It’s hard to navigate the extensive ingredient list and guaranteed analysis found on a dog food label. We want to help break it down for you when you’re on the search for high-quality dog food. Below you will find a simple list of what to look for and what to avoid. You can use it to find quality ingredients in your type of dog food: canned or kibble.
Red Light Ingredients
Here are the sources of low-quality ingredients. They include generic, un-named meat products and by-products, unhealthy grains and carbohydrates, some plant-based oils, sweeteners, artificial flavors, color dyes, chemical preservatives, and synthetic vitamin K.
These ingredients can all cause adverse health effects that we don’t want to see in our dogs.
Un-named Animal Products:
Meat and bone meal, animal by-products, animal digest, poultry fat, etc.
Un-named or Unspecified By-products:
Chicken by-products, beef by-products, etc.
The following Grains/Carbs:
Corn, wheat, and soy, barley, millet, and sorghum. White rice, ideally, should be avoided as well.
Some Plant-based Oils:
Canola oil and sunflower seed oil.
Sugar, corn syrup, propylene glycol, caramel.
Natural and artificial flavors.
Yellow 6, yellow 5, red 40, blue 2, caramel coloring, titanium dioxide, etc.
BHA and BHT, Ethoxyquin, calcium propionate.
Synthetic Vitamin K
Menadione Sodium Bisulfate Complex (synthetic vitamin K).
Green Light Ingredients
Ingredients and additives to look for in high-quality dog food:
For kibble: Named meats and meat meals should always be the first ingredient. Label example: turkey, turkey meal, lamb meal.
For canned: Named whole meat as the first ingredient.
Named Organ Meats:
Turkey liver, beef kidney, duck heart, etc.
Low-Carb Vegetables and Leafy Greens:
Zucchini, green beans, kale, spinach, etc.
Berries, apples, pumpkin, avocado, pomegranate, orange, papayas, etc.
Dried Enterococcus Faecium Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus Acidophilus Fermentation Product, Dried Aspergillus Niger Fermentation Product, Dried Bacillus Subtilis Fermentation Product, etc.
Natural Preservatives: Mixed Tocopherols (vitamin E) and rosemary extract.
Salmon and Other Named Fish Oils
If your dog’s food uses salmon oil, I recommend freezing the food since fish oil oxidizes (becomes rancid) within two weeks once the bag of food is open.
To learn more about rancid fats and how long dog food lasts check out this article: Experts Say Dog Food Lasts Just 7 Days!
Watch the Carbs
In both kibble and canned foods, you want to look for as little carbohydrates as possible. Dogs have no dietary need for refined carbs in the form of grain or high starch vegetables such as potatoes.
The first thing you should do when looking for carb content is to check the ingredients. Count the carb sources you see. Are there three or four sources? Are they the first ingredients on the list? Try to find foods with no more than three carb ingredients listed only after named meat sources.
Sources of Carbs:
- White Rice
- Brown Rice
- Sweet Potatoes
- Legumes (lentils, beans)
- Brewer’s Rice
Use this quick calculation to figure out how many carbs are in a particular dog food:
For example: A dog food with 37% protein + 22% fat + 11% moisture + 7% ash = 77%. Subtract this number from one hundred: 100 – 77% = 23% to get the carbohydrate percentage.
For canned, first find the dry matter (learn how to do that under “Dry Matter Basis” here) once you’ve calculated the dry matter add the protein, fat, and ash (if ash isn’t listed, add 1). From there follow the same calculation as for kibble shown above.
Carbs in kibble usually range from 30% to 70% with most being somewhere in the middle at just about 40%. There are ways to avoid high carb diets for any budget.
In canned foods, the carbs average about 30% on a dry matter basis. Substituting one-fourth of your dog’s bowl of kibble for some canned sardines, mackerel or salmon also reduces carbohydrates and increases protein. Go for as low carb as your budget will allow.
Let’s Try It!
Now let’s put all of these tips into practice by comparing two dry foods.
These are examples of real dog food products, but I will list them as dog food “A” and “B”. Notice the ingredients in bold.
Dog food A:
Whole Grain Corn, Meat and Bone Meal, Corn Gluten Meal, Animal Fat Preserved with Mixed-Tocopherols, Soybean Meal, Chicken By-Product Meal, Egg and Chicken Flavor, Whole Grain Wheat, Animal Digest, Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Potassium Chloride, L-Lysine Monohydrochloride, Mono and Dicalcium Phosphate, Choline Chloride, Zinc Sulfate, Yellow 6, Vitamin E Supplement, Ferrous Sulfate, Yellow 5, Red 40, Manganese Sulfate, Niacin, Blue 2, Vitamin A Supplement, Copper Sulfate, Calcium Pantothenate, Garlic Oil, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Vitamin B-12 Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate, Vitamin D-3 Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, Calcium Iodate, Menadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex (Source of Vitamin K Activity), Folic Acid, Biotin, Sodium Selenite.
- This food contains three unnamed meat sources: meat and bone meal, animal fat, and animal digest. Generic meat ingredients should be enough for you to run away from this food.
- Also listed are harmful color dyes and synthetic vitamin K.
- There are four carbs in this food. Whole grain corn, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, and whole grain wheat. Carbs should never be the first ingredient in dog food.
- This ingredient list includes three color dyes, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, and Red 40.
- It also contains “egg and chicken flavor” indicating that not enough of these real ingredients were used even to flavor the food.
- The only positive about Dog food A is the use of natural preservatives instead of BHA.
The Carb Formula for Dog Food A: 21% protein + 10% fat + 12% moisture + 7% ash = 50%. 100 – 50 = 50% carbs!
Dog food B:
Lamb Meat, Dehydrated Lamb Meat, Potatoes, Dehydrated Egg Product, Herring, Dehydrated Herring , Chicken Fat (preserved with Mixed-Tocopherols), Herring & Salmon Oil Blend (Preserved with Mixed Tocopherols), Dried Beet Pulp, Dried Carrots, Sun-Cured Alfalfa Meal, Chicory Root Extract, Fructooligosaccharide, Yeast Extract (Source of Mannan-Oligosaccharides), Dehydrated Blueberry, Dehydrated Apple, Dehydrated Pomegranate, Dehydrated Sweet Orange, Dehydrated Spinach, Psyllium Seed Husk, Dehydrated Blackcurrant Berry, Salt, Brewers Dried Yeast, Turmeric, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Ascorbic Acid, Niacin, Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine Mononitrate, Biotin, Folic Acid, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Choline Chloride, Beta-Carotene, Zinc Proteinate, Manganese Proteinate, Iron Proteinate, Copper Proteinate, Selenium Yeast, DL-Methionine, Taurine, L-Carnitine, Aloe Vera Gel Concentrate, Green Tea Extract, Rosemary Extract.
- This food contains lamb as the first ingredient followed by dehydrated lamb (which is less processed but otherwise similar to a lamb meal).
- It also includes whole and dehydrated herring. So you know there’s a decent amount of meat in this food.
- This food lists some fruit and vegetables, and they do appear above the salt which means the food contains more than 2% of them. (Salt never equals more than 2% in dog food as a rule. This is helpful when determining the content of advertised ingredients in the list.)
- It uses the natural preservatives Mixed Tocopherols and Rosemary Extract.
- Only one carb source: potatoes.
- This dog food uses selenium yeast, which is a higher quality and safer ingredient than sodium selenite.
- Also, a fun ingredient to notice is turmeric. This spice is very healthy and has many beneficial properties for dogs.
- However, this recipe does contain fish oils which cause this dog food not to store safely for very long.
For Carb Formula for Dog Food B: 37% protein + 18% fat + 10% moisture + 8% ash = 73%. 100% – 73% = 27% carbs
Now It’s Your Turn!
These tips will be helpful the next time you’re in the pet food aisle trying to decide which food is best for your loyal companion. It can seem overwhelming at first but once you know the tips and tricks you can find a diet that satisfies both you and your dog. That’s why we put this series together. Be sure to check out part 4 for some tips on how to research the dog food manufacturer.
Sagman, Mike. “How To Estimate the Carbohydrate Content of Any Dog Food” Dog Food Adviser.com Web. Aug. 15, 2017. <https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/choosing-dog-food/dog-food-carbohydrate-content/#fnref-1118-1>