How Do I Read Pet Food Labels?


We all want the best for our pets, and it is no surprise that this form of love often comes in the form of nutrition!

However, we understand that the virtually unlimited options that line pet food shelves and pet marketplaces has made it extremely challenging for pet owners to explore new or better food options as we are all confronted with all sorts of distractions - the beautiful packaging, the myriad of colours or even the nuggets of information that are often littered all over the product.

How can we then be more aware of what goes into our pet’s food bowl?

Through this article, learn more about how you can properly examine pet food labels and what you should be looking out for - so that the next time you step out of the pet store or click “check out” on your pet’s food cart, we’d know that a more informed decision was made for your little one!

Here is a list of things you should know and look out for the next time you pick something out for your fur pal:

1. The weight of the ingredients are measured before processing

Did you know that manufacturers are legally required to list ingredients according to weight in descending order? However, as the weight of the ingredients are measured before it has been processed, don’t be fooled if chicken or any fresh meat product is listed as the first ingredient. Moisture gives these fresh meat products its weight, but it is significantly removed after the extrusion process found in dry food products.

Hence, in such cases, meat meal of the same weight actually has higher protein content than that of fresh meat. Although this does not mean that it is a better alternative, it is important to know that fresh meat products that rank first in the ingredient list does not necessarily signify that the products are high in meat protein.

2. Always look at the source of protein

When examining the pet food label, it is important to note that the majority of the product’s protein should come from known animal sources. What this means is that you should look for named meat sources such as Chicken, Duck, Pork, Lamb, Beef, Beef Liver, Lamb Lung and etc. whilst avoiding unnamed protein sources such as “animal by-product”, “animal protein”, and “meat and animal derivatives”. Named meat meals such as “chicken meal” and “beef meal” are also an acceptable source of concentrated protein.

Additionally, look out for plant protein (e.g. maize protein, pea protein). Some manufacturers use plant protein as a cheap alternative to animal protein. They can be used to easily boost protein levels for “guaranteed analysis”. However, plant protein is not as bioavailable to our pets or as nutrient dense as animal protein. Thus, take note that a diet that claims to be “high protein” does not necessarily mean that the protein comes from animal sources. Always keep your eyes open!

3. Look at the Carbohydrate source

Sweet potatoes, butternut squash, potatoes, brown rice, yam, cassava and tapioca are good source of carbohydrates that we’d like to see in pet food products that we’re considering, while fillers such as corn, maize, peanut hulls, cellulose, apple of grape pomace, pea bran, dried beet pulp, oat hulls and rice hulls should be avoided and many of the aforementioned are known to cause common allergies in pets.

4. Look for food complete & balanced to nutrient guidelines (AAFCO/NRC/FEDIAF)

As kibbles go through the process of extrusion, high heat diminishes many natural nutrients found in the ingredients. Hence, it is important that supplements are added to meet essential nutrition requirements. It is therefore pivotal to choose pet food that follows the nutrient guidelines set by AAFCO, FEDIAF or NRC.

5. The Guaranteed Analysis does not tell you everything

While the guaranteed analysis found on all pet food packaging contains some useful information, it does not include everything you need and should know. For example, it does not tell you the percentage of protein that comes from either the meat or plant material. Hence, looking solely at the guaranteed analysis may result in pet owners inaccurately estimating the protein composition found in the pet food they’ve picked out.

Pet Food Red Flags 🚩 

Another thing you should know is that because the pet food industry is highly unregulated, it is up to you to look out for your pet’s health and safety. These are some pet food red flags that you should avoid!

1. Ingredient lists that start with grains/carbohydrates

As mentioned earlier, manufacturers are legally required to list ingredients in terms of weight in descending order. Hence, pet food in which carbohydrates are listed first would mean that the majority of the food is made of carbs(often cheap fillers). Since cats and dogs are carnivores, we believe they should be receiving more nutrition from meat as opposed to carbs.

2. Unknown meat source

Unknown meat sources are commonly listed as “animal by-product”, “animal protein”, “hydrolysed animal protein”, “meat meal”, “poultry protein”, “animal fat”, “fish oil” . These unspecified meat sources are likely heavily rendered meat from parts unused by humans, such as animal blood, skin, bone etc. and do not provide the variety and quality nutrients that proper meat provides.

3. Artificial colours and flavours

Psst… your pet does not care what colour his/her food is. Artificial colours and flavours are unnecessary in your pet’s food. What's worse? Some colours such as Red 40 have been known to cause cancer in pets. While food colouring is an effective visual appeal, could it also be used to hide all questionable ingredients through marketing means?

4. Dangerous additive/preservatives 

If you spot anything from the likes of propylene glycol, ethoxyquin, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylacted hydroxytoluene (BHT), STAY AWAY from these products AT ALL COSTS! These preservatives have been known to cause death in many pets and have also resulted in multiple pet food recalls.

5. Fillers 

Some pet foods have deceivingly high protein content. Take note that protein can be extracted from plant sources and used in excess to hide the lack of animal protein in pet food. Some of the examples include corn, maize protein, pea protein, soy protein. If there is sufficient meat protein, there is absolutely no need for manufacturers to add plant protein to their pet food. Hence avoid products that include plant protein in their ingredient list.

6. Brands that have had major recalls and results in animal’s deaths  

We don’t want to name names, but it is always good to be aware of brands that have come into contention in the pet industry. Avoid purchasing from brands that have had multiple product recalls. Let’s not take the risk for the safety and well-being of your pets!