The Salt Divider: Deciphering Dog Food Ingredients

dog food ingredient labels

Vegetables are a symbol of health on your plate. By adding these essential foods to dinner, you feel you’re making wholesome food choices. When you serve fruits or vegetables you know your family got some good nutrients along with the day’s snacks or fast foods. 

Advertising Tactics In Commercial Pet Foods 

Pet food marketers know how pet owners think. They know you want your dogs to eat a diet as healthy as your own. So they provide you with reassurance when you buy your dog’s food. The marketers want you to think: “I’d eat that!” The term in the industry is called humanization.

The pet food industry constantly tries to humanize pet food by adding exotic fruits, vegetables, and even superfoods to the ingredient panel. It makes sense for manufacturers to splash pictures of real, whole, fresh foods all over the packages. If it’s splattered all over the package, then surely there must be tons of it in the food, right? 

Understanding Pet Food Labels 

Many pet owners have learned to read pet food labels the hard way. They know to avoid by-products, corn, BHA and BHTs … And today’s pet owners are savvy. They know that dogs with serious issues need special ingredients. For example, a dog with bladder issues could benefit from food with cranberries

And that’s where marketing, not medicine takes over. Shopping for dog food by choosing the bag with the largest images of cranberry might seem like you’re on the right track. But you know not to be so trusting. So you flip the bag over and check out the ingredient list. And there you see … cranberries. Perfect!

As most pet owners soon learn, an ingredient panel lists ingredients by order of weight, largest first. Seeing cranberries on this list, along with the giant photo on the front of the bag, should confirm that this will help a dog with an ailing bladder.

So here’s the second part of Label Reading 101.

A manufacturer’s pet food recipe is a trade secret. But there are ingredients that can act as markers of quantity. There is one ingredient in particular that can shed some light on the smoke and mirrors of marketers.

And that’s salt.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommends that dry dog food contain at least 0.3% sodium. That’s for both maintenance and to support normal growth and development. These are minimum recommended levels.

RELATED: How ingredient splitting works in the pet food industry …

Why Is Salt Added To Pet food?

Salt is essential for your dog to function normally. In small amounts, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Manufacturers add salt to increase the palatability of pet food since salt is a natural and safe flavoring. Salt is also a natural preservative in pet foods. Salt absorbs excess moisture to prevent the growth of harmful mold and bacteria.

5 Benefits of Salt In Pet Food

  • Maintains the body’s fluids (blood)
  • Sodium ions are needed for muscle contraction and electrical impulses
  • Maintains blood pressure
  • Prevents conditions such as gout
  • Helps maintain normal blood pressure to the heart and kidneys

Quoting Dr Marion Nestlé, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and Malden Nesheim, Professor of Nutrition Emeritus and Provost Emeritus at Cornell University, in their book Feed Your Pet Right:

“Because most pet foods use similar formulas, our rule of thumb is that any ingredient that follows salt on the list must make up less than 1% of the diet. This has to be true for ingredients like vitamins and trace minerals because only tiny amounts are needed […]. Salt is a convenient marker of quantity.”

What Is The Salt Divider?

The salt divider tells you that anything below the salt on the ingredient list is less than 1% of the food. Ingredients after the salt are in tiny amounts in the product. So with this in mind, you can return to the pet food label and seek out the salt divider. 

Here’s an ingredient list example:

Organic chicken, potato, arctic char, chicken fat naturally preserved with mixed tocopherols, sweet potatoes, dried egg product, peas, natural chicken flavor, dried tomato pomace, whole flaxseed, lecithin, potassium chloride, salt, choline chloride, yeast extract, calcium carbonate, dried chicory root (a source of inulin), ferrous sulfate, taurine, zinc oxide, organic duck, alpha tocopherol acetate (a source of vitamin E), apples, organic cranberries, yucca schidigera extract, crab and shrimp meal, New Zealand green mussels, sea cucumber, organic dried blueberries, organic dried pineapple, honey, organic dried rosemary, organic dried parsley, organic dried spearmint, organic carob, organic dried seaweed meal, organic dehydrated alfalfa meal, organic asparagus, organic green tea extract, organic dried spinach, organic dried broccoli, organic dried carrot, organic dried cauliflower, zinc …

Ten ingredients past salt, after all the vitamins and minerals, is organic cranberries.

So you’ve got a 30 lb bag of food with a photo of a cranberry the size of a football on it! And you’re expecting it to contain a decent amount of that ingredient. However, the ingredient panel shows it 10 ingredients past salt. That means less than a sprinkle of a cranberry was actually in that bag … no more than a pinch in almost 120 cups … a 40-day supply of food! Not to mention all those other healthy ingredients below the salt on the list – organic duck, apples, New Zealand green mussels, sea cucumber, blueberries and several nutritious vegetables!  

Other Names For Salt

But that’s not all. In case you know about the salt divider, manufacturers have adopted another sneaky trick. They use different names for salt, like sodium chloride or iodized salt, or group it under “vitamins and minerals.” They’ll use the names sea salt, brine, sodium propionate, sodium nitrite, sodium metabisulfite, sodium erythorbate, sodium benzoate or disodium EDTA. Some pet food manufacturers are also using label-friendly “sea salt” or declaring “no added salt.” This makes it difficult to determine exactly where the official salt divide is — for anyone who knows to look for it. And now you have more to look for.

RELATED: Misleading moves to hide crappy proteins in dog food … 

Deceptive Marketing In Pet Food

So if you believed the photos of fresh ingredients on the bag, now you’ve learned another cruel lesson from pet food manufacturers: Marketing overrides the ingredient list. 

The promise of cranberries, along with images of blueberries, apples, cuts of meat and fresh vegetables, which can cover most of the bag, is deliberately misleading. The truth is that the amount of those 5 ingredients together would probably equal the size of a single blueberry.

This is the absurb reality. A manufacturer can take a single tiny apple seed and drop it into a 30 lb bag of pet food, and actually list it on the ingredient panel. To add salt to the wound (pun intended) they can splash apples all over the front of the bag. They’ve sold you the illusion that you’re going home with a bag of food full of healthy, delicious apples to feed your dog …  and they haven’t broken any rules.

This tactic is highly exploited by manufacturers and their marketers. And it’s nothing new.

Your dog needs certain vegetables, organ meats, herbs, nutraceuticals and other nutrients in his diet. So you have to realize how important it is to pay attention to detail.

Expensive ingredients, essential nutrients, organic ingredients, GMO-free ingredients. These are plastered all over the packages with full-blown visuals, yet they fall 5 to 25 ingredients past the salt divider, meaning there’s barely a trace of them in the food.

RELATED: What vegetables can your dog eat?

Read Your Dog Food Labels

The moral of the story is: read your labels and do some research. Don’t allow the visual on the package or the perception of certain ingredients to influence your purchasing decision. If you want to give your dog fruit, go buy some that’s fresh, organic and locally grown, and personally add it to your dog’s dish. 

Better yet, start your dog on a whole food, raw meat diet. Then you can include all the fresh ingredients and any protein source you want. And you’ll be rewarded with a dog that enjoys better digestive health, appearance and activity level. 

RELATED:  Try some easy to make, whole food, raw food recipes for your dog …  

You’ll never be able to trust or rely on manufacturers to feed your dog as well as you do! So, if you buy commercial dog food, always do some digging to find out what’s really in the bag. 


Nestle, Marion, et al. Feed Your Pet Right. 2010. 

Beynen, C. Anton. Salt in dog foods. Creature Companion. 2017 April: 34-35.

Goi, Arianna, et al. Prediction of Mineral Composition in Commercial Extruded Dry Dog Food by Near-Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy. Animals. 2019, 9(9), 640.

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