How do we assess the foods?
Choosing a good dry pet food isn’t that easy. If you’ve ever read the
ingredient label on a pet food, you’ll notice that there is one crucial
bit of information missing: how much of each ingredient is in the food.
That really is crucial information. As we’ve already noted, most dry
pet foods are based on grains or other plant material. But the animals
we’re feeding them to are carnivores and should be eating a diet that
is mainly made up of meat…
You’ll see the crude fat and crude protein content of the food listed
on the labelling, but that alone does not tell us very much. Grains
contain protein too – but it’s far less bioavailable protein for a
carnivore that lacks the digestive enzymes needed to digest plants.
Protein derived from meat represents a far higher quality and
species-appropriate diet for a carnivore than plant proteins ever can
be. What’s the point of a protein if it cannot be properly digested?
Fortunately, it is possible to make an educated guess as to the quality
of a pet food. Until or unless the percentages of the ingredients are
required to be shown on the ingredient lists or manufacturers disclose
that information voluntarily, it can only ever be an educated guess or
assessment, based on the knowledge that we do have. But that is far
better than relying on the advertising hype.
What we look for in pet foods:
Meat, meat and more meat products. Cats and dogs are carnivores, and a
species appropriate diet for these animals must be based on meat. They
have no evolved need of carbohydrates in their diet. Grains are in pet
food because they’re cheaper than meat products, and are needed to hold
the kibble bits together. Not because they’re species-appropriate
nutrition for a carnivorous mammal.
Meat and fat products that are identified by species. If the species
cannot be identified, neither can the quality. We suggest avoiding any
products that use unidentified “meat”, “animal” or “poultry” products
in their foods.
Where grains are used, we look for good quality whole grains. Avoid
those products that make prolific use of grain fragments (think floor
sweepings) in their foods – these are nutritionless fillers.
Whole fruits and vegetables are appreciated, especially where these
replace grains in the foods.
Organic ingredients are appreciated – but note above about the need for
a food to contain a high proportion of meat. Organic grains are very
nice where grains must be used, but they are no substitute for meat
What we avoid:
Foods containing any form of by-products, most especially those of
indeterminate origin (“animal”, “poultry”, etc).
Artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners or preservatives – especially
those believed to be carcinogenic or that are banned from use in the
human food chain. In dog food, principally these are BHT, BHA,
Ethoxyquin, Propyl Gallate. NOTE: Some ingredients, usually fish
products, may contain artificial preservatives that are not disclosed
on the ingredient list; if they are not added by the manufacturer, they
are not required to be listed. We therefore look for assurances by
manufacturers using ocean fish products that their foods do NOT contain
any artificial preservatives.
Meats and fats that are not identified by species. These could
literally be anything, and are almost certainly of very low quality.
Practices and ingredients to be aware of:
Splitting is a common practice on dog food labels and it pays to be
aware. Ingredients in dog food are listed in order of their weight – so
the heaviest ingredients, those that make up the largest portion of the
food, are listed first.
Splitting is when a manufacturer lists different components of the same
ingredient as separate items. For example, chicken and chicken meal are
both chicken products. Brown rice, white rice, rice, rice bran, rice
gluten and rice flour are all parts of the same ingredient – rice. Yes,
there is a difference in the nutritional aspects of the different forms
of rice – brown rice is more nutritious than white rice, and grain
fragments are far lower quality and less nutritious than whole grains.
But the issue around splitting is in determining quantity.
The reason for the practice of “splitting” is essentially to make the
ingredient list look better. As an example, when there are large
quantities of rice in the food, a manufacturer might choose to list the
component parts separately. That way, although the total rice products
may make up, say, 55% of the food and meat only 25%, it is possible to
list the meat product first and then three or four individual rice
products that each separately weigh less than the meat product.
Combined, however, rice makes up more than double the chicken content.
Manufacturers don’t disclose the quantity of ingredients on the
labelling though. So you have to make the best assessment you can from
the rest of the information given. Thus, while seeing the component
parts of rice (or any other ingredient) is useful for determining the
quality of ingredients used, when you’re trying to assess quantity you
should always mentally add those component parts together.
Splitting can also serve to increase the level of confidence one has in
the quantity of particular ingredients used. When you see two forms of
the same meat ingredient, chicken for example, at the head of an
ingredient list that can help you come to the reasonable conclusion
that there is indeed a reasonable amount of chicken in the food.
The ingredient “chicken” means fresh chicken which is inclusive of its
water content. Now water content is of course removed in the process of
making dry dog food. It is thus likely that the true position of that
ingredient (sans water) should be much further down the ingredient list
than is stated. But if that were the first ingredient in a food, and
the next ingredient is “chicken meal” then the practice of splitting
can tell us that there was sufficient chicken meal in the food for it
to be rated ahead of the first grain despite a portion of the
ingredient split off. This serves to increase our confidence that the
true first ingredient is that named – a form of chicken (meat product).
Be careful though ;) That would not necessarily be the case if the
grains behind it were also split, or if there are a lot of different
grain products in the food.
Chicken, chicken meal, turkey, turkey meal, brown rice, chicken fat….
That looks excellent. There are “four” meat ingredients at the head of
the ingredient list. And only one grain. Once we factor in the removal
of water content (which is about 80%) from the ingredients “chicken”
and “turkey” then it is likely that these would be more accurately
placed somewhat further down the ingredient list. A more likely “true”
ingredient list here is thus: chicken meal, turkey meal, brown rice,
chicken fat, chicken (sans water), turkey (sans water).
So how does it look now? Actually, still very good. The first two
ingredients are still meat products, and there are two further meat
products in the food. There is only one grain ahead of the fat content.
We could have a very high level of confidence that there really was a
decent quantity of meat products in the food.
Chicken meal, brown rice, white rice, rice bran, rice gluten meal,
barley, chicken fat…
At first glance, that also looks fairly good. The first ingredient in
the food is a meat product – in meal form too, so we don’t have to
factor in the effects of water removal. But is it really the first
ingredient? Actually, we can’t be confident that it is. Once we add all
the different forms of rice together, they may well outweigh the
chicken meal. And in fact they probably do, by a significant margin.
Note that there’s another grain right behind the rice products in the
ingredient list too. In short, it is impossible to be confident that
the food contains an adequate amount of meat.
While not strictly an example of splitting, you should also take note
of foods that use a lot of different grain products, and mentally add
all those grains together to compare against all meat
Chicken meal, brown rice, barley, oat groats, ground corn, chicken fat,
wheat flour, corn gluten meal, fish meal, millet…
No splitting going on there, so we can read that as a true list. But we
should look carefully at the overall meat versus grain content. The
first ingredient may be meat, but in this case it is followed
immediately by four different grains ahead of the fat content, and
three more grains after that. There is one further meat product (a
meal) but it’s 9th on the ingredient list. It is likely that the
combined grain products outweigh the total meat products by a large
margin. This too is a grain heavy food.
The manufacturers won’t tell us the exact proportions of the
ingredients that go into the products, so it is really a case of making
an assessment based on the information you do have. And when it comes
to dog food, it is wiser to err on the side of scepticism than of blind
trust.What DFA does NOT do:
ratings and reviews on this site are based solely on the ingredients
the manufacturers state they use in the foods and other information
given. We make no assessment of their ethics, involvement in food
recalls, animal testing, phenobarbitol 'scandals' or other practices,
believing this to be a matter for the individual consumer. If you wish
to include such considerations in your food purchase decision, we would
encourage you to research widely prior to purchase.