Dog Food Ingredients Label: The Ultimate Guide

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Ahhh, the cryptic dog food ingredients label…It’s hard enough to decipher our own food labels and buy healthy food for ourselves. Should you buy organic? Raw? What the hell is at the bottom of this Kombucha?!

Are you killing polar bears if you don’t buy that locally grown apple? Are the ice caps melting because of your impulse purchase of S’mores Pop Tarts?

Well, if all this is not enough of a headache for you, now we’ve got to peel back the layers of some of the dog food industry’s bullshit and marketing to find what’s best for your dog.

We’ve taken a look at some of the most important factors when it comes to deciphering a dog food ingredient label. There’s a lot to look at and pick apart, we know. From BHA and BHT, to cellulose gum and brewers rice.

What the hell are they? What do they do (or not do) for my dog?

Seize Control of Your Dog’s Health from Dirty, Dirty Hands…

Let’s first take a look at the basics of understanding the dog food ingredients label.

We’ll discuss why position matters and what should be where. Because when it comes down to it, there’s actually a pretty simple formula you can use to guide you.

Of course, no dog food guide would be complete without a refresher of your dog’s basic needs, so we’re going to beat you over the head with protein, fat, and some vitamins over and over again. You may opt to take a shower after this point, but it’s up to you.

Lastly, we’ll round off the whole kit and caboodle with an example of good and bad foods for your dog.

By all means, if you wish to skip the fluff and information and head to the examples, go ahead. I’ll judge you slightly for not taking the extra two minutes to maybe learn something from what I’ve researched, but hey, Facebook deserves that extra two minutes of your attention, I’m sure.

Position Matters

For starters, I think we can all agree that the best position is the top position, and in more ways than one.

If you’re in a race, whether of the marathon or potato sack variety, you’re probably dreaming of that number one, winner-takes-all outcome. Being a CEO of a top Wall Street bank earns you vacations to Fiji on bailout money while the piddly peasants doing the actual work are stuck in the regular 9 to 5 grind.

And no one wins the Showcase Showdown by coming in second.

It feels good to be on top. Take that slight sexual innuendo any way you want, but don’t lie to yourself. It’s just logic, people.

So what do your bedroom, Wall Street bankers, and potato sack races have to do with dog food?

Well, when you’re scouring the shelves at your local pet store for the right dog food, your brain will ache at all the big words and questionable ingredients on the ingredient list. Instead of taking the list at face value and causing a devastating brain aneurysm, break it down.

First things first, you need to ignore all the complex lingo and just look at where these ingredients are physically placed in the list.

The highest percentage ingredient will be listed first. Simply put, whatever a certain dog food contains the most of will be the first ingredient. The following ingredients will be listed in decreasing order of content.

The Good

You might face a crisis mid-aisle when reading the ingredient list that leaves you sweating in your pants.

How do I know the good from the bad? Maybe ascorbic acid is bad because… I don’t know what it is… and corn meal is good, right? Isn’t corn a good thing?

While corn may be a staple of American diets, that doesn’t make it a good thing. (Have you taken a look around you? #obesity). Now, before you get all confused again, let’s get a refresher of some of your dog’s basic needs.

Dog Food Protein

I feel a bit like a broken record saying this, but it’s so important I’m willing to be bend over backwards for you (seriously, I don’t plan these sexual innuendos, they just come out).

Average dogs need their diet contain at least 18% protein.

More protein is great, although some might say otherwise. There is a constant debate about how much might be too much protein for your dog to consume, and the fact is, it doesn’t really matter all that much.

Some have linked too much protein to kidney disease, although those people should really be worrying about the quality of the protein and not so much the quantity of it.

Dog foods today are filled with low quality protein sources (digest, meat by-products, corn meal, etc). The percentage should never dip below that magical 18% (unless otherwise recommended by your veterinarian) and should come from high quality, minimally processed sources.

For example, look for these sources of protein high on the ingredient list:

  • Named, Real Meat: We’re talking the real deal here. No “chicken by product” or “animal protein.” When we say “named” we mean it. Look for turkey, chicken, venison, salmon, beef, you name it. As long as the animal name is stated clearly and not part of a mash-up, that’s a good protein source.
  • Meat Meal: Alright. I know I just got done telling you not to trust word combinations when it comes to meats, but there is an exception. Meat meal is real meat that has been dried and pulverized into itty bitty pieces. This meal is very dense in protein and easily digestible for your dog. Meat meals are A-OK and in fact, a very good source of protein. BUT LISTEN: Look for the animal name followed by the word “meal,” not generic names like meat meal, animal meal, poultry meal, etc.

Generic names for foods is the source of all evil.

Think about it. Would you eat something that was labeled as meat? Seriously, if you go into the meat section at your grocery store and pick up some bleeding muscle that said “meat,” would you throw that into the cart?

Cook it up with some “plant” and “grain” on the side?

WTF kind of meat? Beef? Chicken? Ostrich? Alpaca?

We all could use a little more clarity and so could your dog.

  • Eggs: Eggs are a great source of protein for your dog. While not typically added to most dog foods, you can most definitely feed your dog eggs yourself. Seriously, how long does it take to whip up an egg for your little buddy? If you can’t cook an egg you probably shouldn’t be owning living things. Am I right or am I right?

Dog Food Fat

Continuing scratchily on as a broken record, I will again mention that fat is also a big part of your dog’s nutritional needs.

Your dog needs, on average, 9-15% of their diet to consist of fat.

People with tiny waistlines everywhere may cringe at even the mention of the “f” word, but fats are vital for your dog. Fats are an energy source for little Chubbs, and it also helps him utilize and transport much needed nutrients.

Good sources of fats are clearly identified fats. Again, we’re looking for clarity. This is one you’ll be able to see immediately.

Good dog food fat examples include:

  • Beef Fat
  • Olive Oil
  • Salmon Oil
  • Chicken Fat, etc.

All of these are simple and not vague.

A bad example of dog food fat would be something like:

  • “Animal Fat”

Are you starting to see the picture here?

We need detail!


You need to be careful.

One thing dog food companies are really good at is being f*ing sneaky. I mean sneaky, sneaky. Like, ninjas in 15th century Japan sneaky.

Being the good, knowledgeable pet owner that you are, you’ve deduced through countless hours of research that some kind of meat-based protein should be listed first in the ingredient list.

And you know what?

You’re right! No twists in the story here. But, and that’s a big but (and I cannot lie), watch out for water.

That’s right.

That sinister dihydrogen monoxide that has us all addicted. The gateway drug to the grape juice that’s destroying our youth.


In some dry foods, whole meat is listed as a first ingredient, such as “chicken” or “lamb.” That’s all well and good, but meat that hasn’t been processed into dry food has a high water content. In order to squeeze these wholesome meats into dry pellets, that water has to be removed.

So what does this mean?

Water can make up the bulk of whole meats. So in all actuality, perhaps that “chicken” or “lamb” should not be first on the list, but fifth or sixth (or whatever) because of the added water that boosted its density before being processed.

Sneaky, sneaky.

Named meals (chicken meal, lamb meal, etc.) are great first ingredients because they’re the meat with the water already removed. They are truly deserving of the position of numero uno.

But that’s not the only way that water can mess with your mind when you’re looking for high quality kibble for Pepper.

Sneaky to the MAX

I am sorry.

No, seriously. I am really, really sorry about what I’m about to say.

When you’re there, comparing two dog foods in the pet store, sweating little droplets onto the labels, you’re going to have to do something 95% of the population would never want to do in public.


Yep. Sorry, Charlie.

If you think a sneaky dog food company is going to not try and use any loophole to sell their piece of crap product, you’re wrong.

They take what we all fear, math, and gamble that we’ll believe what they tell us before we ever consider doing our own mathematical investigation.

Let’s say that at first glance, one dry food contains 25% protein while another wet food contains 10.5% protein.

Seems like a no-brainer, right?

WRONG. So, so, deeply wrong.

This is where we separate those who thought a thin waist and shiny hair would get them through Math 101 instead of actual effort.

You need to take the moisture out of the equation.

This is what you need to do in the store (suck it up, it’s easy math) if you’re comparing products (especially dry and wet products).

reported proteintotal percentage of dry matter × 100 = actual goddamn protein

Ok, let’s do an example for those still struggling to grasp this concept called the dry matter basis. You pick up two foods with your dainty little hands and this is what you read.

Food #1: Yummy, Yummy Kibble

  • 25% protein
  • 24% fat
  • 13% fiber
  • 10% water

So here, the reported protein is 25%. The total percentage of dry matter is 90% (everything that’s not water, champ). Alright, get out your calculators.

2590 × 100 = 28% actual goddamn protein

Now, food #2: Slappy Dappy Canned Wet Food

  • 10.5% protein
  • 9% fat
  • 5% fiber
  • 70% water

The reported protein is 10.5%. The total percentage of dry matter is 30% (I’m really hoping I don’t have to explain this number again).

10.530 × 100 = 35% actual goddamn protein

Yeah. That just happened. The food with a really low protein content listed on the label actually contains more protein.

On a side note, remember when you whined to your math teacher, “But when will I even use this?” Well, if they were standing behind you right now, they might whisper in your ear, “I told you so, you little shit.”

Ok, but What is Dog Food Guaranteed Analysis?

All companies are required to include something called a “Guaranteed Analysis” on their packaging.

Basically, this is a regulation in the pet food industry that demands each food’s minimum crude protein and fat be listed, as well as its maximum fiber and moisture content.

Again, you need to put on your critical glasses when looking at the guaranteed analysis. You should never use the guaranteed analysis on its own when deciding which food is right for your pet. This is because food companies just list the percentages of certain nutrients but don’t mention what sources they used.

A food could have an excellent protein content, but if it’s coming from road kill and diseased livestock, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

So if you like what you see in the guaranteed analysis, compare it with the ingredient label. If the ingredients are wholesome and named, chances are you’ve got a good dog food.

So be a Skeptical Sally with guaranteed analysis figures.

Example Time

Now it’s time to shame one dog food company and praise another.

I’m going to take you through two dog food ingredient labels:

  1. One from Beneful, a Purina brand of dog food
  2. And one from Acana.

First up, Beneful:

Take a look through this one and before I give you the answers, try and pick out all of the (many) things that are wrong with this food.

I’ll wait.

Seriously, stop reading this and read that.

STOP CHEATING. Try it yourself first.

So what did you find?

Remember, start simply.

What’s first on the list? Is it meat? Nope. It’s corn. Not good.

That would be a giant red flag for you right there. In fact, if I was reading this label, I would read the first ingredient and put it right back on the shelf. But for the sake of learning, let’s analyze this further.

The next thing listed is chicken by-product meal. We haven’t quite touched on this one yet, but let’s briefly define what a “by-product” actually is:

A by-product is what’s left over after the meat selected for human consumption is whisked away. We’re talking about things like feet, organs, backs, heads, all that good stuff.

When handled properly, by-product meals are not all that bad for your dog.

However, not all by-products are treated equally. In fact, some are left to stew in a heap of meaty scraps for hours before being refrigerated. Some dog food companies even use by-product meals from road kill, zoo animals, diseased livestock, and even other euthanized cats and dogs.

Are you as grossed out as I am? So tread carefully with by-product meals. If they’re listed, they should again be listed by name (not vague, generic terms like meat by-product meal).

The fact that this is the first meaty protein source listed is not good either. It’s not a whole meat, it’s not even a whole meat meal, but rather a by-product of that meat, rendered into dust.


Moving on, we have some more corn and wheat flour.

Not a good sign.

And then, to top things off, the next ingredient is none other than the infamous “animal fat.” Boy oh boy, if you haven’t put this food back on the shelf (and perhaps lit it on fire), then you NEED to do so now.

And sweet baby Jesus, “animal digest” is really as sick as it sounds.

It’s the leftover stew from hell after some messed up chef who wasn’t loved as a child throws a bunch of scraps from all kinds of animals into a vat and stirs. Again, the animals included in this “animal digest” could be anything – a giraffe from a local zoo, Fluffy the kitten who was hit by a car in her prime, or a mangy, diseased cow who eventually kicked the bucket. I really wish I was joking.

Long story short, this dog food is garbage.

Next Up, Acana

Now, let’s take a look at a stand-out star, Acana. These ingredients are for its Lamb & Okanagan Apple Singles Dry Dog Food:

So how about it? What did you notice?

We’ve got lamb meal listed as the first ingredient. Named, protein-rich meat as the first ingredient.


Going down through the ingredient list, you’ll notice that there really are no complicated names.

You’ve got lentils, other vegetables and fruits all listed by name. The primary fat listed is also listed by name. Nothing is really complicated about this, except maybe the last three ingredients on the list.

Mixed tocopherols are a natural preservative. Without this ingredient, the food would spoil. It’s one of the safest and natural preservatives on the market.

Preservatives to avoid are:

  • BHA
  • BHT
  • TBHQ
  • Ethoxyquin
  • Propyl Gallate
  • Propylene Glycol (Anti-Freeze. Yep, the green stuff that goes in your car)

Check this out for more information on preservatives.

Zinc proteinate is a safe source of digestible zinc for your pet and that dried Enterococcus faecium nonsense is just a fancy name for a probiotic that’s thought to aid in digestion.

All in all, this is a fantastic dog food.


Alright. Take a breath.

We’ve waded through the dog industry’s BS and come out on the other side slightly smelly and sweaty, but otherwise unscathed.

After showering off that animal digest you’ll be more than ready to open your own investigation into the food you’re feeding your dog.

In the end, your dog will thank you. You’ll keep him in good shape and spirits, and you’ll likely avoid some complications later in his life.

Dogs on poor diets are plagued with a host of diseases but not your precious pooch, because you know how to find him the best food.

So go forth and conquer…your local pet store’s food selection!

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