I think this is one of the most common questions we get asked in the nutrition world by pet parents – and that counts for all types of food models. Raw, dry, and fresh cooked. So, let’s tackle this – starting with dry food.
What makes a dog food “good” or “bad”?
The first thing to understand is that all foods registered with their respective departments (here in South Africa, it is DAFF – Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) as a complete food – are nutritionally complete and balanced. They have to be, by law, in order to be retailed as the main feed source for animals.
The question of good or bad comes in with ingredients, processes, and sourcing of the contents of that food.
Dry food is a biscuit-like pellet that is fed to dogs and cats. You get a whole bunch of them these days (almost too many) but they tackle things like general maintenance for adult pets, diabetes, bladder health, hairballs, weight management and so much more.
Dry pet food was first released in the 1860’s as “Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes” that consisted of dehydrated wheats, vegetables, beetroot, and beef blood. This was marketed as a convenient food option for pets, with large profit margins for their inventors. In the 1950’s, the whole “balanced and complete” approach took over and launched the world into a selection of brands, foods, and options.
Prior to the invention of dried dog foods, dogs and cats were fed what their owners were eating – and it differed region to region, but was a mix of proteins, lard, fruits, vegetables, and grains that they grew locally. This fresh diet model was followed for centuries and centuries.
Cut to today in 2023, where dry dog food is considered a game of profit and false claims, and brand transparency is not always there - how do you decide what is the best solution for your beloved floof?
Gosh, we could write articles on this and why this is the most important aspect. A tip for all pet-owners is to flip the bag! Check those ingredients and remember that ingredient-splitting is practised by most pet food brands.
Ingredients are also listed highest to lowest value, and this is also BEFORE processing the food.
Ideally, your first ingredient should always be an identifiable protein source and NOT “animal derivatives” or “meat meal”.
Another point is that you need to remember that carbohydrates are not clear cut. It can be maize, cereals, wheats, corn or even a starchy vegetable like peas, potatoes, lentils, legumes, and beans. When you think about these ingredients on their own for human consumption, these are all moderate to high GI foods, which can spike the blood sugar levels. Filler-type ingredients are foods that are used to bulk up the recipe – and this can even be veggies, fruits or the cereals and wheats.
This also doesn’t satiate the pet well, and then you have a pet that needs high volumes of food and doesn’t feel satisfied. High GI and carbohydrate are also not suited for your pet’s that are diabetics or pets with inflammatory conditions.
#2 RESEARCH THE BRAND & THEIR RECALLS
It’s all good and well that a brand or range has a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign, but the truth lies in the recalls and quality of the food.
Make sure that you are researching the brand and their recalls, studies, and data.
Remember, a brand does not have to publish their statistics from a food trial that may be negative – they publish the positive only.
Links and websites for food recalls;
Fear-mongering customers into only buying a specific brand or food type due to claims of Salmonella, risks, pathogens, vitamin, and mineral concerns etc is not a very becoming marketing tool, but it is used – often! Pet owners only want to give their pets the best, so that ties in with the fears instilled by marketing and sales pitches encouraging owners to only buy one type of food from a specific brand. Make sure you ask the questions, and research things yourselves so that you can truly see the outcomes of these types of claims.
#3 INGREDIENT ANALYSIS
Pet food has to be registered with the respective country’s feed governing body (America is FDA, South Africa is DAFF etc) so in order to do this, the food has to be formulated to AAFCO / FEDIAF requirements. And this means that the food has to be nutritionally balanced. Complete and balanced diets must always contain the minimum amounts of all of the nutrients necessary for dogs, which is also indicated in the “guaranteed analysis.”
The “guaranteed analysis” is also on each and every bag of dry food, wet food, raw food – any food! It can also be found on pet treats and supplements.
The term “complete and balanced” can be misleading though, as it does not always give the exact amount of these components, which means there is room for quite a bit of variation.
If you have any questions on the foods your pet is eating or foods that you are interested in feeding, you can always contact the pet food company and ask them! Any reputable pet food company will happily answer your questions.
#4 CALCULATE THE CARBS!
Eek the carb talk!
Carbs aren’t only the bad things – any food containing sugars, cellulose and starch is a carb. So, most foods classify as a carb then. The big thing is the TYPE of carb!
Pet food bags do not disclose the carb content of their foods. Shocker, I know, because a LOT of dry ingredients is needed to make that biscuit like shape for your pet to eat and since it is all in percentages, it is quite simple to calculate it when flipping the bag and looking at the food ingredients.
To calculate this yourself, use the trusty calculation in our image below.
100 – (% protein, fats, fibres, ash, moisture) = carb content
Ideally, you want to find a food that is higher in protein and lower in filler-type ingredients. See the next segment to learn how to differentiate these types of ingredients!
#5 KNOW THE LABEL LINGO
Fancy words, terms and trickery are a thing in pet food marketing and on the bags itself – so understand what these terms mean.
“Meat Meal” – these are made from animal sources that are not suitable for human consumption. A meat meal is a where these items have been dehydrated into a brown powder, which is then added to pet food.
“Animal Derivatives” – this is a very generic term for parts of animals that include their guts, feet, fur, wool, heads, beaks etc and is not often fresh meat cuts.
“Cereals” – this refers to the maize, sorghum, rice, wheats, barley, and other dry base fillers for the food to be turned into a biscuit.
“Hydrolysed proteins” – this refers to the chemical altering of protein molecules, through the process of hydrolysis, where the food molecules are broken down into main components (which are peptides and amino acids) which essentially removes the molecule tags used by your pet’s body to identify the source and type of protein.
“Balanced and complete” – this refers to meeting the bare minimum of nutrients required to sustain your pet’s life through diet. There is vast room for variations and inconsistencies.
“Protein name (like chicken / beef) flavour” – this refers to the “digest” of the protein (which are the natural materials) that are heat, enzyme and/or acid treated to create a concentrated natural flavour that must only be sufficiently detected in the food.
Ingredient splitting happens as well – and this is an example.
Instead of saying “Peas” or “Potato”, the label now says:
Peas, Pea flour, Pea protein
This has deceptively broken down the simple “Pea” into varied components, which makes the consumer think that the food is healthy and better, because LOOK! All the veggies!
Some other examples of ingredient splitting on pet foods are the following;
Corn – corn gluten meal, corn flour, and whole ground corn
Potatoes – dried potatoes, potato starch, potato protein and potato flour
Rice - brewers rice, whole grain brown rice and rice bran
Also remember that grain-free does not mean carbohydrate free. Lentils and potatoes are carbohydrates too and beware of the tricky ingredient splitting!
We hope this helps you understand a bit more on those pesky dog food labels – and make it a clearer as to why we usually say adding a bit of fresh, is sometimes the best. If you need assistance, book a consult with us to plan a way forward for your pet!