The easiest way to begin explaining the promises that are plastered all over pet food bags is to point out that the vast majority are a product of clever marketing. Like human foods, pet food ingredients are listed in order of weight from highest to lowest, so theoretically, the first ingredient is the most important. What most people (and pups) don’t know is that these ingredients are measured before they are cooked. Here’s why that’s important: if chicken is listed first before it’s cooked, that’s because a raw chicken contains 70% moisture. After it’s cooked, the chicken shrinks to about half its size changing the proportions of the ingredients.
There are two things to look for that can help ensure you’re purchasing a protein-rich dog food formula rather than one that is mostly grain. First, stick to a food with a limited number of ingredients. This will help to avoid buying formulas whose proportions have been manipulated with ingredient splitting, a practice that divides one ingredient into two groups to make its proportions look smaller. (For example, rather than containing 18% meat and 30% corn, the latter ingredient can be split so that the proportions read 18% meat, 15% corn flour, and 15% corn meal.)
Secondly, it’s also important to make sure that at least two of the first three ingredients are meat and that the first five are meat or whole ingredients (no derivatives like flours or starches). With these tips in mind when looking at a food label, you should be pointed in the right direction.
Speaking of corn, this grain is the most commonly used ingredient in dog foods. However, over 90% of corn produced in America is genetically modified. Some findings suggest links between Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and spikes in cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, and more. In an effort to avoid GMO’s, some consumers prefer dog foods that are grain-free, altogether. Also, lower quality grains can contain dangerous mycotoxins (produced by mold), which may cause issues even if ingested in small quantities. These mycotoxins are not killed in the cooking process. If you feel a diet inclusive of grain is right for your pet, stick to higher quality brands that you believe conduct adequate inbound testing of their ingredients and who use quality grains that are less likely to be contaminated
Now let us now explain a few other “mystery” ingredients that you (and many others!) would like clarified. An “animal by-product” is an ambiguous term that could refer to any part of the animal, and “meal” is a dehydrated, powdered concentrate of the product. Meals and by-products are created at rendering plants, which are facilities that turn deceased animals—including those that were euthanized or were diseased—into these processed ingredients that end up in pet food. While rendering has its critics, the real issue is what goes into said meal more than anything. When an ingredient panels lists "animal by-product meal" or just plain "meat meal," you really can't be certain of what is actually going in there. There are horror stories of diseased animals, road kill, or euthanized pets being just some of the ingredients in generic "meat meals". Now you don't want your pet eating that. Go for meals that are 'named', so fish meal, chicken meal, etc. instead of the so-called "mystery-meat-meals".
And what about “natural flavoring?” It’s a vague term that could mean a number of things, from meat-flavored concentrates (which could include chemically processed teeth, bone, hair, feathers, etc.), to diacetyl, a by-product of fermentation that gets processed into a buttery flavored additive. There are natural flavours that are made from quality ingredients, so the best way to find out exactly what’s in a “natural flavor” ingredient is to call the company and ask them.
If you want to avoid questionable marketing and ingredients, your best bet is to buy a healthy dog food recipe that you can trust. A great resource is to read the company's website and see what information and details are provided about ingredient sourcing and nutrition, or call the company to make sure any questions you have are answered in a direct and transparent way. Finally, find a food that is all natural, grain-free, and lists meat in its first several ingredients. If you can define every ingredient on the list, and you’d feel good about eating each one individually, you’re off to a good start.