How to read a bag’s label to determine the quality of the nutrition inside

Health Ingredients Nutrition Your Questions Answered

We often get asked “When you’re looking at the ingredient label on dog food, how can you tell if it’s quality nutrition? What should I be looking for?”.

Producing a label for pet food is something of an artform. Obviously, the seller is attempting to enhance the positive aspects of the food and the perceived point of difference, whilst down-playing or ignoring the negatives. Attempting to unravel the mystery of what is actually in the bag can be quite difficult, but there are a few tell-tale signs that can be used to form a considered opinion as to the nutritional value and hence the suitability of the product for the job at hand.


The ingredient list:

  • Ingredients are listed approximately in order of quantity, and if the seller has been true to this criterium, any ingredient listed after “salt” is going to be in the food at less than 1%. With the exception of vitamins and minerals, any food ingredient at this level is in the food solely for label claim reasons.
  • Name splitting of ingredients is to be viewed with suspicion. Corn, corn gluten meal and corn starch may be three different ingredients, but they are all still corn.
  • Too many ingredients is also a giveaway. There is only one kilogram of room in a kilogram of food, and when the ingredient list shows over 50 ingredients, you’ve got to question whether the included levels can contribute anything of value to the dog.
  • Too few ingredients. For the food to satisfy the complete needs of the animal, there needs to be a variety of ingredients that will supply a full range of nutrients for the dog. A lack of ingredient diversity is a huge contributor to skin and gut sensitivities in dogs.
  • The increasing use of novel ingredients is another aspect that detracts from nutritional competency. Just because a particular ingredient has been labelled as the latest “super food” for humans, doesn’t automatically qualify it for inclusion in pet food. Poor ingredient combinations is the other major contributor to skin and gut sensitivities in dogs.
  • Lastly but not least, check out the pictures on the bag. One product recently reviewed displayed 30 odd photos of food ingredients on the front of the bag, none of which were actually listed in the ingredient list on the back of the bag!


The analysis table:

The figures listed on the table will only give an indication of the nutrient density of the food. Perhaps the most telling figure relates to the level of protein versus the level of fat. Except in specialised applications, the fat level should be two thirds of the listed protein level. One of the biggest problems in modern canine nutrition is the over-supply of protein and the subsequent distortion of the protein/energy ratio in the food. Under everyday feeding conditions, domestic canines should be eating food in the range of 50 to 80 grams of protein per 1000 kilocalories of energy. Where excessive protein levels are included (above 30%) in the food, we often see protein to energy ratios well in excess of 100g /1000kcal.

In a pure sense, the body’s requirement to maintain energy equilibrium is the trigger mechanism for appetite, and where large amounts of protein are supplied in the food rather than energy from fat, the poor conversion of protein to energy results in fat deposits, and the by-products must be expelled from the body via the kidneys and urine production.

At the other end of the scale, low protein and low-fat diets indicate high carbohydrate diets, and of course this is a dietary manipulation that has moved too far in the opposite direction for good health, wellbeing and the overall happiness of the pet.


About the author… Bill Wiadrowski is a consulting nutritionist who has worked in the field of performance animal nutrition for over 50 years. His latest development is the LifeWise range of next generation foods that are rapidly gaining acclaim for their ability to repair common gut and skin sensitivities issues in domestic canines.

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