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What are the most important things to look for on an ingredient list?


  • By regulation, the pet food label must have an ingredient list that shows the ingredients in descending order by weight only1, not quality or importance. Simply, the heaviest items are at the top of the list.
  • Ingredients high in water content (i.e. fresh meats, vegetables) may appear higher on the ingredient list than dry ingredients due to the weight contributed by water, even though that ingredient may contribute fewer nutrients to the overall diet. For example, corn gluten meal could contribute more protein to the complete formulation of a food than beef, even if beef is listed as the first ingredient.
  • Several forms of related ingredients can be listed separately in an ingredient list. For example, wheat, wheat bran, wheat flour, wheat germ meal, and wheat mill run may all be listed.1 This arrangement can make it seem that wheat-based ingredients make up a smaller portion of the food than they really do when all of the wheat ingredients are added together. This is called “splitting” or “grouping” the ingredients.
  • A note about “splitting”: It is possible that each ingredient is providing a different nutrient source. For example, corn to provide energy/calories, corn gluten meal to provide protein, and corn oil to provide linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid. This would not be considered “ingredient splitting.”
  • Ingredients are combined to provide needed nutrients for the pet. The nutrient composition is then displayed in the guaranteed nutrient analysis on the pet food label.  The correct amount and proportion (“complete and balanced”) of ingredients results in a nutrient profile approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) for that specific life stage.2
  • AAFCO defines nutrient profiles for dogs and cats for these life stages: growth/reproduction and maintenance. It does not define a nutrient profile for the senior life stage, large breed dogs, or performance athletes.

More supporting facts:

  • Nutrients that are targeted in pet foods include protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, and minerals required to support life and maximize performance.3
  • Three nutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) are a source of energy with fat being the most energy dense. A properly formulated diet provides all essential macro and micronutrients when fed to meet the pet’s daily energy requirement.
  • Fiber, the amount and type, may be considered during product development since fiber can provide beneficial health benefits.
  • A product development scientist for a pet food company considers the following factors for each ingredient: nutrient levels, functionality, palatability, digestibility, availability, and cost.2
  • AAFCO has established the name and definition of most ingredients (what it may or may not contain). These ingredient names must conform to AAFCO regulations.
  • If you have questions about ingredients, contact the pet food manufacturer. Contact information is required to be on all pet food labels.2
The Science Behind our Recommendations
1. Association of American Feed Control Officials. 2011 Official Publication. Association of American Feed Control Officials, Inc. 2011: 138; 440. 2. Thompson A. Ingredients: where pet food starts. Top Companion Anim Med. 2008 Aug; 23(3): 127-32. 3. Zicker SC: Evaluating pet foods: how confident are you when you recommend a commercial pet food? Top Companion Anim Med. 2008 Aug; 23(3):121-6.