Helping your clients understand pet food labels

Tips to help veterinarians be the trusted resource for pet dietary advice and empower clients to realize the importance of understanding pet food labels.

Many of today’s pet parents strive to be well-educated about pet foods. They trust their veterinarians to tell them what food to give their animals, only to leave the clinic, bag in hand, dismayed at why the veterinarian would recommend a food with such horrific-sounding ingredients. Others have come to believe they can decide for themselves what foods to give their pets; some are incredibly knowledgeable while some think the choice is as simple as checking the label for high protein or low fat. Few realize how complex, misleading, and deceptive pet food packaging can be, and that it often lacks both simplicity and transparency. Support your clients’ goals by using your education and resources to help them choose wisely and better understand pet food labels, and to turn to you for dietary advice.

Everyone Googles

The information Google provides depends, of course, on the specific question asked. An internet search of “top pet foods” recommended by veterinarians lists Hill’s Science Diet, Royal Canin, and Purina Pro Plan. By changing the search parameters to the “top healthiest pet foods”, Ollie’s Healthy Turkey Fare, Pet Plate Chompin’ Chicken, and Fromm Gold head the list. Why such a discrepancy in opinion?

Playing detective to decode the truth

Many veterinarians rely on the manufacturers of prescription diets, and believe that the minimums and maximums of protein, fat, fiber and moisture are all they need to know to recommend a quality food. The analysis panel can be very misleading, and while macronutrients are listed, carbohydrates are not included and must be calculated. Yet, when we read the ingredient lists of most dry kibble, it is obvious that starches are always included. Nutritionists know the devil is in the details, but one must play detective to decipher the truth.

Digestibility, quality and safety 

The three crucial parameters of digestibility, quality and safety cannot be easily determined by reading pet food bags. Remind your clients that it’s not just what their dogs or cats eat, but rather what they absorb, that’s most crucial to good health. This point was recently driven home to us by the ongoing investigations into spikes of canine dilated cardiomyopathy cases. Many of the diets that were tested were found to contain taurine, methionine and cysteine levels consistent with AAFCO recommendations, yet many dogs consuming those same diets lacked adequate taurine in their blood.1

A large number of clients understand that digestibility is important and that high protein content is not enough. (Leather meal, animal hide, is very high in protein, but completely indigestible.)  The higher the moisture content, the lower the protein content will appear, but this protein may be of much higher quality than in a food whose analysis panel states a higher protein percentage. The guaranteed analysis protein percent is actually an archaic measure of nitrogen, a relic from the livestock feed industry, and not a measure of quality meat protein at all. Nitrogen can also come from plants. It can even come from toxic melamine; we have learned that unscrupulous manufacturers can artificially elevate “protein” levels in their foods to mislead consumers, and that pets can die from this hidden ingredient.

What is AAFCO and what does it mean to clients?

AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials, an industry organization. Consumers have been trained to believe that a pet food is complete and balanced for all life stages if the bag states: “This food meets or exceeds AAFCO nutrient profiles and is suitable for all life stages.” Indeed, “exceeding” is not necessarily okay and “meeting” may still be inadequate. AAFCO admits: “It is impossible that any list of concentrations can invariably ensure that all nutrient requirements are fulfilled in all diet formulas without additional considerations.”2 non-veterinary diets

Despite this admission of inadequate guidelines, they are currently all we have to rely on when we analyze a package of pet food. Pet parents view the AAFCO designation as the meeting of a nutritional standard.  So it is important, at minimum, to understand the AAFCO terminology.

Ingredient order and definitions –deciphering the facts

Always look at the back of the bag or the side of the box for the full ingredient profile, listed in order of weight. Don’t rely on a cursory list of ingredients on the front of the bag next to the splashy photographs of fresh meat, fruits and vegetables.

  • Ideally, we want to see a specific meat, such as pork or beef, listed first. If it is, this means it has been weighed with the water still in it. This makes it heavier and brings it to the top of the list. It refers to clean flesh from slaughtered animals. However, the water is removed during processing, meaning there is less weight of actual meat-derived protein in the end product.
  • By-products are non-rendered and come from slaughtered animals. They include organs, fat and entrails, but no hair, horns, teeth or hooves. By-products can be healthy, but we don’t know the quality based on a label listing. Carnivores do need to ingest organs for good health.3
  • A meat “meal” means the tissue has been rendered. This process converts waste animal tissue (not human grade meat) into stable usable materials like yellow grease, choice white grease, bleachable fancy tallow, and a protein meal such as meat and bone meal or poultry by-product meal.3 It contains no hair, hoof, hide or extraneous materials. By definition, while up to 9% of the crude protein in the product may be pepsin indigestible, the product would be more protein-dense than its clean flesh counterpart weighed with water included.
  • If a meat product is followed by more than one grain or starch, there may be more grain or starch than meat by weight, even though the meat is listed first. A common marketing trick is to list a grain, for example corn, broken down into corn gluten, corn starch, corn middlings, etc. This puts the corn versions below the meat source — unless you add them all together. This is called ingredient splitting.4 Corn is used to fatten livestock. Why? Corn is starchy. Starch is a carbohydrate or sugar. The body stores excess carbohydrate in the form of triglycerides, which are fat. In other words, fat is the storage form of excess carbs. Carbs make you gain weight, not fat! Corn is not a natural food for a carnivore diet.5

Sadly, American corn is contaminated with mold and aflatoxins, which are potentially carcinogenic. Most corn is GMO unless stated otherwise, which means it won’t die when the fields are sprayed with glyphosate herbicide to kill the weeds. But the corn does incorporate the glyphosate into its cells. The cattle eat the corn, and the glyphosate becomes incorporated into the food web. Humans, livestock and pets ingest the contaminated corn and/or the contaminated meat.6

  • After the starches on a label, a fat is listed along with how it is preserved (i.e. with mixed tocopherols, a source of vitamin E and/or rosemary extract). Avoid animal fat preserved with BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin. These artificial preservatives have been shown to be carcinogenic in rats7; in fact, ethoxyquin is banned in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.8
  • Avoid added sugars such as corn syrup, molasses, beet sugar and maple syrup. These are not useful nutrients. They entice a pet to eat the food and to become addicted to it. Why? So your client keeps purchasing it! Just because a pet likes it, does not mean it is good for him.
  • Salt should not be too high on the list, but this is often the case with canned foods. Salt is also addictive. It is very difficult to get a cat off an addictive canned diet; it often takes a 21-day program. Taste buds will adjust, however, so tell your clients to be patient.
  • If vitamins and minerals are added, look for those that are chelated, which improves absorption (listed as a chelate or a proteinate). However, do be aware that this chelation is not “natural” and often occurs by combining a mineral with soy proteinate, which is most assuredly GMO.9 Remember that GMO seeds result in crops laden with pesticides, allowing a mechanism for these chemicals to be incorporated into our patients’ (and our own) gut microflora.10 The best pet foods contain enough whole food sources of vitamins and minerals that synthetic versions need not be added.
  • Avoid canned foods that contain carrageenan as a “natural” thickener. This ingredient has been used in studies to intentionally stimulate inflammatory bowel disease.11 And we wonder why so many cats vomit?
  • JAVMA published a report showing an association between canned diets and hyperthyroidism in felines.12 We now know that can liners may contain BPA, a known endocrine disruptor.13 If a food contains dye (i.e. red dye 40), put it back on the shelf! Some grocery store foods, many treats, and dental chews still contain dye. Artificial colorings can be carcinogenic.14 Better ingredients can be utilized. For example, many pet parents know that blue-green algae can provide great antioxidant properties, while giving a beautiful green color to dental chews!
  • Small amounts of the best, healthiest, and most expensive ingredients are usually last on the list! These look like real foods. You may see blueberries, cranberries, broccoli, dried kelp, hemp seed and others. Some foods, like chicory root extract, are prebiotics that promote gut flora health. Prebiotics feed probiotics, the good bacteria in the gut. You may also see prebiotics listed on the label as inulin, which can come from chicory root.15 Added probiotics may not be as viable as those you add to the food yourself when serving it, but I applaud company attempts to include them, although paying more for them may be a waste of money. Probiotics will have names like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria.

Allergens and contaminants

Chicken is overused as a protein in the pet food industry, and is the most stressed livestock source of protein. Beef is often considered a common allergen, especially for cats.16 Wheat and soy have long been regarded by many veterinarians as common allergens.17 Today, most soy is of genetically modified origin, which is now being linked to cancer due to its connection to glyphosate.18

Based on my observations, gluten-free rice may be a better choice for many pets than other grains. However, the processing and high starch content are still not ideal. There have also been concerns about the presence of arsenic in rice.19 Some GI signs initially improve or even resolve, only to recur with repetitive use. Millet is a more easily digested grain, but is also a source of starch.20

Grain-free marketing trick 

Don’t be fooled by “grain-free” diets. It doesn’t mean they’re starch-free. The grain is commonly replaced by starchy potato, tapioca or legumes such as chickpeas. To make kibble, there must be a starch source, and processed carbohydrates create inflammation.21 Starch is “dampening” according to TCVM philosophy.

Grain-free” diets may or may not be higher in protein. While clients have been misled to believe these diets contain more meat protein, this is not necessarily true. Meat is a complete source of protein and absorbable amino acids that are critical to good health.

Many pets suffering from allergic dermatitis or inflammatory bowel disease do improve on unique protein and unique carbohydrate diets, while others don’t. Improvement is often short-lived, simply due to a change in nutrients. But don’t make the mistake of shifting a pet who has improved on a grain-free diet back to a grain diet; rather, shift toward a fresh, species-appropriate, balanced raw diet.

Cancer and obesity

One out of two pets is now dying of cancer. Some seemingly innocuous ingredients may be detrimental, and foods that contain corn, soy, and excessive sugar sources may be partially to blame for the cancer and obesity epidemic.18

Dry kibble and canned foods are processed at high temperatures. Cooked starch produces carcinogenic acrylamides22 and cooked meats produce mutagenic heterocyclic amines.23 Sugar (glucose) fuels cancer cells.24 Dr. Thomas Seyfried’s metabolic management of chronic disease research, as well as research by Ketopet Sanctuary, have become the subject of discussion among many pet cancer Facebook groups. Just a few more reasons why our educated pet parents are avoiding processed foods and flocking to fresh, species-appropriate raw diets.

Concluding thoughts

There is a great deal of confusion around pet food label terminology. In the end, my opinion is that it doesn’t matter, because it all pertains to processed food, which is woefully inadequate. But I also realize that society demands kibble and canned foods be available for dogs and cats, so there will always be some who need to feed these diets. It is disappointing that manufacturers have been known to lie on their labels. Some have claimed to use human grade ingredients, yet pentobarbital from euthanized animals was discovered in their foods.25

Information is powerful. If you empower your clients to be intelligent pet food consumers, they will bond with you. They will appreciate your holistic recommendations of a species-appropriate diet with whole food vitamin supplementation, glandulars, medicinal Western and Chinese herbals, or even natural essential oils for wellness and therapy.

Today’s consumers are purchasing more and more natural options for themselves and their pets, and are questioning old-fashioned conventional recommendations for pet care. Savvy pet parents are seeking veterinarians who know what is trending. They want to believe that their veterinarians are knowledgeable and have their pets’ best interests in mind at all times. Make sure your own advice is in sync with current progressive natural diet expertise. Educated pet parents make better food choices for their pets, and will also respect, trust and appreciate your other integrative suggestions if you are on the same page with them and their move toward quality natural nutrition.


8 Suppression_of_Cytochrome_P450_Enzymes_and_Amino_Acid_Biosynthesis_by_the_Gut_Microbiome_Pathways_to_Modern_Diseases


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