So you think you know what's in your dog's food?
11 CommentsWednesday, 14 January 2015 | Kate
So you think you know what's in your dog's food?
Here's another extract from my new book Top Dog.
Doing research for this book I read a lot of pet food labels, and I mean a lot! They don’t make it easy for you to choose the best food. The hyperbole on the front is practically meaningless, the colours are there for you, not the dog, and a high price is not necessarily an indicator of high quality.
The other day I was browsing in the pet food aisle in the supermarket and came across a dry dog food containing over 60% cereal – meat was the third ingredient on the label; furthermore, this food garnered a fair bit of its protein from vegetable fibres. I’m failing to see how that’s a good thing.
Go to the kitchen cupboard and get your current packet, pouch or can down and take a good look at what you bought. Ask yourself: what made you buy this brand? Word of mouth? Did the vet tell you to feed it because it was ‘bland’ and shouldn’t cause any issues? Was it super-expensive? Does it have the kind of packaging design to make it look as if it’s been lovingly hand-baked by the ladies at the WI?
Right, take a look at the front of the packet. Is there a photo of a cute, vital and energetic dog ‘enjoying life to the full’ in a sunny meadow on the front? I bet it says something like ‘food your dog will love you for’ and ‘using only natural ingredients’, ‘no artificial additives’ etc. And this may well be the case. But that’s all hype and sales pitch. The real story is on the back. That’s where you find what you’re looking for. The list of ingredients.
So, let’s not believe the hype, let’s learn to read a label. What you need to be able to do is translate and understand that ingredients list. When you can do that, when you know what those ingredients mean and how they apply to your dog and his diet, you will have the power to sally forth into your local or online pet shop (because you’ll never want to get your food anywhere else in future) and demand the best food out there, because you will know what you’re looking for. No more ‘various sugars’ for you, oh no!
The mysterious language of ingredients lists
Food labelling laws state that ‘all ingredients must be listed in order of weight, with the main ingredient listed first’. Rabbit, chicken, peas, swede, carrots, cranberry, seaweed, for example. You also have to show the percentage of an ingredient if it is ‘highlighted by the labelling or a picture on a package’. So ‘chicken and turkey casserole’ on the front of the label should read chicken 45%, turkey 15% on the ingredients list.
Beyond that, food can be listed on labels in two ways – either as a single ingredient, e.g. ‘chicken’, or as a category, e.g. ‘meat and animal derivatives’. If you list an ingredient as chicken then it can only be the flesh and a little bone. It cannot be tendon or skin, for example. The same goes for ‘chicken meal’, which may be reconstituted, but which must once have been chicken flesh.
If the label states ‘meat and animal derivatives (min 4% chicken)’ and the meat content is 26% overall, then you won’t know what the remaining 22% is. It can be beef, pork, lamb or a combination of all three. The term ‘meat and animal derivatives’ allows pet food producers to use the flesh and ‘all products and derivatives of the processing of the carcass or parts of the carcass’ over which you have no control. They list ingredients this way because it gives them more flexibility and enables them to buy the cheapest ingredients at any given moment. If they’re getting pork £1 a tonne cheaper than beef that week, they’re going to use it. Margins are tight.
It’s no different for cereals or vegetables. If the label states ‘rice’, it must be rice, not rice husks. The same goes for ‘wheat’: it cannot be wheat husks. If, however, the label simply states ‘cereals’ as a category, the food can contain wheat, maize, rice, wheat gluten and wheatfeed (husks) in any combination. No good if you’re trying to keep your dog off wheat.
Vegetables will either read ‘carrot, broccoli, pea’, in which case they must be just that and not a by-product such as the husk or ‘derivatives of vegetable origin’, which can be a mixture of any vegetables and their by-products (i.e. what’s left after the good stuff’s been syphoned off for use in something else). So, again, you won’t know what you’re getting.
The category ‘various sugars’, by the way, means ‘all types of sugar’, literally.
As I say, category labelling can cause problems for the owner whose dog has difficulty digesting certain ingredients. Many dogs don’t get on well with beef, for example, and research is starting to show that dogs exposed to the same protein repeatedly over years could develop an intolerance to it. The only way you can control the ingredients your dog eats is by selecting food that lists ingredients individually.
With that in mind...
Look at the label again and ask yourself this: ‘If I walk into the supermarket right now, will I be able to buy this list of ingredients, as stand-alone products, more or less?’ If the answer is yes – chicken, rice, carrots, peas, ground bone – it’s more than likely a great dog food. If the answer is no – meat and animal derivatives, derivatives of vegetable origin, cereals and hydrolysed animal proteins – it’s not the best.
Don’t be fooled by the term ‘natural’ on the packaging. It indicates that the components have not been bleached, oxidised or chemically treated, but it does not tell you anything about the actual quality of the food. ‘Wheatfeed’, i.e. the husk of the wheat, can be described as ‘natural’ but it has minimal nutritional value for your dog.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that because a food is expensive or labelled as a super-premium brand it’s going to have a great balance of protein to carbs. I just perused the site of a well- known brand that prides itself on its ingredients. They may well be exceptional quality but one food was nearly 70% carbohydrate!
The affordability factor
However you cut it, the pet food market is driven by us, the customers. If we want to keep the cost of feeding Fido down, and prices of raw materials and energy continue to rise, ultimately the things that have to give are ingredients and recipe quality.
The quantity of meat meals and cereals that companies like Mars and Nestlé Purina consume is vast, and it is not always possible for them to obtain consistent quality at a consistent price. This means three things: they compromise on quality, they put the price up or they amend the recipe (or a combination of all three).
The good thing about the premium foods is that they usually declare ingredients individually, so there’s less scope for recipe adaptation. But then you are paying more for them.
The truth is that until we’re happy to pay a higher price, more often, for better food, the status quo will prevail. I wouldn’t say that the pet food industry has been complicit in harming the health of pets through greed or negligence, but the industry that has developed probably isn’t sustainable in the future. Nobody wants to make the first move and put the price of standard dog foods up by 50%, which is what probably needs to happen to get back to better nutrition.