Food - Dissecting the Food Label

Much of the information on this page comes from the book
"The Consumer's Guide to Dog Food: 

What's in Dog Food, Why It's there and How to Choose the Best Food For Your Dog"
Liz Palika
You can purchase "The Consumers Guide to Dog Food" from

Reprinted with permission

Every dog food label must include specific information, which is usually divided into two parts:

  • 1. Principal Display Panel
  • 2. Information Panels

Let's start with the Principal Display Panel. This is very straightforward information like the following:

  • 1. Brand Name (i.e., Iams, Purina, Kal-Kan, etc.)
  • 2. Identity Statement which describes the contents of the food (i.e., Chicken Rice, Mushroom and Gravy, etc.)
  • 3. Designator of what class the food is (i.e., Growth, Maintenance, Lite, etc.) and Category of dog (Puppy, Adult, Senior, etc.).
  • 4. Quantity of contents identifies the weight of contents (i.e., 5 pounds, 20 pounds, 40 pounds)

In summary, the Principal Display Panel is like the name of your town. It identifies where you are, but it doesn't tell you how to get around. For a road map of the food, you need to get able to read the stuff on the Information Panel.

Now let's talk about the Information Panel. This tells you about the actual food content.

  • 1. General analysis (shows the "as is" percentages of the food's constituents).
  • 2. Ingredients list (shows ingredients in descending order, by weight).
  • 3. Nutritional adequacy claim (identifies specific life stage for which food is intended and whether animal feeding tests based on AAFCO procedures were used).
  • 4. Feeding instructions (how much of the food to give your dog).


The Guaranteed Analysis on the Information Panel of the dog food label lists the minimum levels of crude protein and fat and the maximum levels of fiber and water. "Crude" refers to the total protein content, not necessarily the amount of protein that is actually digestible. What this means is that this is ONLY a crude protein percentage, and fat amounts are rough guides. The actual amounts depend upon the ingredients and their quality.

The amount of moisture in a food is important, especially when you are comparing foods. A food containing 24% protein and 10% moisture would have far less protein per serving than a food with 24% protein listed on the label but only 6% moisture. This is why the AAFCO guidelines are formulated on a dry matter basis, so that all foods can be compared equally.
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Guaranteed analysis:- is only a very small part of the nutritional picture. It is also important to note that Phosphorus is directly related to the exacerbation of Renal Disease. Renal Disease is the #1 cause of death in dogs!


Ingredients are listed in descending order, by weight. However, the listings may be misleading. Suppose beef is listed as the first ingredient, causing you to think it is the primary ingredient. Look again. If it's followed by wheat flour, wheat germ, wheat middlings and so on, the combined wheat products may very well total much more than the beef.


Many of the artificial colorings used in dog foods have been associated with potential problems. FD&C red No. 40 is a possible carcinogen but is widely used to keep meat looking fresh. Blue No. 2 is thought to increase dogs' sensitivity to viruses. Another color that is commonly used but has not been fully tested is Yellow No. 5. Both Red No. 2 and Violet No. 1 were banned by the FDA in the mid-seventies as possible carcinogens but prior to that were widely used in pet foods.

Interesting as it may sound, the food color used in today's manufacture of foods is not for the dogs. It is to satisfy the dog's owner--YOU, THE CONSUMER!

There's More!

Sugar: is not an ingredient most people would expect to find in dog food, but many foods do, in fact, contain sugar, especially the semi-moist brands. In fact, some semi-moist foods contain as much as 15% sugar. The sugar adds palatability and moisture, and aids in bacterial contamination prevention. Dogs do not need this amount of sugar, which can stress the pancreas and adrenal glands, causing diabetes. Completely devoid of protein, vitamins and minerals, sugar is, literally, empty calories.

Salt: is added to many foods as a meat preservative. Too much salt can irritate the digestive system and can cause a mineral imbalance because the salt itself can upset the calcium / potassium balance in your dog's system. Too much salt can be life threatening for a dog.


The presence of some or all of the ingredients which are the most commonly used dog food ingredients, or an assortment of these ingredients, doesn't necessarily mean that your dog is going to be well nourished. The ingredients must be in the right combinations and of good quality--both before and after processing.

Biological Value - The biological values of the ingredients are a key to good nutrition. The biological value of a food is the measurement of the amino acid completeness of the proteins contained by the food. Eggs are considered a wonderful source of protein because they contain all of the essential amino acids.

Eggs 100%
Fish Meal 92%
Other Meat's
Milk 78%
Wheat 69%
Wheat Gluten 40%
Corn 54%
Neither wheat nor corn would be an adequate diet alone, but fed together with one or two meat-based proteins capable of supplying the missing amino acids, they could supply an adequate diet.

According to the definition in the 27th edition of "Dorland's Medical Dictionary" "Nutrition" is "the sum of processes involved in taking in nutrients and assimilating and utilizing them".

Nutrients are (Fat, Protein, Carbohydrates, Vitamins, Minerals, and Water) necessary for the growth, normal functioning and Maintaining of life.

    The two main points are:
  • Palatability
  • Digestibility
So ingredients are only as important as the nutrients contain, how good they taste to the pet, and their digestibility.

Think of ingredients as a big truck and nutrients as produce the truck's carrying. If the truck is trying to go into a tunnel, but it won't fit ( not digestible), it's not going to be able to drop off its load, This would be a poor ingredient to put into a food.

If the truck goes through the tunnel, but only has lettuce in the bed when it could have fit valuable tomatoes, potatoes and onions, then it wasn't a very efficient load. This would be an example of how one pet food manage nutrients within one ingredient (truck). 

If the truck isn't allowed into the tunnel because the person at the toll booth doesn't lie the drive, then it's all in vain. the ruck could have the best produce in the world, but it can't get in. This is an example of a dog or cat rejecting the food (palatability).

Digestibility of Food - Digestibility refers to the quantity of the food that is actually absorbed by the dog's system. This can be obtained by contacting the manufacture directly. If your selected manufacture does not have this information you can calculate it yourself. This is how you can figure it out. Weigh the amount of food that you feed and the weight of the stool for several days. Divide the weight of the food into the weight of the stool and you will have the percentage of digestibility. It is important to note here that the stool that you are going to use MUST be dried to the same moisture content as the food you feed if you want to be close. You will also need a little more math than just add, subtract, divide and multiply if you want to be close to an accurate answer. The more food fully metabolized, the higher the digestibility figure. 

Quality Before Processing - Understanding the definition of an ingredient is not enough. Many grains grown in poor soil will lack needed vitamins and minerals, and, unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in the United States. Grains and vegetables can be polluted with fertilizer residues and pesticides of various kinds. 

Ingredients can also be soiled with mold, mildew, and fungus. The quality of meat can also be suspect. We have all heard stories or had personal experiences of finding bits of hair and other unsavory additives in our hamburger, but the quality of meats used for dog foods is much lower. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has said that there is non-mandatory federal inspection of ingredients used in pet food manufacturing.

However, some states do inspect manufacturing plants, especially those producing canned pet foods. In the majority of states it is legal (and common practice) for pet food manufactures to use what are known as "4-D" meat sources--animals that are dead, dying, diseased, or disabled when they arrive at the slaughterhouse. Dr. P. F. McGargle, a Veterinarian and a former federal meat inspector, believes that feeding slaughterhouse wastes to pet animals increases their chances of getting cancer and other degenerative diseases. He said, "Those wastes include moldy, rancid or spoiled processed meats, as well as tissues too severely riddled with cancer to be eaten by people."
In Summary - Dog food labels do contain a lot of information, and learning how to decipher them can take some time. However, the time to do that is not when you're in the aisle looking at all the foods available. Instead, study the labels at home so that you can look at them more thoroughly. Most dog food manufacturers provide pet stores and Veterinarians with boxes of dog food samples. These are yours for the asking. If you get a variety of samples from different companies, you can then study those labels at home, at your leisure. 

As you study, keep in mind that there is also a lot of information not freely given on the label such as the quality of the ingredients used. As we know, that information can be difficult to come by and you may need to rely upon the recommendation of experts, including your Veterinarian. You have to consider the price, quality, and reputation of the manufacturer. Also remember that at the present time NO pet food manufacture makes a "Breed Specific" pet food.

Now that you know half of what you need to know about analysing dog food, you are ready for the next page, Dissecting The Ingredients

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