Petplate how to read a pet food label

So, you’ve decided to take your pet’s nutrition as seriously as you take your own — good for you! That means picking up packets of pet food and flipping it over to read the food label, only to find it’s baffling. You’ve learned which ingredients to avoid in human food, but how can you make heads or tails of a pet food label? The good news is the FDA regulates pet food ingredients similarly to how they regulate human food, but there is specific language to the regulations that allows companies to skirt the issue, which can be really confusing.

Who has time to learn all the ins and outs of FDA terminology? We know you don’t, so we’ve put together some helpful tips to help you navigate the pet food label. 

1. Look at the order of ingredients


Like people food, pet food labels are listed in order of weight. The most prominent ingredients are listed first, and the ingredients are listed in descending order (by weight). That means, if you see something as the first ingredient— there’s going to be a lot of it— and if it’s listed last, not so much. At the top of the list, you’ll often find ingredients like corn. This is something that you want to avoid. Corn is often included in pet food because it’s an inexpensive filler, but it’s not as stellar for your pet’s nutrition. Instead, reach for pet food that lists meat first, so you want to see ingredients like chicken, beef, and lamb listed first. However, if you’re looking at dry dog food, there might be a valid reason that meat is listed as the second ingredient. Meat is high in water, and with dry dog foods, you’re dealing with dehydrated contents, so this is often responsible for bumping the meat to second place on the ingredients list.

2. It says “With Chicken” and “Beef Flavor”. That’s good, right?

Not necessarily. You want to give your pet quality protein, but when chicken and beef are listed on the ingredient label, they’re probably not the parts of the meat that you’re imagining. Chicken and beef are considered byproducts in pet food, so it may include the heart, esophagus, tongue, and diaphragm. This is why it’s important to buy pet food from a company that’s transparent in their meat ingredients. The FDA requires different standards for different product labels. Anything that includes “with” as part of the product name (such as Dog Food With Beef) only has to include 3% of that ingredient! Only 3% BEEF? REALLY?

And anything labeled with “flavor” in the title, like “Chicken Flavor for Dogs” only requires that the flavor is simply “detectable.” Sneaky, sneaky. And...yuck. 

3. What about the Ethox-Whatsits you can’t pronounce?

Like human food, you want to watch out for additives that you can’t pronounce. If you don’t want to give your pet chemical preservatives that you wouldn’t give yourself (because gross), try to avoid ingredients like BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and ethoxyquin. Ethoxyquin, especially, can be dangerous if swallowed or if it touches the skin.

4. How can you guarantee that your pet food is good?


The short answer is: you can and you can’t. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has put together a list of minimum requirements for pet food nutrition. The word to keep in mind there is: minimum. Pet food isn’t as heavily regulated as human food, so those minimums are lower. And some companies get away with slapping a “premium” label on a sub-par pet food, which is why you can’t always just go by the pet food label.

So what’s a conscious pet owner to do? Do your research (you’re reading this article, so you’re already nailing it!). Find a company you can trust to use high quality ingredients. To eliminate the time you spend agonizing over pet food labels entirely, hack your life by signing up for a pet food subscription service that uses only USDA approved meat + fresh fruits and veggies.