How to pick the best food for your dog (Part 1 of 4)

Together with inspiring images of health, happy dogs, dog food manufacturers can and do use a wide range of attractive marketing messages to encourage us to buy their product over their competitors. Often these dubious dog food labelling claims of ‘freshness’, ‘wholeness’ or ‘healthfulness’ sound like things we want for our much loved pet but don’t actually mean anything.

If you really want to know what you are feeding your dog forget the marketing hype on the front of the packaging and look at the ingredient list and nutritional facts listed on the back. This blog and the three that follow will offer tips for getting behind the manufacturers marketing-speak so you can make the most beneficial food choices for your dog and your wallet.

Reading labels and trying to figure out which product is best is not always simple. A lot of ingredients such as ‘grains’, ‘by-products’ and ‘corn’ have often been vilified but as we’ll explore in the series a lot of these ingredients are not actually harmful for a healthy dog and there is often absolutely no reason to feel guilty if your chosen food contains them!

Please note that I have not taken health concerns into consideration, since these diets are formulated under completely different circumstances. These guidelines are for healthy dogs only.

Ingredient list

Ingredients must be listed in descending order according to weight. If rice is listed as the first ingredient, then the assumption is that there is more rice in the dog food than anything else. However, this can be deceiving because ingredient weights are listed on an ‘as fed’ basis, which includes the weight of the original water content prior to any cooking or drying. So, one food may list ‘chicken’, ‘rice’ and ‘potato’ as its first three ingredients while a competitor may list ‘rice’, ‘chicken meal’ and ‘potato’. As consumers we often assume that the first product is better because the protein is the primary ingredient not the cheaper carbohydrate but the weight of chicken in the first product includes water (which disappears in processing) whereas ‘chicken meal’ does not include water as it’s already been removed. We assume the second product is inferior but it may actually contain more chicken! Don’t overvalue the first ingredient and be sure to compare like with like.

Also look for the first source of fat or oil. Anything listed before that first source of fat, and including it, are the main ingredients of the food. This is important to know when looking for ingredients that may not necessarily be harmful for your dog but should only be present in small amounts in a quality product.

Pet food manufacturers will routinely use a strategy called ‘ingredient splitting’ to artificially raise the position of a desired item such as protein in the ingredient list and lower an inferior one. Manufacturers know that dog owners who look at the ingredient list want to see a named meat or protein source as the primary ingredient. Ingredient splitting allows them to split other significant ingredients down to their component parts so as not to knock the protein off the top spot!

For example, an ingredient such as peas could easily overtake the protein source if it was listed as the whole vegetable but when it’s split into ‘peas’, ‘pea flour’ and ‘pea proteins’ each of those separate parts is lower in weight than the primary ingredient and therefore appears lower down the ingredient list. It’s just a marketing tactic to alter perception and increase sales. Don’t be fooled because this trick can make a significant difference to the quality of your dog’s food.

If a product is split in this way you can pretty much guarantee it is the primary ingredient and not the ingredient listed on the packaging. Other examples include:

  • Rice: rice gluten, rice bran, whole rice, white rice, brown rice
  • Corn: corn gluten, corn meal, corn flour, whole ground corn
  • Potatoes: dried potatoes, potato starch, potato protein, and potato flour

The next blog in the series will help you to decipher protein ingredients and make an informed choice about what type of protein suits your dog.