Is This A Good Food to Feed My Pet?
Often, I am asked to give my opinion on pet foods by friends and clients. That is easy enough to do, but where it gets complicated, is when they ask what I think about this or that particular brand or diet they are feeding. The nutritional fuel we provide in the form of dog and cat food is important. We are a nation of brands, grades and preferences. Even the gasoline we choose to fill our automobile tanks confirms that! Here is where the water gets a bit murky. Which bag of food is really a good choice?
How do we wade through the specific information provided on the pet food label and not fall prey to the marketing barrage designed to entice us into purchasing a manufacturer's particular brand?
At first glance, one is able to glean a good deal of information from the label which is a legal document providing specifics about what's inside the bag of food. However, the answers to the burning questions about quality of the product and appropriate amounts to feed a specific individual pet are still difficult to answer using label information. Consumers must have a basic understanding of percentage rules as well as knowledge of how to navigate the principal display panel verses the informational panel. Remember, as far regulations go, very little information is required!
Let's take a closer look at the percentage rules when looking at the principle display panel aimed at catching your attention. Products named as a sole ingredient, such as Tuna, contain the most of that ingredient, 70-100%, excluding additives. If you see a product that has added a modifier to the ingredient name such as Tuna Dinner or Tuna Feast, you must know that only 10-70% of that ingredient is present in the diet. Products named using the term "with", such as "With Tuna" contain just 3-10% of the named ingredient. If a product is named with the term flavor, such as Tuna Flavor, then it contains less than 3% of the ingredient.
The informational panel, found on the back of the bag, has more useful information for getting a handle on determining the quality of a food. This part of the label will include the ingredient statement, a guaranteed analysis, a nutritional adequacy statement, feeding guidelines, and information about the identity of the manufacturer or distributor of the food. No matter how you scrutinize the ingredient statement, these are often misleading even though not intended to be so. In many cases, ingredients are regulated to be listed on the label by weight on an "as is" basis. That means ingredients containing substantial amounts of water, like meat, will be listed ahead of grains, even though on balance, the grain might contribute a greater percentage of the protein in the finished product. Even with detailed definitions of different ingredients, there can still be a extreme range in the quality (digestibility and bioavailability of nutrients) within an ingredient category.
The guaranteed analysis gives information about the average content of the food or the minimum and maximum values for certain key components such as protein, fat, and fiber. Again, this is provided in an "as is" basis, so it is not possible for consumers to simply compare labels to make selections of foods based on things like protein or fat content. Unless two foods are identical in moisture, fat, and fiber content, "as is" comparisons will not be accurate.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the label is the nutritional adequacy statement which will tell the consumer the species and life stage the food is intended for and whether the food is a complete diet or a complementary product. In the US, this statement requires that the standard used to determine the claims comply with the guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO requires specific methods be met for proving the nutritional adequacy of a manufacturers pet food product. A manufacturer can fulfill the requirements by either a method of calculation, a method of analysis, or by a method of feeding trials. AAFCO has protocols for feeding trials for gestation/lactation, growth, and maintenance. Obviously, the feeding trial method is the most stringent and biologically relevant method for showing nutritional adequacy, not to mention the most expensive.
Finally, the feeding guidelines are typically required on pet food labels but vary greatly in detail and are left up to the manufacturer to develop, as no set standard is established. Thus you can readily see the limitations of this part of the label, especially if the food did not undergo the feeding trail method.
At the end of the day, you are what you eat and the proof of the pudding is in the eating! That's why I usually ask my clients what foods they are feeding and take that into account as I am noting the overall physical condition of their pet. Although not a scientific trial, it does provide a list of foods that seem to perform well and others that I would recommend clients avoid.
In closing, one may want to ask these questions: Is the nutritional adequacy statement based on feeding trials? Is there a phone number on the label for consumer inquiries? If the answer to either of these questions is no, it would not be a diet I would be inclined to use.
Resources: 1.Pet Food Labels: What Reading a Label Will and Won't Tell You About the Food, Kathryn Michel, World Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings.
2. Evaluating Diets for Healthy Pets, Tony Buffinton, DVM
3. Pet Food Labels I: Required Information on a Pet Food Label, Vicky L. Ograin, MBA, RVT