3 Part Series

Part 1: 12 Critical Rules To Evaluate Any Pet Food

If you have dogs or cats in your life, this information is for you …

  • If you’re a pet owner and you want to choose the healthiest food you can – one without any hidden dangerous ingredients – this series of articles will tell you how to do that.
  • If you own or work in a pet store, this will help you show your customers what’s in the bag and what those long chemical sounding names on the label mean.
  • If you’re a vet tech or a breeder or you work or volunteer in rescue, this article will help you teach puppy buyers, adopters and new pet owners the importance of a healthy diet – and how to find one.
  • Even if you feed a raw diet, the information here will help you make smarter food choices for your dog or cat.

Most importantly, it’ll help you separate the pet food marketing hype and the trickery from the truth.

Understand Pet Food Labels

Pet food labels can be very confusing. Reading a label seems like a straightforward task … but pet food labels are nowhere near as clear as human food labels. When you read a pet food label, you’ve got to make some calculations before it makes sense, especially if you want to compare one food to another.

The pet food industry is notorious for their confusing labels and vague ingredient definitions. There are strict industry regulations, but they don’t tell you about the quality of the ingredients or the food.

I’ve developed a little system that will make it easier to decipher pet food labels. So read on to learn how to pick the best food for your pet!

Evaluating Pet Foods In 3 Stages

The first thing you usually look at when you try to compare pet foods is the ingredient panel. In Part 1, I’ll tell you what individual ingredients mean and what some hidden ingredients can tell you about the quality of the other ingredients.

In Part 2, I’ll explain how you can tell just how much of a particular ingredient is in the food. As an example, the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has no maximum requirement for fat – and a lot of pet foods are high in fat. And there are also a lot of pet food companies that try to trick you into thinking there’s a lot of an ingredient when there’s really just a tiny amount. I’ll give you some handy calculations and guides to figure out if the food is as good as the manufacturer claims or if you’re getting ripped off.

Then in Part 3, we’ll evaluate some real foods.

Who Regulates Pet Food?

First of all, it’s helpful to understand some background on pet food regulation.

You might think that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates pet foods but that’s not really the case.

The FDA really just makes sure the ingredients in pet foods are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and that the food is properly labeled. The FDA doesn’t have the resources to regulate pet foods, so that task is left to AAFCO.

The American Association of Feed Control Officials – AAFCO

AAFCO officials come from various organizations.

That last one is important because industry representatives naturally stand to gain from helping decide how AAFCO regulates pet foods. That’s a conflict of interest and it directly impacts what your dog or cat eats.

AAFCO publishes guidelines and codes for pet food standards, plus lists and definitions of ingredients used in animal feeds.

AAFCO regulates the words used to name or describe a food and its ingredients. This information takes up nearly 200 pages in AAFCO’s official publication. You can buy it for $100 but in Part 3 we’ve got a nice handout I think you’ll like.

No Enforcement

AAFCO sets the levels of nutrients pet foods must contain and creates the measurement standards for pet foods. It also regulates the label claims and ingredient names pet food manufacturers can use. But – this is another important point – what AAFCO doesn’t do is enforce these regulations. Meeting AAFCO standards is completely voluntary. But if a company wants to claim its pet food is nutritionally complete and balanced, then the food and the label must meet AAFCO requirements. In Part 2 of this article, I’ll go over the nutrient requirements. For now, let’s talk about ingredient names.

Quality Standards Don’t Exist

AAFCO only names the ingredients. They don’t regulate the source or quality of the ingredients. So as long as a pet food company complies with their list of ingredient definitions, then AAFCO’s happy. This means that in theory, the protein in a pet food could come entirely from something like feathers – which AAFCO allows!

Not only that, but AAFCO nutrient requirements don’t account for the availability of nutrients – so a pet food could contain protein that’s not digestible or absorbable by your pet’s body.

So, because AAFCO doesn’t make sure pet food ingredients are of high enough quality to provide your dog with all the nutrition he needs to build a strong immune system and fight disease – rather than just fill him up – you need to know how to decipher the ingredients in your dog or cat’s food.

Good diet is critical to fuel your dog’s immune system and prevent chronic disease like allergies, diabetes, joint disease and more. Nutrition is healthcare but a lot of pet food companies don’t look at it that way. Many just provide the minimum amount of nutrition to get by – and AAFCO makes it really easy for them to get away with that. I’ll talk about that more in Part 2.

Where To Start Your Evaluation

To analyze a pet food, you need to start with the ingredients and the ingredient label.

The label lists pet food ingredients in order of weight, from highest to lowest. So the label doesn’t tell you how much of any particular ingredient is in a food … it just tells you whether it weighs more or less than another ingredient. That causes a lot of confusion – and it lets pet food companies trick us into thinking there’s more of an ingredient than there actually is.


We’ll talk more about that in Part 2, but for now, let’s start by dividing the ingredients into categories that make sense, so you can start separating the high quality ingredients from the questionable ones.

Ingredient Categories

The first category contains the main building blocks of nutrition – protein, fat and carbohydrate. They supply all the calories your dog or cat needs.


Protein is the most important nutrient. Dogs and cats are carnivores, so they need a lot more protein in their diet than we humans do. And this protein should come from animals and not plants. Protein is made up of amino acids, and several of them are essential to your dog’s health. His body can’t manufacture them so he needs to get them through his diet. Plants and grains are not a complete source of amino acids, so your dog or cat needs to get them from animal proteins.


Next is fat, which is also an essential nutrient. Fats provide energy. They also support healthy cells, nerves and muscles. They help the body produce some hormones and they help your pet absorb the fat-soluble vitamins. But not every form of fat is healthy.


The third nutrient is carbohydrate. Dogs and cats have no nutritional requirement for carbohydrate. AAFCO recognizes this. AAFCO requires a minimum amount of protein and fat in any pet food, but there is no minimum for carbohydrate. And yet most commercial pet foods average 40% to 60% carbohydrate – which is a lot of a nutrient that they don’t need!

Large amounts of carbohydrate can disrupt the delicate flora in the gut lining, leading to immune disruption and inflammation. Inflammation can cause many chronic health issues like allergies, digestive issues, diabetes, and even cancer. Carbohydrates can also cause weight gain because they cause insulin spikes, which prevent the body from breaking down fat.

Other Categories

  • Vitamins and minerals
  • What I call the “protein quality indicator”
  • Preservatives
  • Then all the miscellaneous ingredients

I’ve come up with some rules for each category that’ll help you identify ingredients you really don’t want in your dog or cat’s food.

Protein Rules

There are three quality rules for protein.

Protein Rule # 1 – Avoid Plant Based Proteins

Remember that plant based proteins don’t have a complete array of amino acids. But AAFCO doesn’t care about the source of the protein, so many pet foods have plant-based protein. Because animal protein is the most expensive ingredient in the food, manufacturers use plant protein to lower costs.

So when you read a pet food label, you’ll want to look for sources of plant-based proteins and avoid foods that use them. But keep in mind that if you’re looking for a low cost food, it’ll be hard to avoid them. Animal proteins make the food more expensive.

Some examples of cheap plant-based protein sources are plant meals, glutens and proteins. pfn-images-dnm2

When you see any of these names on the ingredient label, stay away from that food because you know it’s using cheap plant protein instead of the animal protein your dog or cat needs. It’s harder for your dog or cat’s body to digest plant proteins and that can compromise his health if he eats these ingredients long term.

Protein Rule # 2 – Avoid Meals And By-Product Meals

Animal proteins in pet foods are divided into meats and meals. Meats are added fresh and generally consist of muscle meat, tongue and heart. So if you see chicken or lamb on the label, that means meat.

But beware if you see chicken meal or beef meal. Meals are different from meats because meals are rendered.


Waste products from the human food industry end up in rendering plants. Rendering plants vary in quality. The worst ones make meals out of euthanized horses, road kill, plastic wrappers and even dead zoo animals. Others are not as bad. But there are problems with even the better rendered meats. Rendering meats is like making a giant stew … they steam cook the meat, drain off the fat and dry the remainder into a powder. The rendering and heating process causes nutrient losses in the meat. That’s what used in pet foods and it’s not very nutritious for your pet.

So, meats are a better choice than meals. The quality of the meat can vary, but in most cases meats are better than meals from rendered meats, because they contain more whole-food nutrients.

This same rule applies to by-products. Meat by-products are a better choice than by-product meals. By-products themselves can also vary widely, because AAFCO doesn’t distinguish between super nutritious organs vs intestines and fat tissue and you don’t know which your manufacturer uses.

Protein Rule # 3 – Avoid Generic Protein

You always want your proteins to be named! So look for words like chicken, turkey or beef and avoid generic terms like meat by-product meal or poultry meal. If the label says beef or beef meal, then you know it’s beef. But if the bag says meat or meat meal, it can come from any mammal – including road kill and euthanized livestock.


This is poor quality protein, probably filled with barbiturates and other drugs. These generic ingredients are also a terrible choice for dogs or cats with allergies. Avoid poultry meal for the same reason. If it says chicken, it must be chicken, but poultry meal can contain any bird and is a poor quality protein source.

So let’s summarize the protein rules.


Fat Rules

As I mentioned before, your dog needs fat as part of a balanced diet and for manufacturing hormones and absorbing the fat soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K).

Fat Rule #1 – Avoid Generic Fat

Once again avoid generic sources. So you’ll want to look for chicken fat or beef fat and avoid animal fat. Some foods will contain plant fats and the same rule applies … look for specific plant fats, such as flax or olive oil, and avoid the generic vegetable oils as these will be low quality oils.


Fat Rule # 2 – No Fish Oil!

This one might surprise you. Never feed your pet a food containing fish oil! Fish oil is very fragile. It oxidizes and turns rancid when it’s exposed to oxygen, heat and processing. If there’s fish oil in a pet food, especially if it’s a dry diet, you can virtually guarantee it will be rancid. And if it’s not, as soon as you open the bag or can, it will be. And it will become more and more rancid every time you open that bag. Even chicken fat will become rancid within a couple of weeks in most kibbles.


Summarizing the fat rules…


Carbohydrate Rules

This could be the shortest rule of all because dogs and cats have no nutritional requirement for this nutrient so there’s no need for it to be in the food.

Carbohydrate Rule # 1 – Avoid Grains And Legumes

The easy rule is just avoid all grains and legumes! But there are two problems with trying to do that.

  • The first problem is that we want cheap foods, and carbohydrate is cheap!
  • The other is that kibbles need starch to hold them together – so most kibble is at least 30% carbohydrate and some contain as much as 50% to 60%.

But if you can only afford kibble, read on to rule #2 to learn a bit more about carbohydrate quality.

Carbohydrate Rule # 2 – Choose Whole Grains

Rule #2 is look for whole grains. Most of the nutrients are found in the bran layer, the fat and the endosperm of grains. When grains are processed, these nutritious parts are removed, along with their nutrients. The remaining parts that go into your dog’s food may be just waste or floor sweepings. So if you don’t see “whole” in front of the name – like whole oats, whole grain brown rice or whole millet – avoid the food.


Here are the short and simple carbohydrates rules again

Vitamin And Mineral Rules

There’s just one rule here:

Avoid foods with lists of vitamins and minerals on the label.

I’ll go into a lot more detail here because the information in this section is vital for your dog’s health.

The heating and processing in kibble-making causes significant nutrient loss. Here are some examples of nutrient loss from cooking and drying:


After the heating and processing dry pet foods go through, they wouldn’t meet minimum AAFCO requirements for many vitamins and minerals (and they wouldn’t allow your dog to survive without some serious chronic disease). So these nutrients have to be added back in …

… but when the manufacturers add these nutrients, they use synthetic vitamins and minerals. This is very bad for your dog, so I want to provide more detail about synthetics.


Synthetic means made in a lab and not in nature. Most vitamins and minerals are produced by pharmaceutical companies, not food companies … because they’re not food.

So why is that a problem?

It’s because synthetic vitamins and minerals don’t act in the body the way their natural counterparts do. Just like wearing a right-handed glove on your left hand, they look the same but don’t fit, because they’re a mirror image of natural vitamins. They’re exactly the same molecule, but flipped over. Synthetics are fundamentally different from their real food counterparts and the body knows it.

Sweeteners are a good example of how right and left-handed molecules are different. Sugar is a right-handed molecule that the body can digest and use. But artificial sweeteners contain left-handed sugar, which is completely indigestible. They taste sweet to us, but the body doesn’t find any nutrition in them.

The exact same thing happens with vitamins. The natural form of vitamin E is called the d form. But the body doesn’t use the mirror image l form – it just excretes it. So you’ll often see dl-alpha tocopherol in pet foods, which is a combination of the naturally occurring d form and the synthetic l form.

Research Shows Risks of Synthetic Vitamins

Research shows that synthetic vitamins don’t work the same way as natural vitamins.

In one study, rats ate a very high fat diet that was deficient in vitamin A. They divided these rats into two groups. The first group got beta carotene, which is synthetic vitamin A. The second group got an extract of whole carrot. The beta carotene group developed eye disease as a result of the vitamin A deficiency while the rats who got the carrot extract didn’t.

In another study, rabbits were fed a diet deficient in B vitamins, causing cirrhosis of the liver. When the rabbits got synthetic B vitamins, the supplements didn’t prevent the disorder. But adding yeast, a natural source of B vitamins, did prevent the condition.

The 1996 Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET) is an even more frightening reminder of the unpredictable nature of synthetic vitamins. In this study, researchers tested whether beta-carotene and retinyl palmitate, which are forms of vitamin A, could reduce the risk of cancer and death. They followed nearly 20,000 participants who were at high risk for lung cancer (such as smokers and asbestos workers). They planned to run the study for 8 years. But they halted the study 21 months ahead of schedule, because there was a substantial increase in the incidence of both cancer and death in the group taking the synthetic vitamins.


If your dog or cat eats these synthetic vitamins every day, he’s relying on them for his survival … because there aren’t enough nutrients in the food itself to sustain him. As you saw from the research, it could be a losing battle.

So the rule for synthetic vitamins and minerals is to avoid them.

Recognizing Synthetics On The Ingredient Label

How do you find them on the label? You look for the chemical names because that’s essentially what they are – chemicals. In the handout you’ll be getting, I’ll put all of the common vitamins and minerals in their own category so you can identify them on the label – and hopefully avoid them!


And that’s the rule for this category – avoid foods that rely on these synthetic substances for nutrition. But nearly every pet food on the market breaks this important rule. Even some raw food diets are fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals.

But you can find foods with whole food nutrition that don’t rely on these chemicals. There are two kibbles I know of – Nature’s Logic and Carna4 – that don’t use synthetics. Some Acana and Orijen formulas also have limited synthetics. Canned foods without synthetics include Nature’s Logic and Tripett.

You’ll also find a wide variety of raw diets without these chemicals, including Answers Pet Food and Steve’s Real Food.

This isn’t a complete list and it’s not an endorsement – but you need to know that you can and should avoid synthetic nutrition.

Remember the one important rule for vitamins and minerals.


This next rule is less direct, but it’s an important indicator in assessing the quality of protein in the food.

Protein Quality Indicator Rule

You’ll remember that plant based proteins have an incomplete array of amino acids and that heating and processing can cause nutrient loss. So, if a food contains free amino acids in the ingredients, that’s a pretty big indication that the proteins in the diet are incomplete.

The amino acids you’ll most commonly see on the label typically start with an L – so you might see names like these:pfn-images-dnm8

What does the L stand for? It’s the left-handed molecule of the right-handed real amino acid. So, just like synthetic vitamins, these are chemically processed fake nutrients.

One example is L-cysteine. Most of it comes from China where they collect duck feathers on farms plus human hair from barbershops and hairdressers, then process them in factories.

So the rule for this category is:  Avoid foods with added free amino acids.

You’ll find a list of these in your handout that you’ll get with Part 3.

Preservative Rules

This section clarifies some misleading terms the pet food industry uses to describe preservatives.

Canned and raw  diets don’t typically have preservatives – and that’s a good thing – but dry diets can sit on the shelf for months or years. So they need preservatives to maintain whatever nutrition is in them and to stop the fats from going rancid.

The bag itself is a big part of this because some bags even have preservatives sprayed into their lining. In many cases, the bag costs more than the ingredients inside it. So, never take the kibble out of the bag and put it in a storage container because it will oxidize and go rancid much faster once it’s out of the bag.

There are two categories of preservatives: Synthetic preservatives and the so-called natural preservatives.

Synthetic Preservatives

The main function of preservatives is to slow down the oxidation of the fats in the food. The most effective antioxidants are the synthetic ones – but they’ve all been linked to cancer and you should avoid foods that contain them.pfn-images-dnm9

Rule # 1 is to avoid any food with these synthetic preservatives.

“Natural” Preservatives

Then there are natural preservatives, like vitamin E or mixed tocopherols, citric acid and calcium propionate. Although the pet food industry calls these “natural,” we know they’re synthetic. Rosemary oil is another example – but while it looks natural, they  use solvents like acetone or methanol to extract it.

So, while these are certainly safer than the scary synthetic antioxidants, they’re not whole foods and they are chemical in nature.

Rule #2 is to avoid even these “natural” antioxidants whenever you can.

Fruits With Citric Acid

The healthiest option is to choose premium pet foods that stabilize foods with real fruits that natural contain citric acids, such as cranberries, blueberries or apples. But remember, the more natural the preservative, the quicker the food will oxidize, so don’t buy giant bags that will last your dog months. Try to use the bag up within two weeks to avoid too much oxidation and nutrient loss.

Rule #3 for preservatives is to choose foods preserved with real fruits.

Summarizing the rules for preservatives…


All The Other Ingredients

The last category is everything else on the label. This might include probiotics or other random ingredients. I’m not going to discuss them here, but you’ll find them all in your handouts, with some information about each one.

These are the categories of pet food ingredients and the rules you need to apply to each one. Dividing the ingredients this way will really help you see what’s inside the bag. You’ll now see the real quality of the ingredients so you don’t have to rely on pretty packaging and tricky pet food company claims.

Part 2: Quantity Of Ingredients

Part 2: Quantity of Ingredients

Now that you know the 12 critical rules for evaluating the quality of pet foods, let’s talk now about the quantity of the ingredients in the food. That’s important because you want most of your dog’s calories to come from protein … and as few as possible from carbohydrate.

Because dogs and cats have zero nutritional requirement for carbohydrate, AAFCO doesn’t require a minimum – or a maximum – amount in food. So pet food companies don’t have to tell you how much carbohydrate is in the food. But there’s a way to figure it out and I’ll tell you how to do that.

But first, I want to talk about the Guaranteed Analysis on the label.

Guaranteed Analysis

AAFCO requires pet foods to show a Guaranteed Analysis (GA) on the label. They have to show at least:

  • The minimum amount of protein and fat
  • The maximum amount of fiber and moisture

The company might choose to show more nutrients, but AAFCO doesn’t require it.
But the analysis doesn’t show you how much of any particular nutrient is in the food for two reasons:

  • First, because pet food companies only have to guarantee a minimum amount and not the actual amount
  • Second, because the amounts on the GA are “as fed”

So a food could be 50% fat but say 10% fat on the GA. The label just has to show the minimum amount. AAFCO doesn’t set maximum amounts for most nutrients. They’re really just concerned that the food has the minimum amount a pet needs to get by without obvious signs of disease or malnutrition.

Meeting minimum AAFCO standards isn’t a sign of optimal nutrition … it’s really just minimal nutrition.

“As Fed” Vs “Dry Matter” Basis

And here’s another complication: the nutrients on the GA are “as fed.” But the AAFCO minimum requirements are usually done on a “dry matter basis.” That means all the water in the food has been taken out of the calculation.

Most kibbles are about 10% moisture, so if you compare the GA on two different kibbles, you can get a fair estimate of what’s inside. But you can’t directly compare a dry diet to a canned diet. Canned diets contain a lot more water, so the GA will show much lower amounts of protein and fat as fed.

So to compare diets, you need to convert the nutrients on the GA analysis from an “as fed” basis to a “dry matter” basis.

Let’s use a practical example and calculate the protein amounts of a couple of different foods – one kibble and one canned.

Protein Example – Kibble

Here’s an example of a popular food from a big box store … Blue Buffalo Adult Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe.

To calculate how much protein is in the food, use this formula:


First we need to figure out the dry matter.


The moisture is 10% … so for this food the dry matter is:

100 minus 10 = 90% DM

The protein as fed is 24%, so the calculation is:

24 divided by 90, multiplied by 100 = 26.7% protein


So this food has enough protein to meet the minimum for both adults (18%) and puppies (22.5%). This food would almost certainly cost more than grocery store brands, because protein is the most expensive part of the diet. Cheaper brands use less protein and may not have enough protein to meet the minimum for puppies.

Protein Example – Canned Food

Let’s look at a canned food … another Merrick product, Backcountry Grain-Free Chunky Chicken Dinner in Gravy Canned Dog Food.

If you look at the GA, it looks like there’s hardly any protein in this food at all. But that’s because there’s a lot more moisture in canned food.
So, to compare it to dry food, we need to convert it to a dry matter basis, using the same calculation as before:

100 minus moisture of 81% = 19% DM

So the protein on a dry matter basis is:

8 divided by 19, multiplied by 100 = 42% protein

So this diet has a much better level of protein than the Blue Buffalo.


Do The Same For Fat

You can do the same calculation for fat.

Using the same canned Merrick as an example … first take the dry matter of 19%. The fat, on an as fed basis, is 3%.

So the percentage of fat on a dry matter basis is:

3 divided by 19, multiplied by 100 = 16% fat

What About Carbohydrate?

Remember that AAFCO doesn’t require companies to show carbohydrates on the label – so they don’t.

So you have to do even more calculations to measure the carbohydrate content. There are some limitations to these calculations … I’ll get to that in a bit.


*If the ash content isn’t listed, use 7% for kibble and 1.5% for canned diets – those are averages.


Carbohydrate Example  – Kibble

Again, let’s use the same Blue Buffalo Adult Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe,

The protein is 24, the fat is 14, the moisture is 10 and for ash we’ll use 7 because it’s unlisted.

24 + 14 + 10 + 7 = 55

100 – 55 = 45% carbohydrate

That’s a lot of carbohydrate when  your dog has no requirement for carbohydrates.

Carbohydrate Example – Canned

Now, let’s go back to the Merrick canned food.

The protein is 8, fat is 3, moisture is 81, and ash isn’t listed so we’ll use 1.5

8 + 3 + 81 + 1.5 = 93.5

100 – 93.5 = 6.5% carbohydrate

That’s a much better level of carbohydrate!

The Limitations

Even after all these calculations, it’s important to realize that that the only thing you know for sure is the weight of your dog or cat and the weight of the food.

Everything else is speculation because of the minimal label requirements. When you calculate protein and fat, the number you’re getting is the minimum amount because that’s all the pet food company tells you.

So there could be more protein and fat in the diet. In the case of protein it’s probably not that likely. Protein is expensive so they probably won’t add more than what you think you’re paying for.

But there could definitely be more fat – especially since AAFCO has no maximum for fat.

So because the protein and fat are minimums … when you calculate carbohydrate, you’ll get the maximum amount. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do this calculation, but just be aware of the limitations.

More About Protein Amounts

Protein’s the most important ingredient for dogs and cats. In Part 1, I mentioned it can come from animal sources or plant sources – but that the array of amino acids in plant sources is incomplete. So if you see free amino acids on the ingredient panel, that’s a good indication there are plant based proteins in the food.

But I want to talk about meats versus meals because this can really confuse a lot of people.

Most pet owners know that animal protein should be the first ingredient in any pet food – and it should really be the first and the second ingredients. It’s one of the first things most people look for on the label and that’s good.

But pet food companies can trick you into thinking there’s more protein in the food than there really is, so this rule is important.

You know that pet food ingredients are listed by weight, from highest to lowest. But that’s not exactly true, especially in dry diets. The ingredient weight is measured when it’s added to the food – and while some ingredients like meats contain water, which is quite heavy, others, like meals, are already dried. And water weight makes a huge difference to protein.

How They Trick You

As an example, here’s a bag of Iams ProActive Health Adult Large Breed Dry Dog Food, you’ll see that chicken is the first ingredient.


The Guaranteed Analysis shows (after our calculations) it contains 25% protein on a dry matter basis. So you might be thinking, OK, that’s reasonable.

But there are three issues with the protein in this food (or four if you count the fact that there’s not enough protein, even though it meets minimum AAFCO standards).

When you see chicken as the first ingredient you’d think the protein in this diet is mainly from chicken … but you’d be wrong.

Chicken Includes Water

Chicken is 70% water by weight – and again, the ingredient panel lists ingredients by weight when they’re added to the food. But this kibble will end up as a dry food – and most of the other ingredients are also dry.

So let’s assume that when this food is made, they add 40% chicken, 25% corn meal, 15% sorghum and 10% chicken by-product meal, 5% marly and 5% dried beet pulp. (This breakdown is completely hypothetical because we have no way of knowing it, but it’s probably not too far off from reality).

The chicken contains water but all of the other ingredients are added dry. So once the kibble is processed and dried, the chicken loses 70% of its weight. So if chicken was added as 40% of the ingredients, then the amount of chicken in the final product after drying will be 30% of 40, which is only12%.

So this food can say chicken is the first ingredient, but when you take out the water, there’s actually twice as much corn meal. And corn meal is used as a cheap source of protein.

If you look further down the ingredient panel, you’ll see there are free amino acids to compensate for the lack of meat protein … there’s L-lysine, DL-methionine, L-tryptophan and L-carnitine.

So this is an example of a food with very little animal protein in it. The main ingredient is really corn meal after you account for moisture. But Iams can list chicken as the first ingredient and make the food look better than it is.

Another Trick

They can also trick you into thinking there’s more of a particular protein than there really is. Let’s look at this bag of Merrick Grain-Free Real Rabbit + Chickpeas Recipe Dry Dog Food. You’d expect rabbit to be the main source of protein in this food, wouldn’t you? So let’s see if that’s the case.

Looking at the ingredient panel, you can see that rabbit is the first ingredient – but we can’t stop there. Just like chicken, rabbit is 70% water by weight. So once the food is processed and dried, 70% of the rabbit ingredient is gone.

So let’s use a hypothetical example and assume that the food has 30% rabbit (which contains water), 25% turkey meal (which is already dried when it goes in the food) 25% lamb meal (also already dried) and 20% pork meal (already dried). Now, again, this breakdown is hypothetical.


But once the water’s removed from the rabbit, it will end up being 9% of the food – which is less than all the other animal proteins listed on the ingredient panel. This food is sold as Rabbit recipe when turkey is the real first ingredient (and possibly lamb is the second).

This is nothing but trickery – it meets a technical AAFCO definition that will fool consumers every time!

Let’s summarize what you want to look for on ingredient lists.


There’s a lot of trickery going on in the pet food industry. The marketing uses buzzwords you’re looking for, such as grain-free or natural – and then they manipulate the details so you’ll buy their food and not a competitor’s.

Who Really Makes It?

And on that note, here’s something you probably don’t know – most pet food companies don’t even make their own food. Even some foods from the big brands are manufactured by third party companies that churn out thousands of pounds of dog food.

So most pet food companies are really just marketing companies. Keep this in mind and don’t trust what the companies tell you about their pet foods.

There are some small, ethical companies and I urge you to support them – but remember they’re not making their own food and they have to rely on the co-manufacturer to tell them the truth … and the co-manufacturer has to rely on the companies that supply their ingredients to tell the truth as well. There’s a lot of room for things to go wrong, so the better you become at reading pet food labels, the safer your dog or cat will be.


I promised some downloads with Part 2 and here they are:

Pet Food Nutrition Analysis Rules

Pet Food Calculation Guide

So now you’re ready to start analyzing dog or cat food for quality and truth in advertising.  You might find this will change what you’re feeding your dog or cat. If you work in the pet industry, you might find your recommendations change! Now let’s start analyzing some real foods …

Part 3: Putting It Into Practice - Evaluating Real Foods

Part 3: Evaluating Real Foods

Now for the fun part … evaluating some real food and putting the information from Parts 1 and 2 into practice.  We’ll look at a several different foods and score them for good nutrition as well as any harmful toxins. We’ll be on the lookout for any other red flags in the foods as well.

You may be surprised by how our analysis turns out in a couple of cases, and that’s why I really like this part.

I’ll show you how to apply all the rules we talked about in Parts 1 and 2. I won’t repeat the rules here so please grab your handouts or scroll up and read them if you need to refresh your memory.

We’re going to start with the best foods and work our way down. You’ll see that, generally, the lower the quality of the diet, the longer the ingredient list gets and the more chemicals we’ll start to see.

First let’s review a high quality raw diet.

Answers Detailed Raw Food



Starting with the protein rules, we can see that animal protein is the first ingredient, as well as the second, third, fourth and fifth. That’s what we want to see for carnivorous dogs and cats.

There’s no plant-based protein and there’s no real starch in this food. There’s cultured whey in the food, which is a good source of protein. Whey is a fermented food that contains a lot of vitamins and minerals as well as probiotics.

There’s no meal in this food, which is normal for wet foods … you’ll only find meals in dry diets. So the food passes all of our protein rules.


There’s no fat added to this food because the fat comes from the animal meats. (Remember the reason foods with meals need fat added to the food is because meals are free of fats). I like the fact there isn’t any fish oil in this food because fish oil is too fragile for freezing and can oxidize and turn rancid.


This food doesn’t have any added starch. The only carbohydrates are carrots, green beans, squash and parsley, which are probably added for their vitamin content. Many of the minerals in this food will come from the added organ meat and chicken bone.

Let’s see how much carbohydrate is in this food.

The protein is 13%, the fat is 10%, plus moisture of 68% and we’ll assume ash is the default number of 1.5%. These total 92.5%, which we subtract from 100 to get 7.5% carbohydrate. This number is the maximum amount of carbohydrate because the food only needs to list the minimum protein and fat as fed. 7.5% carbohydrate is within the limits we want to see in a wet diet.

Vitamins and Minerals

The only added vitamin is a vitamin E supplement. This food guarantees no synthetic vitamins, meaning the vitamin E is from a whole food source (synthetic vitamin E usually appears as tocopherols or mixed tocopherols).

Amino Acids

There are no added amino acids in this food, so we know the protein likely comes from animal protein – and, of course, the absence of any starchy carbohydrates also tells us this.


This food is preserved with the natural vitamin E supplement. If you wanted to know the source of the vitamin E, you could call the manufacturer and they should be willing to provide it.

Miscellaneous Ingredients

There are some miscellaneous ingredients here, but they’re all whole food sources plus some clay, which has good detoxification and GI tract cleansing properties.


This is an ideal diet … high in animal protein, very low in carbohydrate and has no synthetic ingredients.

If you’re thinking all raw diets would be similar, that isn’t necessarily true. Let’s take a look at another one.

Northwest Naturals Beef Recipe



The first four ingredients are meat. And there’s no evidence of plant based protein, and no meal either, because this is a wet diet. So far so good.


There are no generic vegetable oils in this food but what I do see is fish oil. It’s generic, which I don’t like, though the label does state the fish oil is a blend of salmon, herring and pollock. The ice crystals in a frozen food can puncture the double bonds in the fatty acids, making them oxidize and turn rancid. That’s a big red flag for me. Once I see fish oil in a pet food, I’ll disqualify it. Rancid fats will cause inflammation and chronic health issues.


For this part we need to look at the Guaranteed Analysis.animal-nutrition3-dnm

It shows protein of 13%, fat of 11%, moisture of 68% and once again we’ll assume ash is 1.5%. These total 93.55 which we subtract from 100 to get 6.5% carbohydrate.

There are no free amino acids, so let’s move on.

Vitamins and Minerals

I see vitamin E and vitamin D supplements and you would need to call the manufacturer to find out if these are whole food vitamins or synthetic.

But I do see added synthetic minerals in this food: potassium chloride, sodium chloride, zinc proteinate, iron proteinate, copper proteinate and copper proteinate.

Any mineral that ends in proteinate is a chelated mineral, which is more easily absorbed by the body than other forms of minerals. But chelated minerals are produced with genetically modified soy and they’re still synthetic.

A whole food source of these important minerals would be much better, and there are many raw diets that offer that choice.Organ meats are mineral rich, so foods can meet AAFCO minimum requirements for minerals with whole food sources.

Also on the label are some fruits and vegetables, presumably for their vitamin content, flaxseed for added fatty acids, apple cider vinegar (which can be used as an anti-bacterial) and inulin, which is a prebiotic.


Compared to the Answers food, Northwest Naturals contains less whole food nutrition and most importantly, it contains fish oil which can turn rancid.

Next, let’s look at what I’d call a mid to low quality dry diet

Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula Healthy Weight Adult Chicken & Brown Rice Dry Dog Food


At a glance you can see this ingredient panel is very different. But let’s go through the usual rules.


This food breaks protein rule #1. It doesn’t have animalprotein as the first two ingredients… or even the first and third or fourth.

Looking at the Guaranteed Analysis, I take the protein as fed, or 20%, divided by the dry matter, or 90%, to get 22% protein on a dry matter basis. This is about half the amount of protein in the two diets we just looked at.


As for plant based proteins, there are some higher protein plant ingredients like oatmeal and peas, but it looks like the majority of the protein comes from the deboned chicken and chicken meal.

Chicken meal breaks rule #3. But there aren’t any generic animal meals, which would be a sign of a very low quality diet.


There’s no generic fat, and there’s no fish oil. These are both good signs.


There’s no evidence of whole grains on this label, so that’s a fail. Next, let’s calculate the carbohydrate percentage. The Guaranteed Analysis shows protein of 20%, fat of 9% and moisture of 10%, plus ash at 7% which is the default for dry diets. These total 46%, so subtracting that from 100 we get 54% carbohydrate!

That’s more than half carbohydrate and way above our limit of 30% for dry diets. So there’s a big red flag!

Vitamins and Minerals

Right away you can see there are a lot more vitamins and minerals compared to both of the raw, whole food diets. That’s because heating and processing can destroy many key nutrients, which need to be added back into the food.

And now, instead of words like vitamin E supplement, we see the chemical names that tell us these are synthetic vitamins. Instead of whole food vitamin C, there’s L-Ascrobyl-2-Polyphosphate. Instead of natural vitamin B3, there’s nicotinic acid. You can spot the vitamins because they need to specify what those chemicals are used for, so you’ll see “source of vitamin C” or “vitamin B6” in brackets beside the chemical.

There are also a lot of added minerals in this food, including ferrous sulfate, zinc sulfate and copper sulfate. If the mineral ends in sulfate or chloride, this is an inorganic salt, which is a cheaper alternative to chelated minerals and not as well absorbed by the body. Dogs can only use 5% to 20% of inorganic salts, compared to 50% to 80% of chelated minerals.

The presence of the synthetic vitamins and minerals also indicates a highly processed food and/or poor quality ingredients. Filling those nutritional holes with synthetic chemicals isn’t ideal. It’s the equivalent of surviving on meal replacement bars and vitamin milkshakes for your entire life. You’ll get by on them, but the absence of important cofactors found only in whole food nutrition can start to cause chronic disease over time.

It’s important to view your dog or cat’s food as medicine or healthcare. Start looking not just at filling his bowl, but at protecting his health with the whole food vitamins and minerals he needs. Although there are some chelated minerals in this food, it doesn’t matter much at this point.

So added vitamins and minerals can indicate poor quality ingredients. Let’s test that another way by looking for added amino acids.

Amino Acids

This food contains taurine, DL-methionine, L-carnitine and L-lysine. The presence of these added amino acids indicates poor protein quality.


The chicken fat is preserved with mixed tocopherols, which are synthetic, and, a few lines down, you can see the food is also preserved with mixed tocopherols.

The label states they’re a natural preservative, but in fact they’ll still be synthetic in this case.

While we’re on the topic of synthetic vitamins, most are manufactured in China (for example, 90% of vitamin C is manufactured there). Since most dry diets contain a lot of synthetic vitamins, they can’t really claim they don’t contain any Chinese ingredients.

Miscellaneous Ingredients

Tomato pomace is a source of lycopene, as the label states, which is a vitamin A-rich ingredient that is thought to fight free-radical damage in the body. But I’d say that a highly processed, synthetically stabilized food like this would cause the free radical damage in the first place!

Peas, also on the label, are often a source of plant protein and sugar. Because it can be hard to get dogs to eat a carbohydrate based diet that’s dried and relatively flavorless, manufacturers add ingredients like peas, potatoes, carrots and caramel, which can boost the sugar content.

Flaxseed is a source of fatty acids, as the label states. Then you’ll see natural flavor. Here’s where the trickery comes in. Dogs and especially cats don’t really want to eat these extruded dried diets. So one of the most common palatants (curiously called natural), is MSG or monosodium glutamate. MSG is actually flavorless, but it’s an excitotoxin, which means it over-stimulates the brain cells, causing dopamine production. This dopamine release creates a brief sensation of wellbeing, but the over-stimulation of brain cells from excitoxins can damage or kill the cells, causing varying degrees of brain damage.

In humans, MSG is thought to cause or worsen dementia, Parkinsons disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and learning disabilities. Studies in mice also show it can lead to liver inflammation, obesity and type-2 diabetes.

While not all natural flavors contain MSG, the pet food palatant industry is a multi-million dollar industry and pets need to be enticed to eat the food one way or another. In human foods, salt, sugar and MSG are added to make us want to not just eat the food, but eat more of it. It’s the same with pet foods, so no wonder so many pets today are overweight.

After the natural flavor, I see powdered cellulose. This is put in the food to firm up the stools and it’s really just sawdust.

Further down the ingredient list, I see carrots, parsley, blueberries, cranberries, apples, spinach, black berries, pomegranate, pumpkin and even turmeric. Now these might sound like desirable ingredients. But I’ll let you in on a little secret called the salt divider.

The Salt Divider

As you know, ingredients are listed by weight, from highest to lowest. There’s no other indication of how much is really in the bag or can. This is where the salt divider can come in handy.

AAFCO has no maximum for salt because they claim that salt will affect palatability long before excessive amounts could be added. The minimum for salt or sodium is .3% by weight in dry dog foods and .2% in dry cat foods. Overall, the average sodium content in dry diets is .4%, which equals approximately 1% salt.

So any ingredient listed after salt on the ingredient panel will add up to less than 1% of the food.

So this ingredient panel shows that carrots, parsley, blueberries, cranberries, apples, spinach, blackberries, pomegranate, pumpkin and turmeric are all quite far down the list after salt. And these ingredients could be added in with the water, so by the time the food is extruded and dried, they could be a fraction of 1% of the finished food.

This means the amount of these ingredients aren’t large enough to make any real contribution to the food. So why are they there? Because consumers want them – and if they’re in the food, even in negligible amounts, they can be shown on the label. Another crafty little trick the manufacturers play.


I’d also like to mention the probiotics in this food – the fermentation products and extracts at the bottom of the label. This food’s high carbohydrate content will cause a disruption in the intestinal flora, so, in theory, adding probiotics is a good idea to help support the “good” bacteria in the gut. But any probiotics added to canned or extruded diets are killed during processing.  Ironically, that’s why they heat the food in the first place … to destroy bacteria!

So this food lists probiotics on the ingredient panel but the Guaranteed Analysis doesn’t guarantee any live bacteria will be in the food. Some pet foods guarantee their probiotic content, but this one doesn’t. That makes me think it’s just another gimmick to sell food to pet owners who don’t know any better.


This food has some fairly significant fails:

  • It doesn’t have protein listed as at least the first two ingredients
  • it contains meals, which are rendered
  • it doesn’t contain whole grains
  • the carbohydrate content is at a whopping 54%
  • it’s loaded with synthetic vitamins and minerals
  • It has four added amino acids
  • it goes out of its way to fool consumers into thinking there’s more real food nutrition in the food than there really is

So I’d call this a low quality diet. But there are worse! Let’s pretend we’re going to the grocery store and we’ll pick up a bag of Beneful.

Beneful Originals with Real Beef Dry Dog Food


If you’re shopping at Walmart, the Blue Buffalo is $46 for a 30 lb bag and this food is about $27 for a 31 lb bag. So keep that price difference in mind as we compare.


This food fails rule #1 because it doesn’t have animal protein as the first two ingredients. It uses beef instead of beef meal or a generic animal meal. But many companies will use meats (instead of meals) because the water content pushes them to the top of the ingredient list. Chances are, once the water is removed, beef would move down to the second, third or even fourth ingredient.

You can tell this is the case if you look at the second protein rule. The food contains corn gluten meal as the 7th ingredient and there’s also soybean meal and oat meal … meaning the food is boosted with plant-based proteins.

Beneful also breaks protein rule #3 because it contains meal. And it breaks rule #4 with poultry by-product meal, which is a generic term for any old bird.


This food doesn’t seem to break any fat rules.


Unlike the Blue Buffalo, this food has some whole grains. They’re low quality grains that are probably genetically modified, but the main point is to limit grains as much as possible. So on that note, let’s calculate the carbohydrate in this food.

Protein is 23%, fat is 12%, moisture is 14%, and I’ll use 7% for ash because it’s not listed. That’s a total of 56%, giving us 44% carbohydrate when we subtract it from 100. That’s less than the Blue Buffalo’s 54% … but this food still breaks the carbohydrate rule limit of 30% in a dry diet.

Vitamins and Minerals

Once again, this food is loaded with synthetic vitamins, indicating low quality ingredients and/or a loss of nutrition through the heating and processing. The minerals are also the cheaper inorganic salts. So this food also breaks the vitamin and mineral rule.

Amino Acids

So next I’ll move to the amino acids and I only see L-lysine, compared to the four amino acids found in the Blue Buffalo. But that one still breaks the rule so it’s another red flag.


There are no synthetic preservatives like BHA or BHT, but this food uses mixed tocopherols. These are still synthetic but not as bad as BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin or TBHQ.

Miscellaneous Ingredients

The glycerin is added because there are moist chunks in it but it works double duty as a sweetener, and so does the corn. The egg and chicken flavor is a palatant, the mono and dicalcium phosphate are controversial texturizers, there’s poultry and pork digest, another palatant, and spinach, peas and carrots. These vegetables are presumably to make the food look more attractive to consumers, but they all appear after the salt divider, so are minuscule amounts.

But what’s interesting is that these ingredients are dried before they’re added to the food, so there would be more of them compared to the Blue Buffalo. This food also contains dyes, which have zero nutritional value and turn a grey colored food to something prettier that pet owners will like. But these dyes are controversial and have been linked to behavior disorders. They’re banned in many European countries because of this. The garlic oil is probably added as an antioxidant to preserve the food.


Overall, the Beneful has a lot of red flags and it’s a very low quality food. But if you compare it to the Blue Buffalo, which is nearly twice the price, there really isn’t a lot of difference between the two foods. The Beneful contains colors and plant-based proteins, but on te other hand, it has significantly less carbohydrate content and fewer amino acids. I would call both of these foods low quality diets. But you probably already guessed that.

Now let’s take a look at a premium, grain-free diet .

Halo’s Spot’s Stew Healthy Weight Grain-Free Turkey Liver & Duck Recipe Dry Dog Food



The first ingredient is turkey liver, but the second is peas so the food fails the first protein rule. There’s also quite a lot of plant based protein … peas and pea protein as well as ground peas. This is an example of trickery by ingredient splitting. If we added all the pea ingredients together, chances are peas would be the first ingredient. And if I look for added amino acids, I can see taurine and L-carnitine, indicating there isn’t enough animal protein in the food. There aren’t any meals in this food, at least.


The fat isn’t generic, which is good, but the food does contain salmon oil, which is a big red flag because of the risk of rancidity.


This is a grain free food so there aren’t any whole grains. Calculating the carbohydrates (protein of 28%, fat of 12%, moisture of 10% and ash of 7% totaling 57%), gives us 43% carbohydrate. That’s about the same as the Beneful – for a premium food! And that’s because they’ve just swapped out the oatmeal, millet and other grains for peas and sweet potatoes. Not only that, but peas have quite a high glycemic load and the animal eating this would be spiking insulin, putting him at risk for diabetes and obesity.


Vitamins and Minerals

Just like most other extruded dry diets, this food contains a lion’s share of synthetic vitamins and minerals. Some of the minerals are chelated, but the food still relies on synthetics for a significant percentage of its nutrition.


The food uses ascorbic acid as a preservative, along with citric acid and mixed tocopherols – which are all synthetic vitamins.

Miscellaneous Ingredients

Eggs are on the label and can often be a source of amino acids. The fruits and vegetables are listed before salt, which is good to see, and we’ve got some added calcium and potassium, presumably because the food doesn’t contain enough meat and bone. This food also contains probiotics – but they’re not on the Guaranteed Analysis, so it’s likely just a marketing gimic.


This food breaks a lot of rules, has a large amount of carbohydrate and I wouldn’t call it high quality – even though it’s a premium food.

I hope you’re starting to see that high quality kibble can sometimes be an oxymoron. Because of the heating and processing required to extrude kibbles, the nutrients will almost always be baked out of the food and have to be added back in as synthetics.

But let’s take a a look at another premium grain-free diet.

Orijen Regional Red Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

animal-nutrition9-dnmThis food 9s $103 for a 28.6 lb bag compared to the Halo at $62 for a 28 pound bag. So let’s see if the price reflects a higher quality food.


Now I see something I can live with. Animal protein is the first 15 ingredients, followed by lamb fat and whole egg. So clearly, this food doesn’t rely on plant-based proteins. There are meals in this food, but there are also plenty of meats. Again, the biggest issue with meals is that they’re rendered and there can be quality issues and heavy nutrient losses. But this food has a short ingredient list with very few vitamins added so this probably isn’t likely the case here.


There are no generic fats but I do see herring oil added which is a red flag because of the risk of rancidity.


There aren’t any whole grains because this is a grain-free food. The carbohydrate content (100 minus 73 (38% + 18% + 10% + 7%) That gives us 27%, so this food is 27% carbohydrate on a dry matter basis.


Vitamins and Minerals

Compared to the three kibbles we just looked at, this food has a lot less synthetic vitamins in it … and that’s what we’re looking for. There will be some nutritional losses just due to the kibble manufacturing process, but the more added vitamins and minerals, the less nutritious the food is. The three vitamin supplements appear to be whole food complexes and not chemical synthetics, which is good. And the added zinc is chelated, which is preferable.

Miscellaneous Ingredients

There are only whole foods and this is a good thing. The food also says it contains probiotics, but the there’s no live amount on the Guaranteed Analysis, so we can only assume they’re dead.


This is a much better dry diet than any of the other dry foods we looked at. There’s a lot more animal protein, a lot less carbohydrate and very few synthetic vitamins. But I’m not thrilled with the fish oil.

So let’s look at one more premium kibble.

Nature’s Logic Canine Chicken Meal Feast Dry Dog Food


Protein and Fat

At first glance, this food doesn’t look to contain much protein because it only has protein as the first ingredient – and the protein is listed as a meal. But it doesn’t contain generic proteins or fats and there’s no fish oil added to the food, which is good.


The usual calculation of 100% minus protein of 36%, fat of 15%, moisture of 9% plus ash of 7%, gives us carbohydrate of 34%. Again, that’s too much carbohydrate but it’s lower than most dry foods.

Amino Acids, Vitamins and Minerals

There are no added amino acids and what I want to point out is that this food contains no synthetic vitamins or minerals – they all come from whole food sources.

So not all dry food has to be full of synthetics and there are a handful of dry dog foods, like this one, that are made without them.

This should be your goal … to find and feed those foods, as long as they don’t break too many major rules.

And there’s something else on this label too. This food adds probiotics just like the previous two foods, but on the Guaranteed Analysis, the manufacturer guarantees some live probiotic in the food.


This food does break a couple of rules, such as the meal rule and the carbohydrate rule. On the other hand, the Orijen breaks the fish oil rule and it contains some vitamin and mineral supplementation.

So the only food that’s met all of our rules so far is the Answers raw diet without added vitamins.

Nature’s Logic is $66 for a 26.4 pound bag, compared to Orijen at $103 for a 28.6 pound bag. And that’s because animal protein is expensive and the more there is in the bag, they more you’ll pay.

I want to look at one more dry food – and this time I’m going to choose a veterinary diet.

Hill’s Prescription Diet j/d Joint Care Chicken Flavor Dry Dog Food

animal-nutrition12-dnmThis food is $82 for a 27.5 lb bag.


Not only is animal protein not the first and second ingredient, it’s not even the first. And it’s by-product meal, which is a low quality protein source. And there’s also soybean meal as a plant source of protein. So this food breaks three of our four protein rules.


The pork fat is named, but the food contains fish oil, presumably because it’s a joint care diet. This is a big red flag because, ironically, the fish oil can cause the inflammation that you’re trying to avoid by using a joint care food.


There’s whole grain corn, but after that comes soybean mill run and brewers rice, which are incomplete residues from human food factories. That’s another red flag.

The carbohydrate content is 55% (as before, add protein of 17% plus fat of 11 plus moisture of 10 and ash of 7% and subtract the total of 45% from 100). This whopping carbohydrate level is another red flag

Vitamins and Minerals

This food is full of synthetic vitamins and minerals, and contains the cheaper inorganic salts for its minerals. Doesn’t that that strike you as odd for a so-called prescription diet that your vet might carry in his office?

Amino Acids and Preservatives

Amino acids are there in spades to make up for the low amount of animal protein in the food … I see L-lysine, DL-methionine, L-threonine, taurine, L-tryptophan and L-carnitine.

The food is preserved with mixed tocopherols but they’re synthetic.

Miscellaneous Ingredients

There’s powdered cellulose (again, probably sawdust), lactic acid (probably another preservative or a palatant). The food contains natural flavors, which are often a disguise for MSG.


This is an extremely low quality food with limited animal protein and a very high carbohydrate content. It’s sold at double the price of supermarket foods but has the same inferior ingredients. And apart from some fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin, there are no novel ingredients in this food that would support its use as a prescription joint diet.

It’s shocking that some vets sell this food as part of a health and wellness plan. Prescription or not, this is an extremely low quality food that no dog should be eating.

I want to look at just one more food because we haven’t looked at canned diets yet.

Blue Buffalo Homestyle Recipe Chicken Dinner with Garden Vegetables & Brown Rice Canned Dog Food


I’ve chosen another Blue Buffalo food so we can compare products from the same manufacturer.


As usual we’re looking for protein to be the first two ingredients, and apart from the chicken broth, it is. This is a canned diet, so there won’t be meal in it. Next I’ll look for plant-sourced proteins and I do see some peas, but nothing to get too worried about. So this food passes all of the protein rules.


There are no generic fats and no fish oil.


The grains in this food are not whole grain, so that’s the first strike. Protein of 8.5%, fat of 5.5% plus moisture or 78% and ash of 1.5 (the default for a wet diet) add up to 93.5%. Subtract that from for 6.5% carbohydrate on a dry matter basis. I want to see canned diets at less than 7.5% carbohydrate for dogs and this food is.

Vitamins and Minerals

There are a fair number of them, but most of the minerals are chelated, which is good. But the food still fails the synthetic rule.

Amino Acids and Preservatives

There aren’t any amino acids, which is pretty typical of canned diets because they’re not as heated and processed as dry diets and contain more meat. And the food doesn’t contain preservatives because the can preserves the food.


This is a much better food than the Blue Buffalo dry diet. And if you test canned and dry diets from the same manufacturer, you’ll see this across the board – even with the cheap supermarket foods.

So on the whole, canned diets are a much healthier choice than dry diets – but they’re also a lot more expensive. If you buy canned diets, you’re paying for the water as well as the food! If you try a few different brands and compare the canned to the dry, you’ll see that the canned diets are always much higher quality – but they’re also much more expensive. This isn’t just because of the water, but because because they’ll always contain a lot more meat.

Food Is Healthcare

Now there are a lot more steps involved in evaluating and comparing pet foods, but if you start with these rules, you really can’t go wrong. There are a lot of foods out there that fail our rules – but that’s the point.

I don’t want you to just choose the cream of the crap, or to choose the best kibble or the best bag of food under $50. I want you to really be able to understand pet foods and ingredients and the huge impact they can have on the health of the animal eating them.

Always remember that nutrition is so much more than just filling a bowl once or twice a day. You wouldn’t think twice about investing good money in your dog’s veterinary care, so I hope you’ll start looking at his food as health care too. What you’ll find is the more you spend on nutrition, the less you’ll spend on veterinary care.

Pet Food Nutrition Certification Course

If you’ve read this far and you really want to understand the pet food industry inside and out, you might want to check out our eight hour Pet Food Nutrition certification course. This in-depth course is open to all … whether you work in the pet industry or whether you’re a pet owner who wants to make smart, educated decisions about what your own dog or cat eats. Read more about it at Dogs Naturally University.