Understanding Pet Food Labels

Understanding Pet Food Labels

When you’re planning to buy pet food, it’s important to take a close look at the labels. At first glance, pet food labels can be a little confusing – what is all this jargon supposed to mean anyway?

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By understanding the basics of pet food labels and what certain components mean or indicate, you can make better choices about the foods that you feed your pets. Understanding pet food labels will help you to determine the quality of the food that you’re feeding your pets. After all, getting your pets the right nutrition is very important.

A Breakdown of the Label

In the United States, pet food manufactures are required to list the contents of the food on the outside of each package. Pet food labels are considered as legal documents, and the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine is the body which regulates the standards that the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets.

One each package of food, pet food manufactures must state:

  • The ingredients
  • The amount of food contained in the package, or the net weight
  • The food type and product name
  • Guaranteed analysis
  • The manufacturer's or distributor's name and address,
  • As well as "a claim that the pet food meets or exceeds the requirements of one or more of the recognized categories of nutritional adequacy: gestation, lactation, growth, maintenance, and complete for all life stages…; unless another scientifically substantiated claim is made, the food is designated solely for intermittent or supplemental feeding, or is to be used on the advice of a veterinarian."
  • The species for which the food is intended
  • Feeding Directions

What the Individual Requirements Really Mean

The Ingredients

All pet food manufacturers are required to state what ingredients are present in the food in order of their weight. The best way to determine the quality of the food is by looking at the full list of the ingredients included in a product.

Keep one thing in mind: your pets don’t require specific ingredients in their food; they require nutrients, which are contained in the ingredients. When looked at in this light, the importance of the quality of the ingredients can be understood. A wide range of ingredients are added together in order to create an appropriate nutrient profile for your pet.

Ingredients included in pet food typically fall into five major categories:

  • Water
  • Energy sources
  • Protein sources
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

Also included in the list of ingredients is a wide range of preservatives, chemicals, and dyes.

The names of these ingredients have very specific legal meanings. Be vigilant when you look through the list of ingredients: manufacturers typically break one ingredient into several different smaller ingredients and list them individually. This tactic has the effect of making it seem like the ingredient at the top of the list, typically a source of protein, has the highest weight content in the food. The reality of the matter is often very different, with the other ingredients, such as carbs, making up the bulk of the weight.

Net Weight

The net weight refers to the actual amount of food which is contained in the packaging in grams or pounds. This information may give you an estimate of the energy density contained in the food packaging. For instance, many foods contain about 1 Calorie per gram as fed.

Net weight is important to look at because sometimes manufacturers will reduce the size of the containers, thereby reducing the actual amount of food, without any reduction in the price.

Food Type/Product Name

On the package, the name of the product and what type of food it contains must be clearly stated. Each term that the manufacturer uses must meet with AAFCO standards. Here’s an example:

If the package says: It must contain:
Any type of meat At least 95% of that meat, minus water for processing
Chicken or Beef (or any other meat) Dinner, Entrée, Platter, etc. 25-94% of that meat
With (fill in the name of a type of meat here) At least 3% of that meat
Specific type of meat flavor (i.e. beef) A “detectable” amount

Guaranteed Analysis/Nutrition Facts

The guaranteed analysis must contain:

  • The minimum percent of crude protein
  • The minimum percent of crude fat
  • The maximum percent of crude fiber
  • The moisture content

Customers should be wary when it comes to this part of the label – the values used are not very specific and deal with only minimum and maximum values, not actual amounts. Furthermore, the protein and fat listed in this analysis are crude sources, not digestible ones. The digestibility of protein and fat will vary greatly depending upon their sources, and therefore it’s important to determine just how digestible the sources are.

Location of the Production of the Food

The food label must have the information of the manufacturer or distributor (name, address, and contact information) printed. This allows those customers who are interested in contacting the producers to be able to do so. In the spirit of transparency, providing this information is essential in order for customers to be able to get the information they want or require regarding the food.

Manufacturers Claims

If the manufacturer of the food intends to make a claim about the product on the label, they must aim to substantiate such claims with facts. For instance, if they assert that the product constitutes a complete and balanced meal, it is up to them to ensure that such a claim is true by consulting the relevant available data.

Another example is when companies use the word ‘natural’ to describe their foods. According to FDA guidelines, all that means is that there are no artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives used in the product.

Customers should be cautious when it comes to these claims because they are not reviewed and cannot be proven to be completely accurate.

The Species for which the Food is intended

The label on the product must clearly state whether the food in question is meant for dogs, cats, or any other type of pet.

Feeding Directions

Pet food products must also clearly state the feeding directions on the label. This includes the minimum amount of the product required per weight of the animal in question. The frequency of the feeding should also be stated.

Evaluating a Freshpet Label

Freshpet is a pet food company that specializes in manufacturing natural, fresh foods for dogs and cats. What sets Freshpet apart from its competitors is the fact that Freshpet uses a wide range of locally grown and harvested fruits and vegetables, as well as domestically reared meats and poultry in all of its recipes. Furthermore, they’re very open when it comes to sharing the information about their product ingredients.

Let’s have a look at one of their products in particular and evaluate the constituent parts of its label.

Freshpet Vital Balanced Nutrition Chicken Recipe with Peas, Carrots & Brown Rice Fresh Dog Food, 2 lb.


Chicken, Chicken Liver, Chicken Broth, Eggs, Peas, Carrots, Brown Rice, Rice Bran, Carrageenan, Salt, Natural Flavors, Dried Kelp, Flaxseed Oil, Inulin, Vitamins & Minerals (Choline Chloride, Zinc Proteinate, Iron Proteinate, Vitamin E Supplement, Copper Proteinate, Manganese Proteinate, Niacin, Calcium Pantothenate, Biotin, Sodium Selenite, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Calcium Iodate, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Folic Acid).

Guaranteed Analysis:

Crude Protein (min) 9.0%, Crude Fat (min) 7.0%, Crude Fiber (max) 1.5%, Moisture (max) 76.0%, Omega 6 Fatty Acids (min) 1.1%, Omega 3 Fatty Acids (min) 0.15%

It can be seen from the list of ingredients in this Freshpet dog food product that chicken, chicken liver, and chicken broth have the greatest weight content in this type of food. This is followed by vegetables, carbohydrates, and then vitamins and minerals.

This Freshpet product also asserts that:

  • This refrigerated dog food is made of simple, all natural ingredients
  • Omega 6 & 3 fatty acids in 7.5 to 1 ratio promote coat, joint, heart, brain, and eye health
  • There are a number of different sources of fiber in this product which helps maintain digestive health
  • There are no by-products, meals, fillers or artificial preservatives used in this recipe
  • The ingredients, and subsequently the end product was all made in the US

All of the meats and poultry used in Freshpet products meet with the standards developed by the Global Animal Partnership – The 5-Step™ Animal Welfare Ratings Standards. These are:

  • Step 1 - No Cages, No crates, No crowding
  • Step 2 - Enriched environment
  • Step 3 - Enhanced Outdoor access
  • Step 4 - Pasture centered
  • Step 5 - Animal centered, physical alterations prohibited
  • Step 5+ - Animals live their entire life on integrated farm

As a concerned pet parent, familiarizing yourself with pet food labels is very important. By understanding the types of ingredients, their quantities, as well as other common elements used by manufacturers, you can make better, more informed choices. The quality of the pet food you buy will have a direct effect on your pets’ overall health and well-being.

Freshpet foods is a pet food company that prides itself on transparency in its practices, and accordingly, on its product labels. Doing so helps customers understand the constituent components of a product better. When deciding what foods to feed your pets, it’s important to know what goes into those foods. Freshpet makes a conscious effort to provide this information to its customers.