Guaranteed Analysis & Ingredients: A Practical Guide How to Read Dog Food Labels

Have you ever looked at a dog food label and thought, ‘well this is a load of jargon!’. You aren’t alone! Reading dog food labels and understanding dog food nutrition in the current state of the industry is frustrating. (Note: If you’re interested in learning more about the current status of dog food regulations and organizations, please read more here.)

However, once you grasp the main areas of a dog food label, you can piece them together to make more informed decisions for your dog’s health. Dog food labels don’t say everything and are far from ideal, but are a good starting point and EVERY pet parent should be able to generally understand them for the health of their dog.

Being able to decipher the differences when comparing dog food labels will help you decide which food to choose for your dog. So, how do you read a dog food label?

To begin, you can look at the product name, which will give you some immediate clues about the food, specifically as it relates to protein amounts.

  1. ‘Salmon for dogs’, means at least 95% of that product must be salmon.
  2. ‘Beef entrée for dogs’ or ‘lamb dinner for dogs’, at least 25% of the named ingredient must make up the product. If there are two ingredients named, for example ‘duck and brown rice dinner’, in combination they need to make up 25% though there are no rules as to how much of the 25% either duck or brown rice should contribute.
  3. If the name has the word with, the with ingredient only needs to make up 3% of the product, for example ‘dog dinner with chicken’ is significantly different from ‘chicken dinner for dogs’.
  4. ‘Turkey flavor’ means the ingredient must be able to be detected, but there are no regulations around what percentage it must comprise.

After the product name, these are three main pieces of information to triangulate:

A. Guaranteed analysis
B. Ingredients
C. Feeding directions and calories
DIG Labs Understanding and Reading Dog Food Labels and Guaranteed Analsysis

A. How to calculate and compare guaranteed analysis panels

The required guaranteed analysis is usually presented in the form of a table, detailing the overall macronutrient composition. Learn more about the process approach here. One important limitation, however, is that it doesn’t say anything about the quality of the nutrients.

Quantitative details are provided in the dog food’s guaranteed analysis:

  • Crude protein - This can come from meat and meat by-products in pet food as well as non-meat sources (pea protein, potato protein, etc.). This figure should be above 18% on a dry matter basis for adult dogs, although 40% or higher is even better.
  • Crude fat – Fat is dense energy source and provides over 2x more calories than protein or carbohydrates – this is where understanding source of calories matters! It should be above 5.5% on a dry matter basis.
  • Crude fiber – Fiber comes from grains and vegetables and helps regulate the digestive tract and water balance. There is not a required value for it, although typically it will be around 4%.
  • Ash – This is not required on a guaranteed analysis, although many pet foods include it. It is the cumulative total of all the minerals in the diet. Ash is generally under 7% and can be estimated between 5-7% in calculations as a placeholder.
  • Moisture – There are inherent differences in moisture content between types of dog food depending on the method of processing. Moisture content can vary from 5% to 90% depending on if you are feeding wet or canned food, dry food, cooked food, raw food, dehydrated food, freeze-dried food, etc.
  • Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates are not required on a guaranteed analysis. Carbohydrates can be from grains (wheat, rice, etc.) as well as grain-free ingredients (potatoes, tapioca, etc.). The carbohydrates are calculated by subtracting all the other figures from 100% except fiber, as fiber comes from carbohydrates.
  • Other optional nutrients – Other ingredients or micronutrients that the manufacturer would like to callout, such as probiotics, fatty acids, certain vitamins and minerals, and more may also be listed in the guaranteed analysis panel. These are not typically listed as a percent because they would be less than 1% and the actual values are more meaningful.

 The guaranteed analysis details figures which are calculated on an ‘as fed’ basis, which means two products cannot be directly compared. To do this, you will need to convert the figures into a ‘dry matter’ basis, which isn’t as tricky as it sounds.

If you look at a wet food tin, it may say that the moisture content is 80%, which means the dry matter content is 20%. If the protein level says it is 8% on an as fed basis, you can then calculate the protein on a dry matter basis by the simple calculation: 8/0.20 = 40% protein on a dry matter basis.

Equally, if you wanted to compare a dry food to this, where the moisture content was 10% (and therefore the dry content was 90%), and the protein level was 28%, the calculation would be: 25/0.90 = 31% protein on a dry matter basis.

So, comparing the two, the wet food has a higher protein content on a dry matter basis.

DIG Labs How to calculate and compare guaranteed analysis panels

Worksheet for Guaranteed Analysis Math:

 

Example

Food A:

Food B:

Food C:

Starting Base: As Fed Basis

100

100

100

100

-          Less Moisture

- 10

 

 

 

New Base: Dry Matter Basis

= 90

 

 

 

Crude Protein

24  / 90 = 26.6%

 

 

 

Crude Fat

12  / 90 = 13.3%

 

 

 

Crude Fiber

4  / 90 = 4.4%

 

 

 

Ash

6  / 90 = 6.6%

 

 

 

Estimated Carbohydrates

100 – 26.6 – 13.3 -6.6 = 53.5%

 

 

 

 

B. How to decipher ingredients lists

If ingredients are the first thing you look at on the packaging, you’re not alone. Over half of people surveyed agreed that the ingredients were the most important factors in selecting a food.

Dog food ingredients lists are primarily there to appeal to consumers. Even if the list looks delicious, it doesn’t actually speak much about the nutritional value of the food or quality of ingredients. To determine quality, it’s better to inquire into what protocols they have in place for sourcing and processing their raw ingredients. For example, the beef in one product isn’t necessarily of the same quality as the beef in another product. Also, a long list of ingredients may be super appealing, but keep in mind that the more ingredients in the list, the more quality control needed and any ingredients listed after salt typically are less than 1% of the recipe.

The ingredients are required to be listed in descending order of weight according to the FDA though it is not specified when in the process the weight should be noted. In many cases, manufacturers will choose to calculate this prior to processing in order to be able to include water weight. In this case, a meat protein is usually first, but some meat can be up to 70% water weight. Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of the protein comes from that ingredient.

Meat meal, on the other hand, has had the water and fat extracted out of it. This means it is a super-concentrated protein ingredient and can contain over 300% more protein than the equivalent weight of the fresh meat. However, meat meal will be considerably lighter than fresh meat, and therefore will be placed much further down the ingredients list than the fresh meat.

You may also see ‘meat by-product’ in the ingredients list, which isn’t an immediate cause for alarm depending on the manufacturer. It is a common misconception that this always includes the nasty or low quality parts, and therefore has an overarching negative stigma. However, the AAFCO definition of a by-product allows bone and organs to be included, which do have nutritional value. In many premium foods, you will see these get listed out individually to avoid misjudgement.

C. How to understand dog food feeding charts and calories

All dog foods will have feeding directions by either weight (e.g., grams) or volume (e.g., 1 cup) on their packaging, but these are simply guidelines. Every dog is unique in her daily calorie requirements with factors like body weight, metabolism, activity level, age, breed, and more playing a factor. In addition to calculating calorie requirements, you should regularly observe your dog’s body condition: you should be able to feel your dog’s ribs to the touch, see a waist, and see a round, not flat, back.

Important Note: Calories can vary greatly across foods, even if they are only a different recipe of the same brand. For example, one cup of chicken recipe could provide 434 kcal versus one cup of beef recipe could provide 576 kcal (illustrative only). Please make sure you are feeding for your dog’s calorie requirements – a food scale could be a good investment. The feeding instructions are usually given in weight of food per pound of body weight. Tip: once you’ve weighed the food, pour it into a cup and mark the level. This way you can use this to scoop (volume) in the future.

If you are wondering how much to feed a puppy, this is when it gets a little more complex. Puppy feeding directions are usually presented as a chart. You will have to estimate the adult weight of your puppy, and read down the column until you get to the age in months of your puppy. This will give you the amount you should be feeding. As your puppy gets older, you will need to adjust this amount, and if you have a mixed breed puppy, you might need the help of your veterinarian to judge how big he could grow up to be.

Practical Next Steps

As you can see, labels unfortunately aren’t as straight-forward as we’d like. They’re a great starting point to understand dog food and treats, but don’t just take them at face value. If there is something you want to know, call the company. If they are truly for improving your dog's quality of life, they will answer you! You have the power to manage your dog’s health and that begins with making sure what goes in them is high-quality.

We also highly recommend to rotate across a variety of foods (types, brands, recipes, etc.). Not only will your dog appreciate the novelty, but diversifying and providing things in moderation allows for not too much of any one thing.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published