How to Read a Dog Food Label

The first few ingredients on a pet food bag or label can tell you almost everything you need to know about the quality of the food you feed your pet. Every pet lover wants the best for their best friend, which means feeding them the highest quality food that meets all their nutritional needs and is made with the very best ingredients.

The reality is, many owners aren’t reading the ingredient labels on their pets’ food. Those that do often can’t make sense of the long, complex list of ingredients on so many labels.

And this is where they get you. Pet food labels aren’t always what they appear to be, and many brands use misleading or intentionally vague language to mask low quality ingredients. While you may buy what sounds like real chicken or beef kibble for your pup, are you certain it’s not chicken by-product meal or beef by-product meal? So how can you be sure your best friend is getting the vital nutrients they need and not being fed nutrient-sparse, powdered meat?

Here’s what you need to know to make sure your pup gets the best.

Beef, Chicken or Poultry By-products

Beef, chicken, or poultry by-products, which may be listed on a dog food label as “chicken by-product meal” or “beef by-product meal” are the non-rendered parts of an animal, essentially the scraps, or parts of the animal that remain once the meat is removed. By-product meals are not typically suitable for human consumption but deemed safe for animals. However, “safe” does not necessarily mean “nutritionally beneficial”.

By-products are made by mashing up bones and organs such as the liver, spleen, and kidneys and removing the moisture until all that remains is the protein – which is then turned into a powder, mixed into a pet food, and labeled as a chicken, beef, or poultry by-product meal.

The resulting powdered protein lacks many of the key nutrients that fresh meat and poultry provide. To make up for that, brands will add synthetic supplements to boost nutrients, which is a much cheaper product for manufacturers to produce. These synthetic additives often make up the long list of chemical-sounding ingredients you may not recognize on your pet food label.

Beef, Chicken, or Poultry Meal

Beef, chicken, or poultry meal are rendered parts of an animal, including flesh, skin, and bone. While “chicken meal” or “beef meal” is deemed higher quality than “chicken by-product meal” or “beef by-product meal,” if you see this as one of the first three ingredients in your dog’s food – you might want to think again.

Through a process called “rendering”, the meat is ground up, cooked under high heat, and dehydrated into a powder that is then used as a protein in your pet food. While similar to by-products, meal uses more meat of the animal, but still contains the bones.

As a result of being processed, chicken, beef, and poultry meal provides less protein than meat and is not as easily digestible for pets. Meal is also less expensive than meat for pet food manufacturers, which is why more brands choose to include more meals over meat in their products.

Fresh Meat or Poultry

You know your dog’s food is made from fresh meat and poultry if the first few ingredients are: “deboned chicken,” “deboned turkey,” “deboned pork or pork,” “deboned beef or beef,” or another “deboned” meat or whole fish.

Fresh meat, poultry and fish contain the most nutrients, are the easiest to digest, and the most natural food for your pet. The more fresh ingredients, the less synthetic nutrients needed. Fresh meat means increased cost for the manufacturer, which is why many pet food manufacturers forgo fresh meat and settle for cheaper alternatives.

Don’t be fooled by “by-products” or “meal.” While high quality products may cost a bit more, knowing your pet is getting the nutrition they need is well worth it. After all, your pet is family, and you feed your family the best.

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