Editorial February 2012 Issue

“No” Power - Interpreting a Dry Dog Food Product Label

By highlighting what their pet foods do NOT contain, some companies unfairly stigmatize certain ingredients.

While researching this year’s dry dog food review (which starts on the facing page), I was struck by the overwhelming prevalence of two big trends in marketing and formulation. I’m not sure any pet food company is immune from these tactics – and I’m not yet convinced they will prove a benefit to dogs or dog owners.

Nancy Kerns

The first tactic is the “No!” approach. You know, “No Corn, wheat, or soy!” How tame those claims seem now. I’ve seen dog food bags and pet food company literature that proudly proclaims products free of beef, dairy products, eggs, pork, potatoes, and yeast.

The problem with each of these “no” statements is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those ingredients. In some of the latter cases, the pet food maker is not actually denigrating those ingredients; its trying to help the consumer identify products that contain less-common ingredients. However, the “no” approach plants a seed of doubt in the minds of many consumers. “Wait; why are potatoes bad?”

Corn, wheat, and soy have been historically overused in low-quality pet foods, in lieu of better-quality ingredients. But that doesn’t mean that the presence of any corn, wheat, or soy in a food is cause for immediate dismissal. Each contains nutrients that can be of some value when the ingredient is used in moderation in a food that is bursting with higher quality ingredients. I don’t want to see any of them in the top five or so ingredients in a food – but the appearance of one of them in an otherwise compelling food does not cause me to drop it in horror.

I also saw products labeled as having no added hormones, added steroids, added sugar, antibiotics, by-products, fillers, genetically modified organisms (GMO), and grain fractions. My favorite? “No potentially allergenic ingredients.” (I could write a book about how that one aggravates me. Anything can be an allergen for a given individual. There are dogs who are allergic to dust. How can anything be free of “potential allergens”?)

There is a valid concern behind each of these statements, and perhaps even a valuable service offered by a product that protects dogs from the threat implied by each. But for any but the most educated consumers, these claims are meaningless and confusing – especially when market rivals publish counter-claims; you know, one company’s “filler” is another company’s “beneficial fiber.” In my opinion, unless these claims are explained by educational material (and supported with valid research), they do more harm to the industry than good.

The other big trend this year is related, I guess: Grain-free (or gluten-free) foods. Everybody has one, and some companies have a bunch. Suddenly, the premium pet food niche is all about a low-glycemic index diet.

There is no doubt that this is a good thing for many dogs – but it’s not good news for every dog. While some improve and thrive on a grain-free diet, some dogs wither. And while it’s true that grains are not a natural part of an evolutionary diet for canines, many dogs can utilize them without problems.

I’m pleased that so much research and innovation is going on in the pet food industry, and I’m happy to have lots of grain-free formulas from which to choose. But let’s educate dog owners so they know to try different products for different dogs, notice the results, and continue with what works best for each individual.

-Nancy Kerns

Comments (10)

Just to clarify a common misunderstanding...gluten-free isn't about glycemic index, as this article seems to imply. Gluten, AKA the gliadin molecule, is a PROTEIN (not a carbohydrate) found in wheat, barley, & rye. It can trigger an autoimmune disease known as celiac in humans, & it appears many canines have a sensitivity to it as well.

As someone who has celiac, I can eat all the carbs I want & not have an immune reaction as long as they don't come from wheat, barley, or rye. I may get fat as a whale, but I won't trigger generalized inflammation in my body.

Posted by: Jane J | June 24, 2013 5:38 PM    Report this comment

Prior to domestication dogs ate whatever was available. Because they did so doesn't mean that all of those foods were good for them. Clearly when they ate spoiled, rotten food they probably got sick and many died.

It seems a bit illogical that almost everyday a article can be found suggesting that we need to go back to the 'ancestral diet' in order to have healthy dogs. I don't feel that makes a lot of sense. Most dogs will eat just about anything. Yes, there are a few picky eaters. I think that's similar to your kid who will only eat strawberry ice cream. For instance, take a look at Honest Kitchen dog food. First ingredient in most selections is meat of some sort. However, the remaining ingredients far outweigh the meat quantity. The idea being that before dogs were domesticated they ate whatever they found. That included berries, grains, various grasses etc. Is today's dog the same as those original dogs who pretty much had to fend for themselves when it came to food? I doubt it.
I've know dogs, not owed by me, who never had a veggie or a grain in their lives. Lived entirely on meat scraps. They looked and acted healthy. They never got fat, until very old never had arthritis or bad teeth unless they chipped them on a bone. Makes you wonder, doesn't it, how much the advertisers have had to do with convincing us what we NEED to feed our dogs??

Posted by: Barbara W | June 23, 2013 4:06 PM    Report this comment

I LOVE these labels! I am owned by 5 dogs. Between them, we have to avoid wheat, corn, and potatoes (aggravates arthritis). I choose not to buy products that were not born AND processed in the USA. I also avoid GMO. When a company puts that info on the front of it's package I can and will grab that first! Otherwise I could spend all day reading labels in the pet store! I educate myself to the best of my ability but with SO many choices out there sometimes it's nice to be reminded why I like or avoid a product.

Posted by: granny2danny | June 22, 2013 3:52 PM    Report this comment

Corn is fed to cattle to fatten them up for market. So, what is it doing to pets, and people. I'm allergic to corn, and so is my dog. It is a common food allergen for people and pets. It also is GMO, and studies are showing some very disturbing risks to health. Corn also is high risk for aflatoxin, a powerful carcinogen, and other molds and mycotoxins. There have been so many pet food recalls, and reports of sick and dead pets from several brands of pet foods and treats, without the companies recalling the tainted foods. Don't risk the health and lives of your pets. Sign up for recall alerts on pet and people foods, so you can know right away if there are foods that are a risk for your family. There is currently a major recall of all dry pet food brands made by Natura. Google search for info, and for websites to sign up for alerts. Better to be safe then sorry, when it comes to our pets, and ourselves.

Posted by: Donna H | June 22, 2013 1:03 PM    Report this comment

When they talk about the "First five ingredients", they mean the actual ingredients, not the part that measures how much protein, fiber or moisture is in the food. When products list the ingredients of an edible product, it always puts the ingredient that the product has the most of first, working down to the ingredient it has the least of. For Example: on any bag of pet food will be a list of the ingredients used to make the product. The first five on the bag I have right here is: "Bison, Lamb, sweet potatoes, egg product, and pea protein." The very last ingredient listed on the bag is Folic Acid. Below that is a different list called the Guaranteed Analysis. An example of that: (again from this bag I am holding) Crude Protein 28%, Crude Fat 17%, Crude Fiber 5%, Moisture 10%, and Zinc 150 mg/kg. There are more but I wanted to just give an example. You look in the ingredients and you can see where the Crude Protein is coming from, and which source may provide the most by the order they are listed. You want a meat source to be the first ingredient on the list ("Bison"), not something like Corn Meal (preferably).

Posted by: HEATHER G | June 22, 2013 12:27 PM    Report this comment

" they also eat its stomach contents, thereby they have always eaten grain products. "
I would like to know what supports this claim. From L. David Mech's book Wolves: Behavior, Ecology and Conservation, wolves may eat contents of stomach of small prey but with large prey the stomach chamber is usually punctured and emptied of its contents.

Personally I believe dogs are carnivores based on their teeth, which are nothing like a bears' which is a true omnivore. However, I agree that dogs can use vegetables and some grains, I just don't believe they need them to survive.

Kudos on identifying that every dog is different! It's so easy to get caught up in all the hype of dog food and ignore how each dog is doing on their food.

Posted by: Dominique D | June 22, 2013 10:54 AM    Report this comment

This is a good article but the mention of the "first five ingredients" shows that the pet food companies have trained the reviewers. There is no basis for judging a food on the first five ingredients because some companies routinely juggle and split ingredients to get mislead the consumer. You can break up the same protein content in a variety of ways to make it seem like the protein content is higher than it is. I know several great foods where corn is the #2 ingredient but are over 90% protein from animal sources because there is a high level of the lead protein and several proteins after #5. Same for rice. It is impossible for whole grains to contribute much protein because even corn is only 6% protein and rice is about 3%.

WDJ should ask all the companies on the approved list to submit the percentage of GA protein from animal sources or remove them from the list. I can pretty much guaranty that some of the companies won't because they use various manufactured vegetable products like "pea protein" and "potato protein" that are 90% protein represent a big chunk of the total protein. Consumers easily accept this even though these products are no better than corn gluten.

So come on WDJ, call these companies out and demand the information.One reason I use Dr. Tim's is because he tells you everything, including the company that supplies the vitamins and minerals. His foods range from 90% animal protein to 96%. I have a feeling Fromm, Earthborn and Nutrisource won't tell you this.

Posted by: SalS | September 16, 2012 4:09 PM    Report this comment

The real issue is whether grains are used as a protein source, which is not good, or as a carbohydrate source, which is good. Take corn. Ground corn as the #1 ingredient is really lawn fertiizer, with the dog used as a dispenser. On the other hand, corn MEAL is a cooked and processed product that is 98% digestable and is an excellent source of carbohydrate. There's no reason to reject a dog food just because corn meal is one of the secondary ingredients.

Posted by: Pet Food Pro | September 14, 2012 9:26 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for this helpful article. I've had 6 English Springer Spaniels, none of whom have had any problems with grain in their diets. My newly adopted one may need to be on a grain-free diet due to possible allergies. Your article really helps to put things into perspective.

Posted by: 2SpringerBoyz | September 14, 2012 8:12 AM    Report this comment

Dogs may be carnivores, but it has been shown that carnivores not only eat the meat of their prey, they also eat its stomach contents, thereby they have always eaten grain products. This is true of lions, hyenas, and wild dogs.

Posted by: Unknown | May 12, 2012 12:45 AM    Report this comment

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