Web Only Article January 20, 2016

How to Find the Best Dry Dog Food: Behind WDJ’s Approved Dry Dog Food List

Is your dog getting the healthiest dog food for him? If you feed him dry dog food, or kibble, make sure the brands you buy provide the best diet for his needs and health.

The food you give your dog plays a critical role in his well-being, both on a daily basis and long-term. He needs a diet with the right nutrients to keep him active, happy, and healthy. And make no mistake: Not all dog foods are created equal. Since 1998, The Whole Dog Journal has been proving that much in an annual review and ratings of dry dog foods.

Dog food brands like Champion Petfoods’, Orijen, Diamond’s Taste of the Wild, Blue Buffalo, and Merrick have been regulars on the Whole Dog Journal Approved list in recent years, as have Artemis, Bench & FieldNatura’s California Natural, and Wellpet’s Wellness, among many others. 

Year by Year: Subscribers to The Whole Dog Journal can access our annual dry dog food reviews online. Here are links to the past five lists of approved dog foods:

The Whole Dog Journal rates dry dog food and creates an annual "Approved" list (for publication every February) based on the following criteria...

→ Must-Have Ingredients in Dry Dog Food   

Make sure your dog’s dry food has the following elements, the hallmarks of a quality product:

☐ Superior sources of protein: Look for dry dog foods that contain a lot of animal proteins—either whole, fresh meats or single-source meat meal. For example, you want to see “chicken meal” or “beef meal” on the label, not “poultry meal” or “meat meal.” A dog food label listing simply “meat” is an example of a low-quality protein source of dubious origin. 

☐ Whole-meat source as one of the first two ingredients: Better yet: two meat sources among the top three ingredients (say, chicken and chicken meal). Meat, the most natural source of protein for dogs, contains the amino acids most important to canine health. A good mix of meat proteins helps round out a dog food’s amino acid profile.

☐ Whole, unprocessed grains, vegetables, and other foods. An unprocessed food for your dog has the best chance of surviving the food-making process with its nutrients—vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants—intact. 

→ Avoid Dry Dog Food with These Ingredients   

pet food nutrition facts

When scanning dry dog food labels, keep your eyes peeled for the following undesirables. High-quality dry dog foods have these ingredients in minimal percentages:

✗ Meat by-products. Research has revealed that higher-value ingredients in dry dog foods tend to be processed and stored more carefully (kept clean and cold) than lower-cost ingredients—including “by-products.” And it’s just about impossible to ascertain the quality of by-products. We prefer to see these second-rate ingredients in a supporting role to whole meats or meat meals—say, below the top five ingredients.

✗ “Generic” fat source. “Animal fat”—an ingredient you may notice in some dry dog foods—can be just about anything, from an unwholesome mystery mix of various fats to recycled grease from restaurants. A preferable ingredient would be “beef fat” or “chicken fat.” The more generic the term, the more suspect the ingredient is. (We shudder to think of what’s in “animal digest”—another item we’ve seen on ingredient lists.)    

✗ Artificial preservatives, including BHA, BHT, or ethoxyquin. Natural preservatives such as tocopherols (compounds often with vitamin E), vitamin C, and rosemary extract can be used instead. Note that natural preservatives do not preserve dog foods as long as artificial preservatives do, so owners should always check the “best by…” date on the label.

✗ Artificial colors. Trust us: Your dog doesn’t care about the color of his food. And he certainly doesn’t need daily exposure to unnecessary chemicals that provide color. Also avoid dog food with propylene glycol, a chemical added to some “chewy” foods to keep them moist.

✗ Artificial flavors. Your dog’s food should be flavored well enough with healthy meats and fats to be enticing to him.

✗ Sweeteners. Dogs, like us, have a taste for sweets. Corn syrup, sucrose, ammoniated glycyrrhizin, and other sweeteners are sometimes added to lower-quality foods to increase their appeal. But dietary sugar can cause or worsen health problems—including diabetes—in dogs.

Otto in pet store


The Whole Dog Journal’s Approved list is based on assessments of dry dog food ingredients along with the “Guaranteed Analysis” anyone can find on food labels. Dog owners are encouraged to develop an understanding of which ingredients are beneficial and which aren’t—and to routinely look at labels before buying.

A scan of a dry dog food’s ingredients can tell you a lot about the maker’s intentions and philosophy. If a dog food company admits to using artificial preservatives, say, or lots of grain “fragments” or animal “by-products,” you’re probably not dealing with a top-of-the-line product.

Conversely, if a list of dog food ingredients leads off with a quality protein source followed by whole, healthy foods, you know you’ve found a worthy product.

Keep in mind that there’s no “right” food that works for every one of the 77.8 million dogs in America. They’re all individuals with unique physiological and metabolic make-ups. Consider:

√ A dog who might be prone to urinary tract infections would be better off with a food lower in pH (and thus less acidic).

√ If your dog is lean and active, you might look for a higher-fat, higher-protein brand.

√ If your dog is older and less active, you might want food with a higher percentage of lean protein.

So take your dog’s age, condition, and health history into account. Consider product availability, too; a large percentage of the brands on WDJ’s Approved list are available at independent stores, and some cases are regionally sold products.

And, of course, price can come into play. The right dog food isn’t necessarily cheap, but that old axiom, “You get what you pay for,” applies here, too. 


Nutrition experts don’t agree on everything, but one thing they generally concede to be true is that all animals enjoy the best health when given a balanced and varying diet of fresh, species-appropriate foods.

They also generally agree that highly processed foods are not as healthy as lightly processed foods; some of nature’s value is always lost to oxidation, heat, pressure, and chemical interactions. Foods made with highly processed (and sometimes, as a result, aged) ingredients are at a big disadvantage compared to those that are made with fresh, whole ingredients.

The healthiest dog foods contain high-quality proteins and whole, unprocessed grains and vegetables. Always ensure that the dry dog food you buy include high-quality proteins, such as either whole, fresh meats or single-source meat meal (“chicken meal” or “beef meal.”) Avoid foods that use vague wording on the ingredients list, such as “poultry meal” or “meat meal.” Any label that simply says “meat” should be disqualified as a low-quality source of protein.

Finally, remember that it’s a good idea to switch foods regularly. Choose several brands that contain the right ingredients and give your dog some variety over time. It’ll help correct the excesses, insufficiencies, or imbalances that result from the same food day in and day out. 

Year by Year: Subscribers to The Whole Dog Journal can access our annual dry dog food reviews online. Here are links to the past five lists of approved dog foods:

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