Understanding Pet Food Labels

5 CommentsThursday, 3 March 2016  |  Kate

Have you ever wondered what phrases like 'crude ash' and 'cereals' actually mean? If you don't know what you're reading, you don't know what exactly you're giving your dog. We've compiled some of the common confusing terms found on dog food labels so you can understand them and make sense of what you're feeding your dog. 

Legal Definitions / Ingredients Complete: This means that the product contains the full list of nutrients essential to your dog's dietary requirements.Don't be fooled by adjectives like 'premium' or 'gourmet' on dog foods, they are only used to make you think the food is in some way more special that the others. It's just a marketing technique used with no legal definition behind it; they are no legal indication of the product's quality.

Complementary: This means that the food does not contain the full amount of essential nutrients for your dog and needs other foods added for a balanced diet.

Composition: The list of ingredients in order of descending weight.

Meat and animal derivatives: These come from animals that have been passed as fit for human consumption. These are typically parts of the animal that are not used in the human food industry.

Crude Ash / Inorganic matter / Incinerated residue: While these terms might appear vague and ambiguous they are all synonymous phrases that refer to the mineral content found in the product after a sample has been burnt to determine it.

Various sugars: Describes the different types of sugar found in the product such as sugar cane, fructose and glucose of which are all found in fruit, vegetables and cereals (see cereals below).

Cereals: A blanket term for different types of grains that may be present in the pet food. This definition makes it hard to know exactly what types of grains are in the food or their quality. Some dog foods substitute cereals for fruit and vegetables which is generally more beneficial for a dog. Although that isn't to say that all grains are bad for dogs; when used in correct, high quality amounts they are also very beneficial. It's just that most dog food labels are unspecific about the cereals so it's impossible to tell.

Artificial Colourings: These have no health benefits whatsoever; they're simply used to make to food look appealing.

Artificial Flavourings: Ask yourself, can the product really be that good if it needs artificial flavours to be added before it tastes good?

Artificial Preservatives and Antioxidants: Antioxidants are used to give dog foods a long shelf life. In order to do this it is far cheaper for dog food manufacturers to use synthetic (artificial) antioxidants rather than natural ones. There are three main synthetic antioxidants used in dog foods:

  • E320 (BHA - Butylatedhydroyanilose)
  • E321 (BHT - Butylatedhydroyutoluen)
  • E324 (Ethoxyquin)

While these work very effectively as preservatives they have been linked to major health problems (such as cancer) when consumed in quantity. Healthier alternatives known as Tocopherals (Vitamin C and Vitamin E) are just as effective as preservatives and are usually derived from vegetable oil. Go natural, stay away from chemical preservatives.

Open and Closed Formulas: Like most of the information on dog food labels, formulas can be very confusing. Understanding the different types of Formula means you can make a more informed choice for your dog.

Open Formulas: What this means is that the recipe to which the dog food is made is left open meaning that the main ingredients can be subject to change depending on their availability or more commonly their cost. As open formula dog foods can change at any time it means that your dog might not be able to tolerate the new ingredients present in the food. It is not uncommon for individual dogs not to be able to tolerate a certain type of protein found in a certain kind of ingredient.

Closed Formulas: These formulas are always made to the same recipe and don't change. This is clearly much better for your dog as you know what they are getting every time (if you've read this guide).


  • As well as checking labels check your dog to see what food works or doesn't work for them.
  • Vary your dog's meals, you don't eat the same thing every day so why should your dog?
  • Buy British. As much as possible buy food made in the UK, from ingredients sourced in the UK.

Read more in my book The Dog Diet, the No. 1 Amazon bestseller.

Buy The Dog Diet

Mary Lyon
Sunday, 18 August 2013  |  13:43

ash...heard said it can be exactly that just as a filler. Is that possible?

Thursday, 16 January 2014  |  19:05

That's right.

Monday, 7 July 2014  |  17:42

Ash is an indication of the mineral content of the feed and is most certainly not a filler!!! chemicals are used to analyse food and the inorganic material that is left after the analysis is the minerals. It doesn't tell you the individual content but just the %

Ian Bidmead
Tuesday, 16 February 2016  |  15:04

No it's NOT a filler. It's the mineral ash left after the food is burnt. This is a legally required test in UK pet foods.

Thursday, 3 March 2016  |  14:28

Hi Ian

Testing for mineral content is a requirement and ash is the byproduct of that. I can't see where I say it's a filler though. Let me know and I'll fix. Can't find it. Thanks.