Did you know that ingredients on packaged food are listed in order of weight, with the first ingredient being the heaviest? I didn't, at least not until several years ago. Maybe everyone already knew except me, but when I learned about it, I went around telling everyone I knew because it blew my mind. In the same way, I hope that this article will uncover insights for you that you can share with those around you and apply to carefully choosing your dog's food.
The "heaviest first" rule that applies to packaged food for people, also applies to pet food. So you might see an ingredients list (like the example below), see chicken as the first ingredient, and think "Great, that's the most prominent ingredient!" (side note: this is the heaviest ingredient in pre-cooking weight - so the chicken might be heaviest, but when you extract the water from it during the cooking process, it might actually be lighter in weight than other filler ingredients!).
Turns out, there's a lot more to pet food labels than you may think.
The most telling thing on the pet food label is actually the name of the product. It's not just a catchy name to get your attention, but the actual words used to name the product can mean the difference between a product that's 95% chicken and one that's 3% chicken.
According to the FDA's site, most pet foods are regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). There are five AAFCO rules that dictate the percentage of ingredients in the total product.
The 100% Rule
This is pretty much what it sounds like—100% of the product is made of the ingredient listed in the name. This rule primarily applies to treats, such as all-chicken or all-salmon treats, since dogs need more than just a single protein for a balanced diet (TL;DR: Our treats are great for training and for meal toppers, but definitely shouldn't be fed as an entire meal, no matter how much your dogs beg you).
The 95% Rule
The 95% rule in pet food dictates that the ingredients listed in the product name need to make up 95% of the total product. If there are two ingredients listed in the product name, like "Beef & Rice Dog Food," then both ingredients together need to make up 95% of the total product.
In the example above, if the product just said "Beef," then the product would have to be 100% beef. But because it says "ninety-five percent Beef," it's fine as long as it's 95% beef. Another example of a name that passes the 95% rule is "Beef Dog Food," which is so interesting because Beef would be 100% meat, while Beef Dog Food would be 95% meat.
Okay maybe it's just interesting to me. And to be honest, the difference between the first two rules is not very much. Where it actually gets interesting is Rule #3, or the 25% or "Dinner" rule.
The 25% or "Dinner" Rule
What's in a name? Turns out, a LOT. For corporations that can't/won't call their products "Chicken Dog Food" or "Beef Dog Food" because 95% meat means higher costs, they can get away with a minimum of 25% of the primary ingredient by adding the word "Dinner" to the product name. While this was initially the "Dinner" rule, many other variations now exist, including "Recipe," "Nuggets," "Formula," "Entree," and more.
An additional part of this rule is that if more than one ingredient is listed in the name, all of those ingredients together can make up the 25% minimum of the total product, with each ingredient being at least 3% of the total.
So in the example above, as long as the total of chicken, lentils, and peas is a minimum of 25% of the total product, it passes the "Dinner" rule.
There is one thing to keep in mind here, and it's that the "Dinner" rule covers a minimum between 25% and 94% of the total product. So there may be dog foods out there with the words "Formula" or "Nuggets" in their name, and they could have more than the 25% minimum of total ingredients listed in the name.
The 3% or "With" Rule
Under the "With" rule, any product that says "With [INSERT INGREDIENT]" only needs to have a minimum of 3% of that ingredient. Yep, that "Complete and Perfectly Balanced Diet For Your New Puppy With Chicken may only contain 3% chicken. However, if multiple ingredients are listed, the total is not 3%—each ingredient must be at least 3% of the total. Not that that's much better. If it's "With Chicken & Rice," now you've got 6% as ingredients listed in the name, and the rest are just fillers that your dog will excrete in a gigantic pile of poop.
To really illustrate how impactful semantics (AKA marketing fluff) can be, look at the difference in the following example:
Chicken Dog Food = 95% chicken
Dog Food With Chicken = 3% chicken
Let that sink in a minute. Such a minor change in wording can lead to such a drastically negative impact on your dog's health.
The "Flavor" Rule
Imagine someone took a piece of styrofoam, sprinkled a little chicken bouillon on it, forced it down your throat, and asked if you enjoyed that piece of chicken you just ate. Congrats, that piece of styrofoam just passed the "Flavor" rule.
There's no specific percentage required, as long as there are trace amounts that can be detected. That "Flavor" could come from beef fat or lamb by-products, doesn't matter. Basically, in the example above, as long as the product tastes somewhat like beef & lamb, it meets regulation standards for the name.
You might be wondering how that taste is detected. What, do they have special canine food testers with sophisticated palates who taste the dog food, smack their lips, raise a finger in the air and go "Yes, yes. I detect a slight beef & lamb flavor"?
Well, that's EXACTLY what happens. Minus the talking animals. There are actual animals trained to prefer specific flavors, so they can detect if a product has a hint of that flavor.
Is your mind blown yet?
Hopefully what you've taken away from this article is a desire to dig deeper and do your own research into how your dog's food is named and what exactly goes into it. There may be many circumstances and reasons why you're feeding dry food. We're not here to judge, but to provide as much information and support as possible to help you make the right decisions for your dog (e.g. Chicken Dog Food vs Dog Food With Chicken).
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