What’s in a Name? Decoding Dog Food Labels

Dog food can be a very controversial and confusing subject for first-time pet owners. Domestic dogs are omnivorous, having evolved from their wild counterparts, such as wolves, dingoes, and coyotes. When wild canines hunt, they eat most parts of the kill, including the contents of the stomach and intestines (vegetable and plant refuse). This means, in more simple terms, that dogs need a balanced diet of meat with supplemental plant matter. Most dog foods contain both animal and plant products–the question lies in the quantity and quality of each. However, deciding on a diet for a new pet can be akin to learning a second language if you’re unfamiliar with the process. So where do we start? At the beginning, of course: with the name.

First-time dog owners must be aware of the system in which pet food companies cryptically name their products. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) determines the regulations placed on product names and descriptors. Many of the naming regulations can be confusing to understand for the common consumer.

When browsing pet food options, the term “natural” appears in many product names, but it is largely arbitrary. “Natural” could simply refer to the lack of artificial colors or flavors, but there is no regulatory structure for using such language on pet food labels. The term “natural” should not be mistaken for organic. Organic dog food is manufactured under the USDA’s very strict organic regulations and is virtually guaranteed to be a higher quality of food. Any legitimate organic product will carry the USDA’s official organic seal.

Specific title modifiers are regularly employed to indicate the quality of the food based on the quantity of the ingredient specified in its name. Foods with “flavor” in the name (such as “turkey flavor dog food”) can contain as little as 3% of the specified meat. A similar rule is true of “dinner” and “formula” foods, but the percentage is higher. “Dinner” foods are required to have no less than 25% of the specified meat.

The only foods that have an acceptable quantity of quality animal ingredients are foods that clearly state which meat products they contain without additional modifiers. “Chicken dog food” is a hypothetical example of a food that would be required to have no less than 70% of the ingredient in its name, which is a suitable amount.

By paying careful attention and following these guidelines, any newcomer to pet ownership can make a responsible feeding decision. Pet food names can be intentionally misleading, but the informed consumer can make a conscious choice that will keep any dog healthy and happy.

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