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Notes from: Training: Understanding Pet Food Labels

July 30 Free Training's hand outs

what's real & not

How to pick a decent dry kibble out from the crowd of pretty labels

Part I

The Fast 5
There are plenty of dog food choices out on the market today, hundreds of brands, and thousands of formulas that you could choose from. So how do you know what to pick for your furry family member?  We have put together a list of the 5 items you should look for when selecting a food. This is merely the basics, one should also consider the pet’s allergies, sensitivities, raw options and other needs as well.
So let’s begin!

1 where's it made?
Select a bag of food, turn it over and look for where it's made. Companies that manufacture their products solely in Canada & the US are proud of it and will boast about it. If there isn't a country of origin on the bag, then the ingredients used are iffy at best.

2 what's the fat?
Now find the panel of ingredients (you may have to look on the side panel.) Read down that list until you come to the very first form of fat and STOP there. The fat may come from an array of sources, for example, avocado oil, coconut oil, flax oil, chicken fat, or beef tallow. So long as that fat source is from a declared species it's worth your time. However, if that fat is random i.e. “animal fat”, don’t bother wasting any more precious energy and select a different brand. 
Now pay attention to all the ingredients before the fat. This short list is what makes up 85% or more of your pet’s food. Anything below it, although often immensely healthful or immensely harmful, is merely a small ration of the entire picture.

3 what's the protein?
Now, with our focus on these first few ingredients, we will begin to evaluate what’s in the bulk of the bag.
If you saw corn, wheat or soy put down the bag and back away. Choose another bag & repeat step 1 till you find a bag that does not contain corn, wheat or soy. OK, Good job. Now the first one or three ingredients should be a meat or meat meal. (Please note here that meat meals are a higher concentration of meat than actual “meat” because they have the moisture already eliminated from them). This is your pet’s primary protein source and should be an identifiable species like bison, chicken, salmon. The next ingredient should be a starch adequate for binding that’s not offensive to a canine or feline. Carnivores don’t actually require a starch to survive so this ingredients’ real purpose is to bind all the good stuff into a kibble. There are some big fat NO’s in this category to avoid: corn, wheat and to a lesser degree brewer’s rice. Some fairly healthy binders are tapioca, quinoa, oats, sweet potato, potato, chickpeas or peas. The right binder for you will depend on your pet’s dietary needs like fiber, tolerance to glutens, or glycemic index. There may be another starch or carbohydrate listed. This may be to add fiber, calories and sometimes even protein to a ration, good choices for this group are millet, amaranth, garbanzo beans, or brown rice.  Okay, now for sure you’re back to the “fat” part of list. If it’s met your criteria you can begin picking apart the rest of the list.

4 What’s the binder?
The binder is the carbohydrate or starch choice used to make it all stick together into the little tiny cookie also known as kibble. If you see corn, wheat, soy meal or brewer’s rice, look elsewhere-they’re no good. No binder ingredient is going to be species appropriate for a carnivore, but some are better than others and for different reasons. There are grains, potato, tapioca, millet, milo, peas, chick peas & other legumes…what you deem ok for your pet is entirely based on your needs and preferences. One could pick apart or praise any of them, so know what you want & don’t want and why and don’t listen to the hype.
 
5 what's the rest?
Now, after that primary fat source comes the rest of the recipe. Here you may find a plethora of vegies, fruits, seeds, oils & herbs -or synthetically derived vitamins & minerals listed -or a combination of the two. You will see preservatives, flavor enhancers, and stabilizers. Here's where you have the opportunity to decide if you want a food whose nutrients comes from whole foods -or from vitamin mineral pre-mix. Both meet the AAFCO (American association of feed control officials) approval, but remember only whole foods feed the body synergistically as nature intended.
 Ask yourself if you recognize the ingredient? If you don't, will your pets' body?

So you've now found a food that has meats, a healthy fat, and binding carbohydrates with purpose, and you approve of the vitamin & mineral sources. Good Job!


Final thoughts
 Is it fresh? Check the date code. Will it last? Is its packaging useful- not just pretty? Always store your pet food in a dark, dry, cool place and try to leave it in its original bag as any exposure to air will begin the oxidization process of nutrient degeneration. Then, put that bag into an air tight container for the most longevity.
Did you know pet food companies only have to tell you if they added any preservatives, not if they bought ingredients that are already preserved? So company morals & standards matter.
The list of ingredients is listed in order of predominance, most to least, before cooking. Feeding guidelines are just guidelines; you are the final caregiver of your beloved pet, you be the judge.
And finally, when feeding a dry kibble-the truth of it is -is that it's dead & dry. Hydration and enzymes are the source of energy for nutrient uptake so add warm water and a digestive enzyme to every meal to prevent undue stress on your companion’s organs.

Part II
What is a Premix?
A premix is a predetermined blend of 20 or more vitamins, minerals and possibly amino acids. This blend is added to the food component of a pet food formula so it will meet the minimum Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requirements of the diet for a certain life stage or stages of a dog or cat. In other words, the food component of the formula is lacking in certain nutrients, so the formulator adds in via a premix the deficient vitamins, minerals and possibly amino acids needed so all the AAFCO nutrient requirements are met.
Are the vitamins and minerals in the premix natural?
Real, natural vitamins and minerals are in food. Vitamins, minerals, and amino acids in premixes are synthetic and are made in chemical plants. Each of the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids come with what is called a material safety data sheet (MSDS) created by the chemical company for safe handling.  E
If the premixes are synthetic, why do pet foods using them still call themselves natural?
In the AAFCO definition of natural, it says that it would be misleading to call a product natural that contained anything synthetic, but in the case of added vitamins and minerals AAFCO makes an exception. AAFCO states “that exceptions be made in the cases when chemically synthesized vitamins, minerals, or other trace nutrients are present as ingredients in the product provided that the products are not a dietary supplement and that a disclaimer is used to inform the consumer that vitamins, minerals or other trace nutrients are not natural.”
So here is the disclaimer that is acceptable to AAFCO to inform the consumer that vitamins, minerals or other trace nutrients are not natural in the pet food they are purchasing:
“Natural with added vitamins and minerals”. Now you have been informed.
Are synthetic supplements in premixes safe?
They are totally legal and you must be the judge, but here is some food for thought. The National Research Council (NRC) puts out two books studying these synthetic elements. The books are, “Vitamin Tolerance of Animals” and “Mineral Tolerance of Domestic Animals”. AAFCO uses some of the research in the mineral publication to derive the section in the AAFCO Official Publication titled, “Official Guidelines for Contaminant Levels Permitted in Mineral Feed Ingredients”. This section addresses the problem of heavy metal contaminants that are in the sourced minerals used in animal/pet foods. The source for many of these is from the by-products of the metal industry. The potential contaminants are arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals that can harm animals at certain levels. In the NRC vitamin publication, as they studied the man-made vitamins, the main concern became the toxicity of them. They state in the book there are not enough studies to know emphatically what the upper safe level of any of the elements is. But they state using extrapolation and inference from the limited information to come up with the presumed upper safe level of each element that could be used for a limited period of time without showing signs of intoxication. The research also admits  the studies have only been conducted using one element at a time, and they do not know the possible negative effects of two more of the elements consumed together at elevated levels.. The last time I looked at any pet food label; there are always 20 to 26 of these synthetic additives used.
How can you spot a premix in a pet food?
Pretty much any added vitamin, mineral or amino acid is synthetic. Here is just one example of how these look within the ingredient panel of a bag of pet food:
Vitamins (Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Niacin Supplement, L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate, d-Calcium Pantothenate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin Supplement, Folic Acid, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Choline Chloride), Minerals (Zinc Proteinate, Iron Proteinate, Copper Proteinate, Manganese Proteinate, Ethylenediamine Dihydriodide, Sodium Selenite).
Are there any foods without premixes?
Yes. Bridger Animal Nutrition can show you which foods do & don’t have them.
Nature’s Logic is an example of a kibble that doesn’t have one, and Oma’s is an example of a raw food that doesn’t contain one.  Not containing a premix, yet obtaining the AAFCO certification, means that that company preformed the very time staking and costly procedure of feeding trials to prove that their products are worthy of certification. A type of certification not to be taken lightly as if speaks volumes about a company’s credibility.

Part III
Meat vs Meal
Fresh meat listed as the first ingredient is a pretty good sales pitch. However, consider this, fresh meat (chicken, lamb, or beef) contains up to 70% water, and meal (chicken, lamb, or beef) is simply fresh meat with the moisture already removed.

The equivalent weight of “meal” is always more nutrient dense than “fresh.” For example, if a 1-ton batch of a chicken first product has 600 lbs. of fresh chicken, this drops to approx. 180 pounds or 9% after cooking. In reality, this will make the first ingredient fall down the list behind the second, third and possibly the fourth ingredient. This is also the reason these secondary protein sources are necessary so that the minimum protein guarantee will be met. If the same formula consisted of the same amount of meal, it would still contain 600 lbs. of meat protein or 30% of the total product after processing, thereby maintaining its number one position, and eliminating the need for additional protein sources.

By FDA and AAFCO guidelines, ingredients are required to be listed on a pet food label in order of pre-cooked weight. Almost always, when a fresh meat is listed first, it will be followed by additional protein sources to make up the difference when moisture and weight is lost during the cooking process.

Don’t be misled by fresh meat at the top of the ingredient deck. Look a little further down the list to see what’s really in there

Part IV
Dry Matter Basis — A Better Way to Compare Dog Foods
Without a measuring method known as dry matter basis, it can be very difficult to compare dog foods.
That’s because pet food companies report the nutrient content of their products using something known as Guaranteed Analysis.
In essence, Guaranteed Analysis is the pet food industry’s version of the Nutrition Facts “panel” printed on every package of human food sold in the U.S. and Canada.
The purpose of the Guaranteed Analysis panel is to make it easy for consumers to compare four critical nutrients…
 Protein, Fat, Fiber, Moisture

However, when used alone, these numbers can be misleading.
That’s because the system used for reporting the percentages fails to consider the widely varying amount of water present in different types of foods. 
And this can be a critical factor when comparing moist foods — like canned or raw products — with dry kibbles.

Even the Food and Drug Administration warns of the importance of paying attention to this issue on its own website…1
“To make meaningful comparisons of nutrient levels between a canned and dry product, they should be expressed on the same moisture basis.”

Dry Matter Basis Explained
So, when comparing the nutrient content of different products, it’s important to first remove 100 percent of the moisture content from every dog food being evaluated.
This moisture-free approach to stating the true nutrient content of any food is known as dry matter basis.
Let’s say you have a can of dog food listing a Guaranteed Analysis protein figure of 10%. 
This is the protein content just as it’s fed from the can — what the industry refers to as “as fed basis”.
Doesn’t sound like much protein, does it?
However, what if that same label revealed the product contained 75% moisture? 
And what if you were to completely remove all that water from the can?
You’d be left with just 25% “dry matter”. 

To determine the amount of protein on a dry matter basis, 
simply divide the reported amount of protein (in this case, 10%)
 by the total amount of dry matter (25%) in the can.
Then, multiply the result by 100.
Dry Matter Protein Content = (10/25) x 100 = 40%
That gives you a dry matter protein content of 40% — a lot more than the label’s reported protein content of 10%. 
That’s four times the amount of protein as indicated by the Guaranteed Analysis.
By the way, this same method for computing dry matter basis works for any other nutrient, too.

Using Dry Matter Basis to Compare Dog Foods
Now, as long as you’re comparing canned food to canned food, dry matter basis isn’t that important.
However, when you’re comparing canned food to dry kibble, the issue becomes critical.
For example, say you’d like to compare two products — a can of dog food with a bag of kibble.
The canned “wet” product lists protein content at 10% and the dry kibble reports protein at 23%.
At first glance, the kibble looks like it contains more protein. Right?
Well, now, let’s use dry matter to level the playing field.
Using Guaranteed Analysis, the wet food shows a water content of 75% and the kibble, just 10%.
Now, let’s remove all the water from both dog foods. Take a look at the protein values after converting the data to dry matter basis…
The canned product now lists 40% protein, compared to kibble’s 26% figure? The wet food contains much more protein — on a dry matter basis — than does the kibble.
The Bottom Line
On the surface, when reading a package label, canned dog foods almost always look inferior to their kibble counterparts.
However, looks can be deceiving.
So, don’t be fooled by a dog food label’s protein or fat numbers. When comparing the nutrient content of two or more dog foods, be sure to first convert the labels’ figures to dry matter basis.