Choose Wisely: A Decoder’s Guide to Dog Food Labels

When it comes to choosing dog food there’s no shortage of options for owners to choose from. Your local grocery likely has at least ten unique brands and if stop in at your local pet store, there are likely to be five times that many or more. While one boasts about specialty ingredients like filet mignon or kangaroo, others boast about premium or gourmet quality veggies.

How do you even begin to sort them all out and find the best food for your dog??

Let’s forget the snazzy marketing for a moment and get straight to the facts – what really makes a dog food great, and what to avoid as best you can.

Signs of Greatness: What to Look for in a Dog Food

  1. A Protein Source is the First Listed Ingredient.
    Dog food labels must follow the same labeling requirements as products meant for human consumption do. Ingredients must be listed in order of proportion, starting with the ingredients which make up the highest proportion of the recipe. The ingredient you want on top of the list in your dog’s food? A high-quality, named protein source. (“Meat product” doesn’t cut it in our book!)
  2. The Meat Ingredients are Named.
    If dog food producers knew the specific ingredient used and that ingredient would appeal to you, you can bet they would call it by name on their label. That’s why you should be immediately suspicious of any ambiguous ingredient descriptors such as “meat,” “animal,” “bone,” or even “poultry.” Ingredients with these descriptors can come from any source including rats, roadkill, euthanized shelter animals, and “4D animals” (animals found Dead, Diseased, Disabled, or Dying prior to slaughter). Quality dog food producers know and name the meat sources they use.
  3. There’s a Variety of Fruit and Vegetables.
    Meat-only or excessive protein diets (more than 35% protein) can easily lead to excessive weight and all the health issues that come with that – arthritis, diabetes, heart disease. High levels of urea which also result from a meat-only diet overburden a dog’s liver and kidneys and over time this may lead to degenerative disease, chronic renal failure, or cirrhosis.
    Plant-based foods supply necessary fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other micronutrients dogs need to be healthy, and mimic the contents of a prey animal stomach they would eat in the wild. Your dog’s food should make whole fruits and vegetables a priority.
  4. The Ingredients Are Whole.
    The ideal dog food contains very few “fraction foods,” and if they do contain fraction foods, these should be at the end of the list of ingredients. You’re looking for meats like chicken, not “chicken digest.” You want fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables with all their fragile, complex nutrients intact. These contain all the natural sweetness, fiber, vitamins, and minerals your dog needs. Ingredients like fructose, cellulose, and isolated vitamins are included in low quality foods to save on cost. You wouldn’t sit down to a bowl of cellulose. Your dog doesn’t want to either.

Signs of Grossness: What to Avoid in a Dog Food

Unnamed Meat Sources
We covered this earlier, but this one’s particularly heinous, so we think it bears repeating. Be they meat, bones, or organs, when animal-based ingredients are listed without a source (What KIND of meat? What KIND of bones?) you can safely assume the source is one you wouldn’t like. Dog food producers know customers love seeing words like “chicken,” “beef,” and “lamb,” in their ingredients list, so you can be sure they would use them if any could be claimed. Unnamed animal products can include a variety of repellant sources including rats, roadkill, euthanized shelter animals, and 4D meats. 4D, as you’ll recall has nothing to do with the dimensions of the product. The four “D”s are animal which were found Dead, Diseased, Disabled, and Dying on the lot prior to culling for slaughter. Nothing you’d want in your dog’s food bowl.

Synthesized or Heavily Processed Ingredients – Preservatives, Dyes, & Supplements.
A good general rule? If it isn’t naturally occurring or you wouldn’t find it in a recipe, you don’t want it in your dog’s food. Some synthesized ingredients are worse than others though, so we’d like to take a moment to call out the most heinous right now specifically. If you spot any of these on a dog food label, throw it right back where you found it!

  • Ethoxyquin – a cheap preservative. Originally developed by Monsanto (boo!) as a rubber stabilizer, it was then subsequently used as a pesticide. Ethoxyquin has been linked to thyroid, kidney, reproductive, and immune-related illness. Gross, gross, gross.
  • BHA (Butylated Hydroxysanisole) and BHT (Butylated Hydroxysansisole) – cheap synthesized preservatives which have been banned for human use in many countries. Studies indicate these chemicals may be both carcinogenic and tumorigenic.
  • Propyl Gallate (aka. Gallic Acid and Propyl Ester) – a “natural” preservative obtained from the hydrolysis of tara pod tanins (because what could be more natural than tanin hydrolysis, right?) Propyl Gallate is suspected of causing liver disease and cancer.
  • Blue 2 – an artificial coloring agent. Mice studies suggest Blue 2 may cause brain tumors.
  • Yellow 6 – an artificial coloring agent contaminated with small amounts of several known carcinogens. Animal studies suggest Yellow 6 may cause allergic reactions and tumors on adrenal glands and kidneys.
  • Vitamin K3 (aka. Menadione and Menadione Sodium Bisulfate) – a synthesized form of vitamin K. Unlike naturally occurring vitamin K, studies suggest a wide array of negative health effects caused by synthetic vitamin K3. Among the list - irritation to the skin and mucous membranes, allergic reactions, eczema, liver cell damage, weakened immunity, hemolytic anemia, and mutagenic activity.
  • Propylene Glycol (aka. PG) – a chemical used to keep kibble moist. It’s toxic if consumed in large amounts and definitely not something you want your dog eating every day.

Partial or Fraction Ingredients.
Generally, let’s think of this as “whole food - asterisks.” Whole food name followed by a descriptor – chicken* (digest), beet* (pulp), rice* (bran), ect. While a few fractal foods at the bottom of the ingredients list probably isn’t an issue, whole foods should made up the majority of ingredients. It is also important to note the deceptive marketing practice of ingredient “splitting.”
Splitting is when pet food companies list one ingredient by several component parts in order to make it appear as though that ingredient is a smaller proportion of the recipe than it actually is. For example – let’s say one dog food recipe is 50% rice and only 25% meat. That doesn’t look too great on a label. To make it appear as though the recipe is mostly meat, a dog food company might “split” the rice content, calling it “white rice,” “rice bran,” and “rice gluten.” It’s no longer 50% rice. It’s now 16% rice, 16% rice bran, and 16% rice gluten. Suddenly, meat is the first ingredient!
If you see many partial or fraction ingredients on a dog food label, particularly if they are higher up in the list or many share the same source (ie. rice, rice bran, rice gluten), you should be suspicious deceptive ingredient splitting has taken place. There is no need for deception with a solid, high quality recipe.

Call it sugar, call it corn syrup, call it molasses, fructose, or sorbitol - call it whatever you’d like, refined sweeteners are unnecessary and unhealthful additives for dogs used to make low-quality food appealing.

While “fillers” can be useful term in describing the wide range of ingredients with little or no nutritional value used to bulk a food up cheaply, it’s unfortunately a term without an official definition. As a result, dog food producers have the luxury of slapping “no filler” claims on their labels without actually complying to what a normal person might think that would mean. Since you can’t necessarily trust that “no fillers” claims mean what you think it means, you’ll need to check the ingredients list. Look for:

  • Cellulose – defined as the processed product of fiberous plants, “cellulose” is most often finely ground sawdust! It’s not in there for your dog’s benefit. It’s in there simply to make a lot of food as cheaply as possible.
  • Grains, Corn, Soy, Bamboo, Cottonseed, Chicory – cheap, but low in the nutrients dogs need, these ingredients are common culprits of digestive issues and food allergies in dogs and should be avoided if possible.
  • Brans, Hulls, & Corncobs – essentially devoid of nutrients, the discarded remains of food production, fiber from brans, hulls, and corncobs is never necessary when nutritious whole fruits and vegetable are supplied in appropriate amounts.

Ingredients Grown, Processed, and Packaged in China.
A lack of stringent regulation in China, high levels of environmental pollution, and pressure from big pet food companies to produce ever more cheaply, are all factors that have led to dangerous practices in pet food manufacture there. Since 2004, issues with contaminants and poisonous chemical additives in Chinese made foods have continued to emerge sickening and killing thousands of pets.
One would hope that avoiding Chinese ingredients would be as easy as looking for a “Made In the USA” claim on the packaging, but unfortunately “Made in the USA” can simply mean processed in the USA or packaged in the USA. To ensure your dog food contains no Chinese ingredients, there are a couple things you can do.

  • Look Out for Added Vitamins: Even in dog food blends where most ingredients are sourced from the USA, if you’re seeing vitamins listed with the ingredients, they have very likely come from China. Responsible for 90% of the Vitamin C supply in the US alone, China is the number one producer of vitamins and minerals and supplies them cheaply. Added vitamin and mineral supplements are unnecessary when the dog food recipe contains a well-balanced blend of high-quality nutritious ingredients anyhow.
  • Skip the Grains: Many of the issues with Chinese ingredients thus far have originated with grain content - toxic mold from poor grain storage conditions, or toxic additives used to increase protein content cheaply in poor-quality, grain-heavy dog food recipes. Grains are unnecessary filler ingredients in dog food, so there’s no need to take the risk.
  • Call the Producer: Your best bet – call the producer and ask them directly whether any of their ingredients are sourced from China.

Now that you know a little more about dog food, are you ready for something different?

Simply, Naturally, Better

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A blend of proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats; 16 ingredients are selected to provide a full range of the vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients your dog needs.

With recipes this good, Better Bowl needs no spray-on, synthesized, or refined vitamins to deliver nutrition. It doesn’t need refined sweeteners, artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives to deliver on flavor either!

Grown, blended, and packaged in the USA, our ingredients are dehydrated raw – never fried, baked, boiled, or extruded – to keep them as fresh and nutritious as the day they were harvested.

There isn’t an ingredient in these bags we won’t name plainly and proudly.

With quick, warm, and tasty instant-homemade blend, you can feel good knowing whichever meal your dog is eating, it’s simply, naturally, better.

Learn More About BetterBowl