Labels, Labels, and More Labels!

Colors, flavors, and preservatives, oh my! Do you read beyond the front of that bag of dog or cat food? How about the box of your pet’s treats? If not, you should. Ingredient labels are the most important piece of information we have when considering a packaged food. Manufacturers and marketing companies may hope you skip the fine print, and just focus on the attractive colors, photos of happy active pets, and price tag when shopping for your pets’ food and treats. But if you do, you might end up buying foods that are unhealthy at best, and potentially toxic at worst.

Fiscally speaking, according to columnist, blogger and best-selling author Marion Nestle, Ph.D., MPH, pet care is a multibillion-dollar industry, with pet food alone at $17 billion. Shoppers are lured by culinary trends that are hyped by clever marketing, creative advertising, and the promise of “superior, supreme, all-natural, and gourmet” food and treats. Flavors, shapes, sizes, colors, and scents target prospective buyers who (like you and me) purchase the food for our pets. Our dogs and cats can’t read the ingredient labels – they are relying on us, their caregivers and providers, to know what’s best for them.

Decoding the “label speak” can be a little tricky at times, so I’d like to give you some insight into deciphering the terms commonly used in the pet food labeling industry.

Food labeling consists of the principal display and information panels. In The Complete Guide To Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM PhD points out:

AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) has no actual input on the ingredients used in pet food, no enforcement authority and does no analytical testing on the food itself.

AAFCO only develops guidelines for complete and balanced nutritional standards. According to Dr. Pitcairn, “This stamp of approval may be somewhat misleading as the useful biological value and digestibility of proteins, fats and carbohydrates as well as the supplemental vitamins and minerals may be destroyed by the high temperatures and sterilization that comes with the manufacturing of processed foods and treats.”

Foods labeled “premium”, “gourmet”, “ultra” and “superior” need only to meet the AAFCO standards for complete and balanced foods and no nutritional specialization. There are, however, guidelines for foods labeled “natural” and “organic”. Aside from just meeting the AAFCO standards, there are plenty of commercial pet food companies that actually make great, healthy food. These companies proudly display the sources of their ingredients (country of origin matters, too, since the melamine-poisoned meat from China debacle) and the test results from feeding trials, as well as provide a website for information and offer live assistance when calling for detailed information about the product. If you’re not convinced that a specific processed food or treat meets or exceeds a nutritional value for your pet’s health – keep looking. Alternatively, with the guidance of your veterinarian, prepare you own foods or treats with the addition of veterinary-formulated whole food supplements and enzymes.

When reading labels, I look for natural, Certified Organic Whole Foods only, and avoid ingredients that provide no nutritional value and may also be toxic such as coloring agents (identifiable by the letters FD&C and a number), flavoring agents, fillers (derivatives of corn, soy, or other inferior starches and sugars) and preservatives (BHA, BHT, Ethoxyquin). Definitely avoid ingredients referred to as by-products like meal and digest as they may be the food actually discarded as unfit for human consumption. Steer clear of foods labeled dinner, grill, entrée, and platter, as these typically contain a plethora of thickeners, binders, gums and other unnecessary ingredients.

The percentages of ingredients are listed in descending order, so the first ingredient listed will be the highest percentage by weight or volume. When shopping for foods for our carnivorous cats and active omnivorous dogs, look for meat proteins to be the first ingredient. Cats thrive on high-protein foods; dogs need less protein than cats do, so dog foods will contain more plant-based ingredients but should still have meat as their first ingredient. If you do choose a food with some grain in it, avoid wheat as it tends to be allergenic and difficult to digest. Similarly, avoid corn and soy, and limit the legumes like peas, beans and lentils, as these can contribute to unhealthy estrogen levels.

Now that you are a sharp and savvy shopper, armed with the tools and knowledge to read those labels, you can peruse the pet food aisle with confidence!

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