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Label Reading Tips

Do you find pet food labels confusing? If so, you’re not alone. This section provides an overview of what each section of a pet food package means and what to look for when comparing products.

Scroll down or click a section below to jump directly to it:
1. Pet Food Regulators
2. The Product Name & Category
3. Net Quantity Statement
4. Manufacturer’s Name & Address
5. Ingredient List
6. Guaranteed Analysis
7. Nutritional Adequacy Statement
8. Feeding Directions
9. Calorie Statement

1. Who Sets Pet Food Regulations?

In the United States, pet food is regulated federally by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which enforces standards for all animal feeds. This includes proper product identification, net quantity statement, manufacturer’s name and address and proper listing of ingredients. On top of this, some states further enforce their own labelling regulations, while many have adopted the standards set by AAFCO, which are much more specific than those set by the FDA.

In Canada, pet food is self-regulated by The Pet Food Association of Canada, which is an industry association made up of pet food manufacturers, as well as their suppliers and vendors. Many Canadian pet food manufacturers follow AAFCO standards because their product is often sold in the U.S., as well as Canada.
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2. Product Name & Category

First off, foods fall under different category names, from “premium” to “holistic” and “organic.” For the most part these category names are not regulated or held to any set standard. However, AAFCO has set guidelines for “natural” products, in terms of meaning that they don’t contain artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, even though they may contain synthetic vitamins, minerals and other additives. Since even “natural preservatives” like mixed tocopherols can contain manufactured vitamin E, consumers can question how “natural” these products are in reality.

There are stronger rules that apply to “organic” products, a definition which refers to ‘how’ the plants or animals were farmed or raised, such as what type of pesticides and fertilizers were used. Products that claim to be organic or use some organic ingredients should have USDA-accreditation in most cases. All of Carna4’s sprouted seed ingredients are USDA Organic Certified and where possible, we try to source other organic ingredients.

Instead of looking at the category name, look for other telltale signs of quality and care. Many manufacturers like Carna4 are committed to providing the best quality and will state upfront any steps they have taken to provide a more sustainable product, such as using chickens that have never been fed hormones or steroids and avoiding genetically modified products.

As for the actual product name, many pet food names include the name of a key ingredient in the food. Standards for how much of the named ingredient is in the food are set by the following 4 AAFCO rules:

a. If a food’s name begins with one ingredient of animal origin and then states whether it’s for dogs or cats (e.g. Beef Dog Food, Tuna for Cats), the named ingredient must comprise no less than 95% of its final weight, excluding any water added for processing. If however the weight includes this water, it must contain no less than 70% chicken. (This rule applies almost exclusively to canned foods.)

b. If a food’s name includes the word “dinner” or a similar noun, such as formula, entrée, nuggets or platter (e.g. Beef Entrée for Dogs), it must contain no less than 25% of the food’s total weight, excluding water used in processing. If the weight includes water, it must contain no less than 10% of the main ingredient.

c. If the name lists more than one ingredient (e.g. Beef & Rice Entrée for Dogs), all the ingredients combined must add up to 25% of the total weight and be listed in descending order according to their content by weight.

This means that 75% of the food contains other ingredients and this could mean more of another animal derived ingredient, such as fish.

d. If the food’s name includes the word “flavor” or “flavored,” a specific percentage is not required but must be enough to be detected (by animal testing). This “flavor” can come from real meat but generally it comes from digest, meat meal, by-products or flavoring that is natural, manmade or a combination.

More than 80% of Carna4 comes from fresh meat, eggs, sprouted seeds, whole vegetables and fruit.
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3. Net Quantity Statement

The net quantity statement tells you how much product is in the container. However, it’s important to note that dry products may vary greatly in density. This means a 28 lb/12.7 kg bag of one product may cost more than a 32 lb/14.5 kg bag of another but the smaller bag may contain a more concentrated food like Carna4, which requires you to feed slightly fewer cups than other dry foods.
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4. Manufacturer’s Name & Address

The “manufactured by…” statement lists the company responsible for the quality and safety of the product and its location. If the label says “manufactured for…” or “distributed by…,” the food was manufactured by an outside manufacturer, but the name on the label still must identify who is responsible for it. Some labels also include a street address along with the city, state/province and zip/postal code and a toll-free number on the label for consumer inquiries.
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5. Ingredient List

AAFCO requires all ingredients to be listed in descending order of predominance by weight before processing. It’s important to note the first few ingredients listed, as there will be more of them than anything else. So if the list doesn’t begin with animal ingredients in the top positions, you may be best to move on.

According to the Dog Food Project, the food will be primarily made up of the first named ingredients up to and including the first source of fat listed (e.g. chicken fat). This is sometimes but not always about the first 10 ingredients. By following this guideline, you can check for ingredients that are not particularly beneficial or healthy (e.g. beet pulp, corn gluten meal) and should ideally be included only in small amounts within a quality food.

When reading the list, it’s also helpful to learn the differences between human grade meat, real meat, meat meal and meat byproducts so you know what you’re getting.

When it says… What it really means is….
Human Grade (or Table-Grade) Beef, Lamb, Chicken,…. Real beef, lamb or chicken that is of a high enough quality to be fed to humans, as well as pets. But the title alone doesn’t make it human grade. If it’s truly human grade as Carna4’s meat, chicken and salmon is, the package will state something like: “from USDA inspected facilities” and “passed USDA inspection for human consumption.” The manufacturer will also have documents to prove it (as Carna4 does).
Real Beef, Chicken, Lamb, Fish…. Real beef, chicken, lamb…or exactly what it says it is and is suitable for pets but not approved for human consumption. Watch out though, when it’s called a more generic term like meat or poultry, it’s more likely to come from a questionable source. AAFCO has definitions that spell-out what you can expect from each type of animal ingredient. For example, it defines beef as clean flesh derived from slaughtered cows and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh. You can decide how appetizing that sounds.
Meat meal, Poultry meal, Bone meal…or other ‘meal’ ingredients Protein ingredients made from various mammal, poultry or fish tissues, like flesh and skin with or without bone, which are approved for pets to consume but not humans. These raw materials are not used fresh but rendered, which means they are boiled for several hours to separate fat, remove water and destroy bacteria, viruses, parasites and other organisms. Meal excludes blood, hair, hoofs, horns, hide trimmings, manure, stomach or rumen contents (except trace amounts that are unavoidable, even with good processing practices). It can include meat processing or supermarket waste and even come from 4D animals (who were diseased, disabled, dying or dead prior to butchering).
By-products Anything but the quality cuts of meat and highest quality edible offal used for human consumption. This ‘anything’ varies according to the type of by-product. For example, AAFCO says chicken by-products can include the dry, ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines – but no feathers (except what is unavoidable, even with good processing practices). It can include meat processing or supermarket waste and even come from 4D animals (who were diseased, disabled, dying or dead prior to butchering).

Many pet food ingredient lists also include artificial color and chemical preservatives like BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, and propylene glycol. These ingredients deliver no nutritional value and have been associated with possible toxic side effects.

That said, manufacturers don’t have to include substances on an ingredient list that they didn’t add to the product. This means a supplier can add a supplement, such as a preservative, to a main ingredient before it’s sent to the manufacturer. For this reason alone, it’s helpful to select products made by organizations like Carna4 that source their ingredients from farms, family-run operations and trusted suppliers.

For information on other ingredients to watch out for and what makes Carna4 different, visit our FAQ section or Comparing Carna4 section.
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6. Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis refers to the minimum or maximum values of key nutrients, such as minimum protein and fat, as well as the maximum fiber and water content in a food. AAFCO requires food to have minimum percentages of crude protein and fat and sets a maximum percentage of allowable crude fiber and moisture. (Please note, crude pertains to the way a product is tested not its quality.)

In looking at a package’s guaranteed analysis, here are some things to note:

a. Nutrient Content Varies Between “As Fed” (or “as is”) and “Dry Matter” –

Dry food in an “as fed” state has up to 10% more moisture than in a “dry matter” state. However, the actual moisture if tested may be less than 10% and may vary from batch to batch. AAFCO standards for nutrients are based on analysis on a dry matter basis, which means re-calculating the nutrient levels after adjusting for the removal of the water.

This means that when comparing a product listing nutrients as “dry matter” with one that lists them “as fed,” you need to re-calculate the content of each nutrient in the as fed list as a percentage of dry matter (or 100% moisture). For example, a product that has 22% protein (as fed) and 10% moisture will have 22% / 90% = 24.4% protein on a dry matter basis.

b. Nutrient Density Impacts Digestibility and Varies Between Different Protein & Fat Sources –

The percentage of a protein that is bio-available or can be digested (broken down into amino acids and used) by your pet’s body varies with the concentration of nutrients. Ingredients with higher nutrient levels are more digestible than others. As nutrient levels determine how much food your pet needs to eat, it’s important to look at the overall ingredients when reviewing a product’s guaranteed analysis.

Carna4 is the first pet food to contain nutrient-rich sprouted seeds, such as barley, lentils and flaxseed, which are particularly digestible. Essentially, germination wakes dormant enzymes, multiplying their activity by six and in doing so, boosts the transformation of proteins and complex carbohydrates into more digestible nutrients.

According to information published by T. J. Dunn, Jr. DVM on other ingredients commonly found in pet foods, egg whites and whey protein are 100% digestible, muscle meats are 92% digestible but wheat and corn are only 60% and 54% digestible.

c. A Food Should Deliver All the Essential Amino Acids a Pet Needs

Proteins, such as leucine, lysine and phenylalanine – tyrosine, vary in their biological value or content of essential amino acids a pet needs. Generally a combination of protein ingredients are needed to attain the required balance of amino acids. You want to ensure a food’s total ingredients deliver the required biological value.

d. All Fats Are Not Created Equal

Fats supply energy and essential fatty acids, carry fat soluble vitamins and help prevent dehydration in pets but some are much more nutrient rich than others. For example, flaxseeds and oils, coldwater fish oils, sunflower oils and chicken fat have a high nutrient content. However, second-rate ingredients like animal fat, beef tallow and lard lack significant and balanced nutrient content. Again, it’s important to check the types of fat in a pet food to ensure your feeding the best quality.

Most dry pet foods contain added fat because the meat meal and other dry ingredients that make up most of the food have insufficient fat to satisfy the nutritional needs of the pet. However, there is a cost to product quality in using these “food fractions” because the heat processing that is used to create meat meal and pet food fat reduces nutritional values, increases free radical populations and reduces shelf lives of those ingredients.

We don’t add fats to Carna4 because it has naturally high nutrient fats from its fresh chicken, fresh salmon and sprouted seeds, particularly sprouted flaxseed, which is also high in essential Omega-3 fatty acids and enzymes.
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7. Nutritional Adequacy Statement

All complete pet foods must have a nutritional adequacy statement, such as “(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles.” In cases where feeding trials have been conducted that meet AAFCO’s basic conditions, the following statement will be used instead: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition.”

In either case, these statements only confirm that the food contains the minimum nutrients AAFCO has set as appropriate to keep your pet alive and that he will survive while eating it. As a caring pet owner, you likely want much more for your companion than to merely keep her (or him) alive. So be sure to look well beyond this statement when assessing a pet food.
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8. Feeding Directions

Feeding directions are useful but they are only guidelines. In many cases, you may need to adjust your feeding portions according to your pet’s age, breed, environment, activity level and body conditions.

They also help you compare products, as the daily quantities of food recommended for each will vary according to the size and density of the kibble. A more expensive bag of a denser food that recommends smaller daily servings may be better value than a larger, lower priced bag of less concentrated kibble with more generous servings recommended. As Carna4 is highly concentrated, smaller portions are required to keep your pet in top form.
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9. Calorie Statement

Each product includes a statement telling you how much caloric energy it provides but it can be listed in any one or all three of the following formats:

  • Gross Energy – The energy in a food based on an “as fed” state.
  • Digestible Energy – The energy available to your pet after you deduct the amount lost in its feces.
  • Metabolizable Energy (ME) – The energy available to the pet after you deduct the amount lost in feces, urine and digestive gases. This is the most common value used.

When comparing products you need to consider which format each is using and adjust accordingly. Once you’re comparing consistent calorie content formats, you may find the food with greater calories is the higher quality food but before you jump to purchase it, check the fat content on the guaranteed analysis. Remember fat delivers more than twice the amount of energy per weight unit than protein or carbohydrates.
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This section is based on information from various sources, including The Dog Food Project, as well as AAFCO documents and FDA consumer information. To learn more about reading pet labels, please visit these sites.