How to Read Nutritional Information on Labels
Claims of ‘premium’, ‘super premium’ or ‘gourmet’ shouldn’t be taken at face value, as these are mere marketing tactics designed to sell you a product. Dr William Burkholder, a specialist at the Center for Veterinary Medicine, recommends looking past the claims on packaging and actually checking the list of ingredients. To do so, you only need a minimal knowledge of nutritional information.
You should first check the list of ingredients. Ingredient panels are listed from largest amount to smallest, according to weight. In good quality pet food, the first ingredient will be an animal protein like meat, meat meal, or a by-product. Lower-grade pet foods have carbohydrates in the form of grain like corn, wheat or rice, and their protein source is listed as ‘meat and bone meal’, or is plant-based. Beware – just because the first ingredient is meat-based, this doesn’t mean the product is high quality. Many companies hide that they are bulking on carbohydrates by listing them separately as ‘corn’, ‘wheat gluten’ etc. Combined, these carbohydrates might outweigh the animal-based protein.
Moreover, a meat ingredient can be mostly water weight. This means that whole meat, such as chicken, can contain 70% water and only 18% protein! So, a high-grade meat meal can be a much richer source of protein than the whole meat from which it is made. Meat meal is subject to a process called ‘rendering’.
In the USDA document “Rendering, Carcass Disposal, a Comprehensive Review” rendering is defined as: “A process of using high temperature and pressure to convert whole animal and poultry carcasses or their by-products with no or very low value to safe, nutritional, and economically valuable products. It is a combination of mixing, cooking, pressurizing, fat melting, water evaporation, microbial and enzyme inactivation. “
So, this process involves cooking meat until it is very dry – no water remains, and the residue is baked. What remains is a highly concentrated protein powder called meat meal. Chicken meal, for example, contains only 10% water and an incredible 65% protein.
But be careful – the quality of meat meal relies on the raw materials that were used to make it. Low-grade meat meals can come from anonymous meat sources – leftovers from slaughterhouses (that’s the bones, eyes, and other inedible parts of animals), spoiled supermarket meats, even dead zoo animals – can all be mixed together to end up in poor old Sparky’s dinner.
Since manufacturers are not forced to clarify exactly what is in their ingredients, you should follow two rules when looking at ingredients: if the meat-meal ingredient includes words like ‘by-product’, avoid it, and if it fails to identify the animal the meat came from, avoid it!
For example, labels might say:
- Meat meal
- Animal meal
- Chicken by-product meal
- Meat and Bone Meal
These generic sounding ingredients are dangerous for your pet’s health. Since low-grade rendered meat can contain almost anything, all sorts of nasty stuff gets in – maggots, rats, and there have been instances of euthanized cats or dogs being included. Not only could pet food contain chemicals used for euthanasia, but it could lead to cannibalization, and the host of diseases that entails (Mad Cow disease, anyone?).
What you should look for is meat meal that comes from a specific animal: beef, lamb, chicken, venison, etc. is all a sign of higher-quality meat meal.
However, unfortunately there is even some evidence suggesting that species-specific animal meals are not trustworthy. After all, rendered meat is still the leftovers parts of animals that humans cannot consume. That means the meat is not muscle meat, its bones and internal organs (that humans can’t eat). This is called ‘offal’, and is rendered into pet food because, as almost 30% of a livestock’s weight is offal, to dispose of it would be a colossal cost to slaughterhouses.
What you can do is contact your pet food manufacturer and ask questions about the quality of the meat meal: for example, if they can guarantee that no waste or inedible material is included in the meal and what the percentage of muscle meat is in the meal. You can ask for a written guarantee that what is included in, for example, Beef Meal, is 100% edible beef.
At the end of the day, it’s entirely up to you if you decide to feed your pet food including meat meal.
You should then check the nutritional adequacy statement – if this exists, then a governing body like the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has checked that the dog food is nutritionally adequate. If there is no statement, you can assume the food is not complete, balanced, and so does not meet AAFCO guidelines. Lastly, you should check the company’s contact information. Better quality pet-food companies don’t only have an address to write to, but phone numbers and internet contacts so you can contact them and ask questions. If you need to, you should be asking questions about how digestible the food is – companies should provide a percentage of this, and better quality pet foods are 70% and above digestible – and about any suspicious ingredients
Sadly, most pet foods don’t go through an approval process. AAFCO only allows ingredients in as supplements if they are approved pet food ingredients – which should prevent strange things being added to the pet food. The FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) lists ingredients that are GRAS (generally recognized as safe) but don’t include animal supplements in their DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act). This means that just because an ingredient is GRAS, doesn’t mean it is safe for pets!
As bizarre as this is, it’s entirely up to you to find out whether your pet’s food is actually safe for consumption. A sound knowledge of ingredients is needed for this. Read on to learn what could be in your pet’s food!
Ingredients – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!
When reading the nutritional label, you need to be aware that you are only being shown the ‘active ingredients.’ The ‘inactive ingredients’ are often not mentioned – because suppliers don’t want you to know what else is in the pet food!
Fillers are, as the name suggests, there to increase the volume of material in pet food. They can be food grade, like cornstarch, lactose or cellulose, or they can be non-food grade, like talc and silicon. For obvious reasons, feeding your pets food with non-food ingredients like talc and silicon is not healthy!
Binders bind food together, and can be lecithin, honey, sorbitol, gum Arabic and cellulose. Although not inherently dangerous ingredients, they’re unnecessary and too much sugar can cause digestive problems for pets!
Alongside fillers and binders, pet foods might have other additions like coloring agents. Coloring agents from vegetables (beet, carrot etc.) are okay, but anything synthetic can cause serious health problems like cancer. Coatings are also often added, as they increase shelf life. These coatings are often made from petrochemicals, which are also carcinogens (they cause cancer) and hard to digest. Look out for preservatives, too – these are almost always synthetic, and include non-organic forms of sulfur or selenium, and synthetic vitamins E and C. As with coatings, preservatives are there to benefit the manufacturer by making the food last longer. They do not put these ingredients in for your pet’s health!
As noted, there are very few regulations related to the production of pet food, so brands can put anything they like into pet food. Most companies are merely interested in keeping their revenues low so they can make a maximum profit from selling their products.
A good example of this was in 2007, in America. More than 150 brands of pet food were recalled because they contained wheat flour tainted with melamine. This dangerous industrial chemical led to the death of many pets by causing kidney failure in the animals. FDA traced the melamine to products labeled, wrongly, as wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate. These were imported from China. The problem was caused by melamine binding with melamine related compounds called cyan uric acid, which is also found in low-quality pet food. The combination of the two chemicals forms toxic crystals in urine and kidney tissue, leading to kidney failure and death!
Low-grade pet food can contain these ingredients, as can higher priced options. It’s important to always do your research thoroughly!
It’s important to be particular about what kind of food you feed your pet. It might be difficult to distinguish quality from low-grade pet food, but it’s worth doing your research and learning how to read nutritional labels, what to look for in ingredients and to be aware of fillers like corn and non-food grade ingredients like silicon.
Be aware of the dangers of low-grade pet food. It’ll save your faithful Fido a lot of sickness, and it may give you an extra few years together!
-Eyal Azerad (firstname.lastname@example.org)