Interpreting Food Labels

posted January 15th, 2010 by
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By Dr. Sean Delany, DVM

Few decisions have as great and lasting effect on your dog’s health as how and what you feed every day. But with the vast array of weight control and diet pet products on store shelves today, it can be very confusing finding the right food to fit your best friend’s needs.

Understanding the labels on pet food products can further complicate things with terminology such as “lite,” “reduced calorie,” and “low fat.” To most consumers these probably sound similar, but foods associated with these terms are designed to accomplish different goals in your companion’s health.

Initially deciphering pet food packaging can appear complex, but knowing how to read the labels on pet foods is an important part of responsible pet parenting and will aid you in quickly choosing more healthful options for your furry friend.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) specifically defines the terms “lite,” “reduced calorie” and “low fat” for pet foods. According to AAFCO, the terms “lite” and “low fat” have specific
“numbers” associated with them. A “lite,” “light,” or “low calorie” pet food must not exceed a certain number of calories per kilogram (Cal/ kg). For dry dog food, a “lite” product cannot have more than 3,100 Cal/ kg. These foods are often a good choice when weight management is a concern.

Similarly, pet food labeled as “low fat” or “lean” cannot exceed a certain percent of crude fat. Crude fat is essentially the regulatory term for dietary fat. For dry dog food, the product cannot have more than 9% crude fat. These products are good when dogs are sensitive to dietary fat levels. Many pets with an adverse reaction to food have gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea that can be made worse with higher levels of dietary fat. Also, some canines believed to have an adverse reaction to food due to an allergy, may actually suffer from fat intolerance and thus benefit from a lower fat option.

On the other hand, terms like “reduced calorie” or “less calories” are relative terms and do not have specific cutoffs associated with them.
These terms mean that the pet food is lower in calories than some other specifically named product.

“Reduced calorie” foods are kept more similar to the product of comparison. The “less” or “reduced” food does not have to have as great a decrease in fat content as “lean” or “low” foods. “Reduced calorie” foods also do not need to have a large amount of water or fiber added to it as would be necessary to meet the “lite” definition. These foods can be a good option for pets that do well on the comparable food but might be a little prone to overeating. However, caution should be used with these foods as they may still have many more calories than a true “lite” or “low calorie” food.

Finally there are a growing number of foods that focus on higher levels of protein and fat for weight maintenance or even weight loss rather than the traditional approach of decreasing the amount of calories in a serving. These foods are believed to induce satiety not by increasing the volume fed, but by lowering carbohydrate intake.

Pet guardians need to continually educate themselves about the pet food industry in general and more specifically about the ingredients and nutritional information found on pet food packaging to ensure they are buying a quality pet food that will meet the nutritional requirements of their particular pet.

Your dog food selection criteria may be many, but primary consideration should be given to how the food performs in your particular pet. Luckily, there are several natural indicators that can help you know if the food is working successfully in your pet, such as your companion’s willingness to eat the food, her coat’s appearance, her maintenance of an ideal body condition, and the consistency of her feces.

Since diet is so important to your dog’s overall health, it’s critical that you take advantage of the resources available to you. For example, many pet food manufacturers include body condition charts online and on every bag to provide the insight you need on your pet’s current body condition.

If a change is needed in your pet’s diet, make sure to do it gradually, since pets are very sensitive to sudden changes in an eating routine. Before you switch your canine to another food, it is recommended you talk with your veterinarian. Whatever diet you pick for your dog, make sure you choose carefully and make the most of her dining experience.

Sean Delaney, DVM, MS, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and Chief Nutrition Officer of Natura Pet Products, manufacturer of EVO, California Natural, Innova, Karma, HealthWise, and Mother Nature natural pet foods and treats.

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