What do different statements on dog food labels like ‘salmon dog food’, ‘with chicken’, ‘beef flavor’ mean? The claims on labels are regulated by the USDA, but with clever advertising, it’s often difficult for a pet owner to understand what a label is really saying. Here are statements you might see on labels and how to interpret them:

‘With beef flavor’ means the flavor itself is detectable (from beef meal or beef by-products for example), but there doesn’t have to be any actual beef meat present in the product.

‘With beef’ means the product contains at least 3% beef and 3% is all that most companies put into their dog food. “Now made with real beef” claims suddenly don’t seem so great!

‘Beef dinner’ must contain at least 25% of beef.

‘Beef for dogs’ at least 95% of the product must be beef (or 70% when counting the added water).

Certain manufacturers label their products with terms such as premium, ultra premium, natural and holistic. Such terms currently have no official definitions so caveat emptor (buyer beware) applies. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is currently looking to define some of the terms. There are also varieties of dog food labeled as “human-grade food”. Although no official definition exists, the assumption is that other brands use foods that would not pass US Food and Drug Administration inspection according to the Pure Food and Drug Act or the Meat Inspection Act.

Premium dog food, Super Premium dog food, Ultra Premium, Mega Premium, Giga Premium, etc. are big statements but of little value as labeling products as ‘premium’ or ‘gourmet’ doesn’t require anything else than just to comply with the nutritional standards for ‘complete and balanced’ dog food.

Organic dog food. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990. The OFPA required the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic meet a consistent standard. The OFPA became fully operational when the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule was implemented on October 21, 2002. The regulations require that agricultural products labeled as organic originate from farms and handling operations certified by a State or private entity that has been accredited by the USDA and have the organic seal or mark on the package. Here are some labels you might see:

· “100% organic" – must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients.

· “Organic” – must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Remaining product ingredients must consist of non-agricultural substances approved on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form. (Foods labeled “100% organic” and “organic” cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.)

· "Made with organic ingredients” – Processed products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can use the phrase and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel.

Natural dog food. There is no official definition for this claim. Usually the manufacturer uses this to describe a product is free of artificial flavors, artificial colors and artificial preservatives. The first is rarely used, the second one has no value to your dog anyway and the third, preservatives, has its own set of problems as chemical preservatives can cause health problems and natural preservatives can become rancid if not properly stored.

Artificial flavors. These are rarely added to the product with the exception of artificial smoke or bacon flavors in dog treats.

Preservatives. Natural antioxidants are vitamin C and E and are also used as preservatives. These are more expensive than artificial ones and reduce the shelf live of the product by about 50%. Some artificial preservatives, such as Ethoxoquin, may be carcinogens or have other adverse affects.

Calorie content. Recently manufacturers are using calorie statements on dog food labels. This is done on a voluntary base. You can roughly calculate the amount of calories yourself by multiplying the amount of carbohydrates by 4.2 kcal (kilocalories) per gram, the amount of protein by 5.65 and the amount of fat by 9.4 kcal per gram.

Price per portion. Products can vary greatly in density. Comparing the price of one bag to another is difficult without doing some math again. Look at the energy values per 100 g or the prescribed amount of dog food per kg dog.

Crude analysis. This statement (often found directly after the ingredient list) merely refers to product presence and doesn’t say anything about the quality of the nutrients, the digestibility or the bio-availability.

Last but not least – Check your labels often. Manufacturers change their ingredients due to availability. The labeling laws give companies a grace period to make changes in labels. The company can change ingredients and use up their old labels before reprinting the changes. If your dog has been on the same food for a while and suddenly starts having stomach problems, dry skin or shedding, the ingredients could have changed.

There is high quality commercial dog food. But it’s hard to filter through the name brands, advertising hype and ingredient lists. Cost is always an issue and sometimes we just can’t afford the dog food we’d like to give our dog. Choose the best one you can afford. Look at supplementing his food with Vibrant Pets so you know your pet is getting all the vitamins, minerals, and probiotics he needs for a long, healthy life. Don’t rely on food alone to keep your dog strong and fit – daily exercise and regular vet visits are also important components for a long, healthy life.