.

The Carbohydrate Factor

Unlike all human guaranteed analysis food labels, pet food manufacturers are not required to list Carbohydrate content.

Carbohydrates clearly have a considerable impact on nutrition, especially in the case of carnivores.

Why is this significant?

Carnivores, including dogs, cats and ferrets, are by nature meat eaters, they obtain all of their nutrient and energy requirements from prey animals. Carnivores use the process of gluconeogenesis to produce energy from amino acids (protein) and fatty acids from fat. They also have zero nutritional requirements for carbohydrates and grains. [8]

So why then is the largest nutritional component in nearly all pet foods carbohydrates? The simple answer is economics. The price per pound of meat is significantly higher than that of grains, likewise the cost per pound of vegetables is much higher than that of inexpensive grains.

How do you determine the carbohydrate content?

With dry food, to calculate carbohydrate content:

Subtract the weight of crude protein, total fat, moisture and ash from the total weight (“wet weight”) of the sample of food. The difference reveals the percentage of carbohydrate content. [7]

From the following::

Crude Protein......................................Min. 21.5%
Crude Fat............................................Min. 12.5%
Crude Fiber.........................................Max. 3.5%
Moisture..............................................Max. 10.0%
Ash.....................................................Max. 5.5%
Calcium...............................................Min. 0.5%
Phosphorus......................................... Min. 0.4%

We Obtain the Total Carbohydrates: 

We can easily see that this pet food contains over 50% carbohydrate content. This exceeds the content of any other component, and affirms the high grain content of this pet food.

All this time everyone has been fussing about protein levels, distracting us from the real culprits, poor quality ingredients and carbohydrate laden food.

Many pet foods typically average 50% carbohydrates, with some even higher.

Just as with humans, highly processed diets consisting of high starch and carbohydrate content have been linked to diabetes, inflammation, cancer and degenerative diseases. [8]


Omega 3 and Omega 6

Most pet foods do not list Omega 3 and 6 fatty acid content.

As we know Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are important. There is a lot of hype about Omega 3 these days, and for good reason.

What is little talked about is the ratio of Omega 3 to 6.

We know that too much Omega 6 promotes inflammation, which is implicated with arthritis, aggression, allergies, cancer and chronic disease. [6]

Omega 3 fatty acids keep Omega 6 levels in check. The abundance of grains and vegetable matter all bolster significant levels of Omega 6, with very little accompanying Omega 3 content.

To make matters worst, mass livestock farming practices utilize largely corn and grain based feed as opposed to a natural free range grass fed diet.

Grain fed cattle and poultry produce high levels of omega 6 in their body fat compared to Omega 3. Grass fed livestock produce significantly higher levels of Omega 3 in their body fat.

When grain fed animals are used in pet food they contribute higher levels of Omega 6 fatty acids. Unless the meats are advertised as free range grass fed, the animals are grain fed.

What are the sources of Omega 3 and 6?

Omega 3

Fish is abundantly the best source of Omega 3 fatty acids. Salmon oil has an Omega 3 to 6 ratio of about 10:1, or 10 times more Omega 3 than Omega 6. Supplementing with Fish Oil is just as important for our pets as it is for us.

Just make sure you are buying pure fish oil, many companies mix fish oil with less favourable vegetable oils.

Flaxseed. While its oil is high in Omega 3 in AHA form, AHA cannot be utilized directly and must be converted into the usable forms, EPA and DHA.

Unfortunately flax is not an ideal source of Omega 3 fatty acids, typically less than 20% of the AHA content is converted. There is a percentage of the population, animals and humans included, who cannot convert AHA into EPA and DHA at all.

Grasses and sprouts are other food sources of high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids.

Omega 6

In general, vegetable oils contain high levels of Omega 6 compared to Omega 3. Canola is an exception, which has a a vegetable based Omega 3 to 6 ratio of 1:2.

Grains are high in Omega 6 with little Omega 3 content.

Pet Food B - Analysis

Royal Canin Adult 25 Dog Food


Chicken meal, brown rice, rice, oat, corn gluten meal, chicken fat, natural flavors, dried beet pulp (sugar removed), anchovy oil (source of EPA/DHA), soya bean oil, dried brewers yeast, rice hulls, dried egg powder, potassium chloride, calcium carbonate, salt, brewers yeast extract (source of mannan-oligosaccharides), choline chloride, vitamins [DL-alpha tocopherol (source of vitamin E), L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (source of vitamin C), biotin, D-calcium pantothenate, vitamin A acetate, niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), folic acid, vitamin B12 supplement, vitamin D3 supplement], trace minerals [zinc oxide, zinc proteinate, ferrous sulfate, manganese proteinate, copper proteinate, copper sulfate, manganous oxide, calcium iodate, sodium selenite], L-carnitine, preserved with natural mixed tocopherols and citric acid, rosemary extract.

Chicken Meal is the first ingredient, it consists of cooked dry matter product with limited moisture. This is good but you will see this ingredient is actually of limited quantity.

Brown Rice, Rice (white), Oats
- These three grains follow chicken meal. Combine these grains and you will have much more grain content by weight than the Chicken Meal.

Corn Gluten Meal
is the next ingredient, an inferior source of protein used as a low cost alternative to animal protein.

Chicken Fat
is used as a fat source.

Natural Flavors
are used, what these consist of are not specified.

Dried Beet Pulp
is the left over residue from the extraction of sugar in the production of table sugar. It is used as a bulk filler. Note that the source of dried beet pulp is from sugar beets, not red beets.

Anchovy Oil
is used as a source of Omega 3 fatty acids.

Soya Bean Oil
is used as a low cost fat source to animal fat and fish oil.

Dried Brewers Yeast
is a used as a flavour enhancer and is commonly used in the production of beer as a fermenting yeast.

Rice Hulls
(or rice husks) are the hard protecting coverings of grains of rice. In addition to protecting rice during the growing season, rice hulls can be put to use as building material, fertilizer, insulation material, or fuel. [3] This is essentially a filler.

Dried Egg Product
this far down the ingredient list is not a significant source of nutrition.

Vitamins and Minerals

Mixed Tocopherols, Citric Acid and Rosemary Extract
are used as natural preservatives.


Conclusion from Ingredients

The Chicken Meal in this formulation quickly becomes overwhelmed by grains, protein substitutes (corn gluten meal) and bulk fillers (dried beet pulp, rice hulls).

The egg content is minimal when listed just before the vitamins and minerals. Imagine a pie chart with the above ingredients, the sum of the grains will outweigh the actual chicken meal in this product.

We can conclude there are limited animal ingredients in this food.

This is a very bare bones food. No vegetables and fruits are included, even though dogs and more so cats do not require significant sources of vegetables and fruits they will find it in the rumens of prey animals, they do receive some nutritional value from the phytonutrients and naturally occuring vitamins and minerals found within them. Note that vegetables do not include grains. No probiotics are included in the formula.


Guaranteed Analysis

Crude Protein......................................Min. 25%
Crude Fat............................................Min. 12.5%
Crude Fiber.........................................Max. 3.5%
Moisture..............................................Max. 10.0%
Vitamin E............................................Min. 500 mg/kg
Ascorbic acid*(Vitamin C).....................Min. 200 mg/kg
L-carnitine...........................................Min. 50mg/kg

Again we see high carbohydrate content, approximately 52% of the food is composed of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can only provide energy.

Unlike proteins and fats, carbohydrates are not directly involved with body functions like vitamin metabolism, absorption and tissue repair, essentially they are empty calories.

With the inclusion of so many grains plus corn gluten meal so high on the list we can reasonably assume that only a small minority of the protein content is from animal sources.

Likewise Omega 3 & 6 content is not listed. We know the high grain content is producing a food very rich in Omega 6 with very little of the important Omega 3 fatty acids.

Digesting the Rest of it

The Front of the Bag

Fresh whole cuts of chicken, salmon, and hearty whole grains - this is the picture painted on the front panels of many pet foods.

As we've learned from the previous article, What's in Your Pet Food: The Top 12 Ingredients to Avoid, these are rarely the ingredients used in the majority of pet foods.

A recent nationwide class action law suit has been filed against numerous pet food manufacturers for misleading consumers regarding the contents of pet food.

“Premium” Pet Food Marketed and Sold as “Complete and Balanced” Has Historically Contained Such Items as Euthanized Dogs and Cats, Restaurant Grease, Hair, Hooves, and Diseased Animals, and Other Inedible Garbage. [5]

Maltzman Forman, PA:

Some of the accused companies include:

Mars Inc. - Royal Canin, Pedigree, Cesar, Whiskas
Hill's Pet Nutrition - Science Diet
The Iams Co. - Iams
Nestle USA Inc. - Purina
Nutro Products Inc. - Nutro

Read the full list of parent companies here.


Other Concerns

Here are some other considerations raised when choosing a healthy pet food.

- Responsible pet food makers including Orijen and ACANA display the quantity of meat based, grain, and vegetables ingredients in the front of their pet food bags.

Orijen and ACANA also list Carbohydrate content along with Omega 3 and 6 on their panels. The majority do not, as you now know, for good reason.

Passed for Human Consumption
- If your pet food label doesn't advertise ingredients are passed for human consumption on the bag then they are not. Pet grade and feed (livestock) grade ingredients contain lower nutritional value than human grade and are not subject to the same scrutiny and safety as human food.

Human grade ingredients portray quality, and you bet manufacturers would be advertising their use of them, if they did in fact use them. If the ingredients are not safe for us to eat, are they for our pets?

Protein Content
- Corn, rice, and wheat glutens distort the protein content on guaranteed analysis labels. Soy and other isolates also contribute to higher protein readings.

It is important to remember that vegetable proteins are not complete [4], thus they become inexpensive, inferior protein sources when it comes to carnivore nutrition. What's really the issue, protein, or questionable quality ingredients and empty carbohydrates?

- Ensure your pet food states that ingredients are ethoxyquin, BHA and BHT free. Other chemical preservatives to watch out for are propyl gallate and sodium nitrite/nitrate.

Remember that manufacturers can obtain ethoxyquin preserved ingredients and meal ingredients from third party suppliers, without having to list the preservative on their ingredient list. Pet Food manufacturers are only required to list it if they add the chemical themselves.

Natural preservatives may include Vitamin E (seen as mixed tocopherols), citric acid, and rosemary extract.

Where are Ingredients Sourced From
- Are the ingredients sourced locally or from abroad? Numerous pet food recalls were initiated by Menu Foods in 2007 due to tainted ingredients sourced from China, affecting over 100 grocery store/veterinarian & big box retailer brands, causing kidney failure and death in thousands of animals.

 - Do the pet food companies make their pet foods themselves, in their own facilities or outsource to companies like Menu Foods?

Who Owns Who
- Who owns your pet food company? Large, multi-national companies own the majority of grocery store and many brands at pet food stores.

Pet food is seen as big business, so who owns your pet food company? What other products do they make? What is their history? Generally you find higher quality pet foods with independent, family owned companies.

Breed Specific
- Major pet food companies have started creating breed specific foods. Granted there are some different requirements for giant breed dogs vs toy breeds, puppies and adults, the shape of kibbles and other superficial terms applied on pet food packaging are largely for your benefit.

This is simply a marketing tactic, people love to see their breed on a bag of food. More effort should be placed on their quality of food.

"Highly Digestible"
- Don't be fooled by this claim. When heated, ground, pulverized, hydrolyzed, many ingredients carnivores aren't designed to eat become "highly digestible". If they can't eat it in its raw state then they shouldn't be eating it at all.

"Highly Palatable"
- Manufacturers claim their food is highly palatable, and focus on this as a powerful selling point. What we must realize is that like children, pets will eat any sort of junk food you give them if it tastes good!

Taste doesn't always translate into health, the key is finding a healthy pet food they like, which isn't hard when we feed a biologically appropriate diet high in tasty meat content!

"One Pet food for Life"
- "Feed One Pet Food for Life", this statement was invented by the pet food industry to keep you on their pet food! No where in nature will any creature eat the exact same food, at every meal, every day for the rest of their life.

These are where food intolerances, sensitivities, allergies, deficiencies and imbalances begin to occur, and manifest into problems over the long term. Balance in nature is achieved by eating a wide variety of foods, to create completeness in the whole, not at every meal.

Consider this, you visit your doctor for a check-up and he recommends a new 100% complete and balanced supplemental food for you. He adds that you no longer have to eat a wide variety of fresh foods, instead take this processed meal, at every meal, every day for the rest of your life.

What?! Not only would it become boring quick, it would also go against every grain of common sense you hold dear. Your stomach would be sensitive to a change in diet too if you ate the same processed food every day for months and years onward. In the end, variety is, as the old saying goes, the spice of life.

Final Word

As members of the family we humanize our pets in such a way that we believe what is good for us is good for them too. We often forget that humans as omnivores have different dietary requirements than carnivores like dogs, cats and ferrets.

We see grains as good for our pets because they are such a staple in our every day diet. Carnivores are meat eaters, and fare less than optimal long term on grain based diets. Many pet foods out there contain less meat than humans would eat.

These high carbohydrate, insulin spiking foods create a roller coaster in our pet's bodies that they can't wait to quench until their next carb filled meal. We need to utilize a common sense approach to carnivore nutrition and feed foods they are biologically programmed to eat, to produce superior health and longevity.

It is especially important for you to read and understand your labels, do your own research, but always do so as an informed consumer.

We hope this information helps you in some way. Drop by anytime for more information on our many healthy dry foods, canned, refrigerated and no nonsense raw diets. We are here to help! You can also bring in your pet food label for an free analysis, any time.

Next Article: Raw Bones for Dental Health

Previous Article: What's Really in Your Pet Food? Ingredients to Avoid


[1]. AAFCO Definition: Chicken



Effect of dietary protein on lean body wasting in dogs: correlation between loss of lean mass and markers of proteasome-dependent proteolysis.





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