At first glance, an ingredient statement on a pet food product can be pretty overwhelming. Here are a few basic things to remember:
1) An ingredient list is required to display all ingredients from most to least by weight. The biggest contributors are first and the smallest are last.
2) Think of ingredients as major and minor.
a. Major ingredients will be the first few listed. Most will bear recognizable animal or plant names.
b. Minor ingredients are mostly ingredients that supply minerals, vitamins and other nutrients. They may include a few recognizable names but many will be “chemical-sounding.” Other minor ingredients include preservatives, conditioning agents, emulsifiers, stabilizers and coloring or flavoring agents. If a consumer doesn’t know what a certain ingredient is, he can at least compare from product to product.
Common Ingredients and What They Contain
It can be challenging to read pet food ingredient lists and try to figure out what is included in some major ingredients shown on the label.
Animal-sourced materials are very common major ingredients used in both dog and cat foods. The following descriptions are the AAFCO ingredient definitions. Guarantors cannot modify the name, and each ingredient must comply with AAFCO’s ingredient definition.
The four ingredients below are all raw products, though they are cooked in the process of manufacturing pet food to destroy any harmful bacteria (just as people cook their own food).
· Meat: the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that part which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh. It shall be suitable for animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.
o In other words, meat is primarily the muscle tissue of the animal, but may include fat, gristle and other tissues normally accompanying the muscle, similar to what is sometimes seen in raw meat sold for human consumption. This may include the less appealing cuts of meat, including the heart muscle and the muscle that separates the heart and lungs from the rest of the internal organs, but it is still muscle tissue.
However, it does not include bone. Meat for pet food often is “mechanically separated,” meaning machines strip the muscle from the bone. This results in a finely-ground product with a paste-like consistency (similar to what is used in hot dogs).
o In addition to using the term meat, the pet food manufacturer may also identify the species from which the meat is derived, such as beef or pork. However, to use the generic term meat on the label, it can only be from cattle, pigs, sheep or goats.
o If it comes from any other mammal (for example, buffalo or venison), the species must be identified. If the muscle is non-mammalian, such as poultry or fish, it must be called its appropriate identifying term.
· Meat Byproducts: the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially de-fatted low temperature fatty tissue and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs. It shall be suitable for use in animal feed. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.
o To put it another way, meat byproducts are most parts of an animal other than its muscle tissue—including the internal organs and bones.
o Byproducts include some of parts that some Americans eat (such as livers, kidneys and tripe), but also parts that they typically do not. Although the USDA does not deem certain byproducts, such as udders and lungs, edible for human consumption, they can be perfectly safe and nutritious for other animals.
o As with meat, unless the byproducts are derived from cattle, pigs, sheep or goats, the species must be identified.
· Poultry: the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. It shall be suitable for use in animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto. If the bone has been removed, the process may be so designated by use of the appropriate feed term.
o Essentially, these are the parts of the bird as found in whole chickens or turkeys in aisles of grocery stores. Frankly, it often consists of the less profitable parts of the bird, such as backs and necks. Unlike “meat,” it may include the bone, which, when ground, can serve as a good source of calcium.
o If the bone has been removed, it can be called deboned poultry.
o If it is a particular species of bird, the more common name, such as chicken or turkey, may be used.
· Poultry Byproducts: non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry, such as heads, feet and viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably in good factory practice. If the product bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.”
o Similar to meat byproducts, these are parts of the bird that would not be part of a raw, dressed whole carcass, and may include the giblets (heart, gizzard and liver) or other internal organs, as well as heads and feet.
These have been cooked to destroy any harmful bacteria before they are shipped to a pet food manufacturing plant. During rendering, heat and pressure remove most of the water and fat, leaving primarily protein and minerals.
The term “meal” is used because in addition to cooking, the products are ground to form uniform-sized particles.
· Meat Meal: rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices. It shall not contain extraneous materials not provided for by this definition. The Calcium (Ca) level shall not exceed the actual level of the Phosphorus by more than 2.2 times. It shall not contain more than 12% Pepsin indigestible residue and not more than 9% of the crude protein in the product shall be Pepsin indigestible. The label shall include guarantees for minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber, minimum Phosphorus (P) and minimum and maximum Calcium (Ca). If the product bears a name descriptive of its kind, composition or origin it must correspond thereto.
o Unlike meat and “meat by-products,” this ingredient may be from mammals other than cattle, pigs, sheep or goats without further description. However, a manufacturer may designate a species if appropriate (e.g., “beef meal” if only from cattle).
· Meat and Bone Meal: rendered product from mammal tissues, including bone, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices. It shall not contain extraneous materials not provided for in this definition. It shall contain a minimum of 4% Phosphorus (P) and the Calcium (Ca) level shall not be more than 2.2 times the actual Phosphorus (P) level. It shall not contain more than 12% Pepsin indigestible residue and not more than 9% of the crude protein in the product shall be pepsin indigestible. The label shall include guarantees for minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber, minimum Phosphorus (P) and minimum and maximum Calcium (C). If the product bears a name descriptive of its kind, composition or origin it must correspond thereto.
o Though similar to meat meal, it can include bone in addition to whole carcasses.
· Animal Byproduct Meal: the rendered product from animal tissues, exclusive of any added hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents, except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices. It shall not contain extraneous materials not provided for by this definition. This ingredient definition is intended to cover those individual rendered animal tissues that cannot meet the criteria as set forth elsewhere in this section. This ingredient is not intended to be used to label a mixture of animal tissue products.
o This may consist of whole carcasses, but often includes byproducts in excess of what would normally be found in meat meal and meat and bone meal.
· Poultry By-Product Meal: consist of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers except in such amounts as might occur unavoidably in good processing practices. The label shall include guarantees for minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber, minimum Phosphorus (P), and minimum and maximum Calcium (C). The Calcium (Ca) level shall not be more than 2.2 times the actual Phosphorus (P) level. If the product bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.
o This ingredient is equivalent to poultry byproducts, except they are rendered so that most of the water and fat has been removed to make a concentrated protein or mineral ingredient.
· Poultry Meal: the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. It shall be suitable for use in animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.
o This is basically rendered poultry, so most of the water and fat has been removed to make a concentrated protein/mineral ingredient.
Other Common Ingredients
Animal fat and vegetable fat or oil are commonly used to supply additional nutrients and flavor to a pet food.
Plant ingredients, such as corn, barley, peas and potatoes, also supply calories nutrients and help kibbles hold together.
Dried beet pulp, dried chicory root, fructooligosaccharide, powdered cellulose and inulin, among other select ingredients, often offer dietary fiber.
Vitamins and Minerals
Many inorganic compounds supply minerals, and most include the elements they offer within their name, whether as standalones or as the first or second half of a name (e.g. selenite gives selenium). Some could even include two useful minerals, such as dicalcium phosphate. Common elements include:
· ferric or ferrous (iron)
Several classes of synthetic mineral ingredients are called metal amino acid complexes, metal amino acid chelates and polysaccharide complexes. These are thought to work more effectively than inorganic mineral compounds.
Some examples of ingredients that provide vitamins:
· cholecalciferol (supplies Vitamin D from animal sources)
· ergocalciferol (supplies Vitamin D from plant sources)
· Vitamin B12 supplement
· riboflavin supplement (source of Vitamin B2)
· Vitamin A supplement
· Vitamin D3 supplement
· alpha-tocopherol acetate (supplies Vitamin E)
· thiamine mononitrate (source of Vitamin B1)
· pyridoxine hydrochloride (source of Vitamin B6)
Ingredients with “chemical-sounding” names
Amino Acid Additives
· taurine (particularly important to cats)
· ascorbic acid
· benzoic acid
· butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
· butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
· calcium ascorbate
· citric acid
· potassium sorbate
· sodium bisulfite
· mixed tocopherols
These are often used as conditioning agents, thickeners, emulsifiers, sequestrants, flavors and seasonings.
· propylene glycol (in dog food only, propylene glycol is unsafe for cats and is prohibited from use in cat food)
· sodium hexametaphosphate
· guar gum
· common spices and extracts, such as ginger, chamomile, fennel and so on
For more in-depth info, the AAFCO Official Publication can be purchased on our website. Purchase a two-week trial subscription for $20.