How To Read Dog Food Labels?

Pet parents always strive to provide their dogs with the best meals, and they have a variety of dog food products they can choose from. As such, this process can be overwhelming if you don’t understand how that meal will benefit your dog. 

This is where the labels on your dog’s food can help. But, it might be challenging to decipher. So, in this article, we will help you get better at reading dog food labels by explaining what it all means.

Why is labelling important?

Labelling is a crucial component that ensures product safety. Therefore, it’s a good idea for a pet owner concerned about their pet's health and well-being to understand how to interpret these pet food labels. 

The better you are at reading nutrition labels, the easier it will be to select the best food for your pet's specific requirements.

How to read AAFCO nutrition labels on dog food?

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) mandates that all dog food meet their requirements and adhere to particular labelling styles. Therefore it's essential to know what they're saying. These include the following:

Types of labels

There are three types of labels; which are required labelling, optional labelling and prohibited labelling. 

Required labelling has to be placed on every dog food packaging that strives for approval from the AAFCO. The information included in this is usually product names, nutritional information and more.

Prohibited labelling essentially means information that cannot be included on labels, and optional labelling consists of additional information such as promotions or graphics.

AAFCO Model Pet Food Regulations

Although the AAFCO Model Pet Food Regulations are not official regulations, most states have adopted a variation into their laws and regulations. As a result, the AAFCO Model Pet Food Regulations are the industry standard.

There are eight items that must be included on a pet food label. All items must appear on the front of the box if the label is solely on the front. Below is a list of the eight necessary items:

1. Product name

The product name is more than just intelligent marketing. The name itself will give you a hint as to what the components are. 

Because so many pet owners base their purchasing decisions on a single component, manufacturers will emphasise that element in the product name. It's all in the phrasing, though. 

The AAFCO sets out four regulations:

  • The 95% rule: This dog food labelling regulation is most commonly applied to goods with few components. If you see this label on dog food, it implies that the listed ingredient(s) account for 95% of the product, excluding any water added for processing.

  • The 25% rule: This rule is the most typical AFFCO guideline you'll see on a dog food label. It applies to a wide range of canned and dry goods available on the market. A product with this label has ingredients that make up at least 25% of the entire product but not more than 95%.

  • The ‘With’ rule: While AAFCO has changed the criteria for this guideline, the fundamental concept remains the same: when a food is labelled "with" an ingredient, it implies that at least 3% of that ingredient has been added.

  • The flavour rule: This rule is the vaguest because a product can make this claim on its label as long as a significant amount of a certain flavour can be evaluated. The taste of Chicken Flavor Dog Food, for example, might be chicken or something else with a similar flavour, such as a chicken meal or a chicken byproduct.

2. Name of species the food is intended for

This must be clearly stated in words on the principal display panel, but it may also be included in the product name, for example, "Chicken Dog Food".

3. Quantity

The amount of food in the container is indicated by the quantity mentioned on the label. This can be done with a weight scale, a liquid measure, or a count.

4. Guaranteed analysis

Many jurisdictions have laws dictating the minimum quantity of nutrients and the maximum amount of moisture and crude fibre that pet food must contain. Therefore, the percentages of crude protein, crude fat, crude fibre, and water in dog food must be listed on the label.

5. Ingredients 

An essential portion of the label is the ingredients section. Ingredients must be stated in order of decreasing weight. 

Individual components must be listed, while phrases defining a group of substances, such as "animal protein products," are not permitted. Ingredients must also be written in their "common or usual name."

6. Feeding directions

The label will inform you how much food to give your dog. This is provided either by the item's weight per pound or by the amount of food per cup.

7. Nutritional adequacy statement

Perhaps an essential component of a label is the nutritional adequacy statement. It's the key to finding food that meets a pet's dietary requirements.

A nutritional statement, usually included in small text on the back or side of a dog food container, specifies the type of pet for whom the food recipe is intended. These statements can be classified into one of two groups: life stage and complete and balanced.

8. Name and address of the manufacturer

This identifies an organisation as the product's guarantor and specifies the company's location. The street address can be omitted if the named entity is listed in the local telephone directory, but the city, state, and zip code must be included.

What do the label descriptions mean?

It might be tough to know precisely what you're receiving when it comes to pet food because there are so many different descriptions. But, here’s what these terms mean:

  • Human-grade: Because it's typically not allowed on a pet food label unless the pet food is manufactured in a factory that's been certified to make human food, only a few pet foods utilise the term "human grade". However, because this rule does not apply to advertising, a pet food manufacturer may use the phrase "human grade" on its goods.
  • Organic: Pet food that is labelled as organic is required by law to follow the same guidelines as human organic food.
  • Holistic: The word "holistic" has no significance in the context of pet food. Because there are no legal or regulatory standards, any pet food can use this name.

Difference between nutrients and ingredients

On the package of pet meals, you'll typically find an ingredient list as well as nutritional analysis. It's critical to recognise the distinction between these two components.  

A nutrient is an element of food utilised by the body and sustains life, whereas an ingredient is a raw material in the diet. For example, chicken is an ingredient, whereas the nutrient you get from it is protein. 

AAFCO dog food 

Rather than regulating the pet food business, AAFCO creates and updates the nutritional profiles to set the standard for good pet nutrition.

Only if a dog food fulfils or surpasses AAFCO's basic criteria, as described in the nutritional profiles, can it be labelled as "complete and balanced."

Here we have a 101 on AAFCO, what they do and how it benefits your dog.

Dog food ingredients to avoid

Here are some examples of ingredients that are bad for your canine:

  • Propylene glycol
  • Food dyes
  • Corn syrup
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
  • Sodium Hexametaphosphate

Do consult with your veterinarian before starting any new dog food to avoid these ingredients that can be detrimental to your pet’s health.

Final remarks

The label on your dog's food contains a lot of information. Understanding what's in your dog's food can help you gain a better understanding of which diets are more beneficial to your dog’s health.

*For additional information on the AAFCO pet food labelling guide, click here*

Reviewed by: 

Dr Francis is one of the top wildlife nutritionists in Asia. Originating from Montreal, Canada, he left at 21 to pursue his Masters and subsequently a PhD in wildlife nutrition at Oxford Brookes University. Instead of taking the path of common animal science to learn about farm animals, or through the veterinarian space and taking a certificate in nutrition, he took the road less travelled to dive deep into the world of animal ecology, metabolism and nutrition.