Guest Post: Understanding Pet Food Labels

De-mystify the labeling on a lot of pet food – “natural,” “raw,” “human grade,” “FDA approved”
Karen Scoggins, My Perfect Pet

With so many products on the market all claiming to be the best, how does the average pet owner know whether the food they are purchasing for their pets is really healthy and safe? Knowing how terms are used on pet food labels and understanding the reality of what is actually going into our pet’s food is the first step in making healthier choices for our pets.

Understanding Terms:
“Natural” means the ingredient has not been chemically or synthetically altered, but should not be confused with unprocessed. Pet food may be highly processed and still be considered “natural”.

“Human Grade” is far superior to the “feed grade” found in most pet food. However, it too can be misleading. For example, restaurants often sell used grease and oils to pet food companies as “human grade” – technically correct but not what we are led to believe. “Human grade” ingredients may include leftovers after the “restaurant grade” portions have been removed. The source of the ingredient and the integrity of the company are key.

“Restaurant Grade” is a new term with no legal definition at this point; however, it refers to the quality of the ingredient as not only “human grade” but the same quality approved by FDA for grocery stores and restaurants.

“FDA approved” is relevant only when stated what it is approved for. “FDA approved” may refer the minimum standards have for pet food (NOT recommended for human consumption) or to the higher and more stringent standards set for restaurants or grocery stores.

“Crude” levels are listed for protein and fat, which may be very different than what is actually digestible or usable by the pet. For example, grain based proteins may meet “crude” protein levels, but are poorly digested and may not contribute much in the way of actual nutrition or energy. “Crude fat” totals do not indicate the breakdown of fatty acids (omega-3 and others) critical for healthy skin and coat. Look for actual values or percentages as digested by the pet.

Foods to Watch Out For:
Avoid Preservatives – Known to cause immune deficiencies and cancers. Even if not listed on the label (sodium nitrite, BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, Propylene Glycol, etc.) watch out for animals fats which are all highly preserved. Any product that claims to contain meat but can sit on the shelf for months without spoiling must contain preservatives.

Minimize Processed Foods – Every processing step reduces the nutritional value of the ingredient, and introduces risk of contamination. Processed foods are more difficult to digest and contribute to a variety of health issues including allergies, sensitive stomachs, etc. Watch for terms like “glutens”, “brewers”, “flours”, “hulls”, “pulp”, “meals” and “by-products”.
Generic terms like “flavors” or “colorings”, unsubstantiated nutritional claims, or long lists of added vitamins and minerals are good indicators that the food quality is lower.

Pet Food Choices:
Fresh is always better, for us and for our pets. Products that are 100% complete and balanced AND made from whole, fresh, high quality foods are more easily digested by our pets, more nutritionally complete, and should result in fewer health related trips to the vet, and a longer, healthier life for your pet.

Fresh Raw diets are typically all natural, and free from preservatives or processed foods, making them more nutritious and easier to digest. Raw diets require strict discipline by the pet owner to avoid cross contamination of the raw pet food with their own food or family members. The FDA warns of potential risks associated with handling and feeding of any raw meats, particularly in situations where the pet may come into contact with small children, elderly, or those with weakened immune systems.

Fresh Cooked diets are becoming more popular as an alternative to the raw. Fresh cooked diets offer the convenience of a fully cooked product – eliminating the handling issues associated with raw meats – while still being all natural, free from preservatives or processed food, and just as easy for the pet to digest. Look for foods cooked to minimum FDA cooking temperatures for safe handling.

Dehydrated and Refrigerated are recommended as the next best to fresh frozen.

Canned food is highly processed, but may not contain the high levels of preservatives found in dry food.

Dry food is the most highly processed and most highly preserved of the pet food choices – making it also the lowest cost.
There are many products to choose from within each category, and the key is to look for the best choices based on information available, and your overall budget for pet care. Lower prices may seem more attractive, but the price of pet food is only one component of the overall cost of pet care. Many health issues in pets today can be directly attributed to diet, and healthier diet choices today can reduce health related expenses in the future.

Out pets depend on us to make the best choices we can for them. Regardless of which type of food you select, making healthier food choices for them will contribute to a healthier and longer life for your pet.