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What To Look For In Dog Food: Checking Ingredients Is More Complicated Than You Thought

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Mary Nielsen

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What To Look For In Dog Food

A great start

Be honest, do you know what to look for in dog food?

Great dog food starts with species-appropriate ingredients that won’t hurt your pet.

Whether dry, canned, raw, dehydrated, or homemade, the quality of any dog food rests on the excellence of its ingredients. These are often difficult to find, first because quality ingredients often increase the cost of the dog food, and secondly because dog food packaging is notoriously confusing.

Besides that, there are several ongoing debates in the world of canine nutrition, making it challenging to identify which ingredients are a healthy part of your dog’s diet and which ones could harm them.

Let’s try to make this a little bit easier by pointing out which ingredients do and don’t belong in your dog’s food, decoding the language of the label, and discussing which types of dog food are best for your pet.

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Which ingredients don’t belong anywhere near your dog’s bowl?

Artificial Colors

A common offender in dog food is artificial colors. These ingredients are used solely to make the food more appealing for humans and do nothing for your dog other than potentially cause harm. Banned in multiple European countries, the artificial dyes yellow #5 and red #40 have been linked to ADHD in children.

Artificial Preservatives

Artificial preservatives such as Ethoxyquin, BHA, and BHT have been linked to multiple serious health issues, like cancer, skin problems, and organ disease.

What To Look For In Dog Food: Checking Ingredients Is More Complicated Than You Thought 1

Artificial flavors

Commonly added to dry dog food, artificial flavors are made from enzymatically liquefied or hydrolyzed animal tissue that’s sprayed on the food to give it more appetite appeal. Because this spray is made from by-products, this artificial ingredient could add any number of unknown meats into your dog’s food. For conscientious dog guardians who want to know what’s going into their pet’s body, this is unacceptable.

Corn, Soy, and Wheat

While it’s unclear whether or not these ingredients are consistently harmful, the general consensus is that they’re not the best choice for dogs, who are often sensitive to these ingredients and regularly exhibit allergic reactions to them.

While dogs can and do process grains and other carbohydrates, these ingredients are often hard on their digestive tracts, causing bloating, gas, and even an increased amount of smelly stool. Wheat is one of the most common allergens affecting dogs. Additionally, these high-carbohydrate foods are an especially poor choice for dogs who have or are at risk of developing diabetes.

Corn, soy, and wheat are often used as cheap fillers or binders and add minimal nutritional value to the food. Higher-quality dry dog foods use more nutritious binders like potatoes or chickpeas to hold the kibble together.

Here’s an example of the ingredient list of a dry dog food that’s packed with fillers:

Corn, soybean meal, beef and bone meal, ground wheat flour, animal fat – bha used as preservative, corn syrup, wheat middlings

Aside from the other flaws of this formula (sweetening, an artificial preservative, unspecified animal fat), four of the first six ingredients are nutritionally devoid fillers.

What To Look For In Dog Food: Checking Ingredients Is More Complicated Than You Thought 2

The first six ingredients of a high-quality dry dog food look more like this:

Deboned beef, deboned pork, beef meal, whole green peas, red lentils, pinto beans


Some dog foods contain sweeteners that make the food taste better for your dog. These sweeteners are unnecessary and high-glycemic, making them a particularly poor choice for dogs with diabetes. A high-quality dog food doesn’t require corn syrup or other sweeteners to make it palatable.


This thickening agent, which is extracted from red algae or seaweed, has a long and well-documented reputation for accelerating cancer formation when consumed along with a carcinogen. You’ll often find this natural ingredient as a gravy thickener in canned dog foods.

Recall History and Regulation

Remember the 2007 pet food recalls?

In March of that year, veterinary organizations reported over 100 deaths associated with contaminated food. The discovery of melamine, a chemical used to manufacture plastic products, in China-sourced pet food, lead to the recall of over 5,300 pet food products from multiple major companies.

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Following the import alert on these Chinese products, the FDA revealed for the first time that they had received at least 2,200 reports of dogs dying after consuming contaminated food, although only 14 of those reports had been confirmed.

With this incident fresh in our memories, it’s obvious how important it is to ensure that our dogs’ food is properly inspected and regulated according to stringent standards. While products made in the USA do come under closer inspection than those in some other countries, US-sourced products are not guaranteed to be safe.

It’s important to know the history of the brand from which you’re buying. A history of repeated recalls, a bad reputation with customers, or a record of false labeling indicates that the company isn’t the best source of food for your dog.

Read Also: Dog Food Recalls

Decoding the Labels

reading label

Knowing what makes a great dog food doesn’t serve much of a purpose if you can’t identify that food in the store.

Learning to decode labeling is half the challenge of finding a great dog food. Labels often intentionally obfuscate the truth about the integrity of the ingredients behind the package.

“Chunky dog food with beef. Filet mignon flavor. Chicken & sweet potato”

On the surface, the above dog food names look like little more than appetizing labels – but in reality, each title reveals a lot about the ingredients and quality of the food within.

While marketing has a lot to do with how these products are labeled, packaging requirements also play a major role. These rules necessitate such specific names as “beef flavor” and “chicken dinner”.

Let’s see what these names really mean:

  • Foods claiming to be “beef”, “chicken”, or “pork”, for example, are required to be comprised of at least 70% beef, chicken, or pork, respectively.
  • If that meat title is followed up with something like “entree”, “dinner”, or “platter”, that meat only has to make up at least 10% of the entire product.
  • Foods that claim to be made “with” the meat, like our “chunky dog food with beef” mentioned above, are only required to contain at least 3% of the specified meat.
  • And foods with names like “filet mignon flavor” only have to have enough of the named meat to offer some flavor. There’s no required minimum percentage associated with this name, but it will likely be less than 3% of the entire product.

What is “meat” and “animal”?

Some ingredient lists don’t call the meat by name. Instead, you’ll see ingredients like “meat”, “poultry meal”, and “animal by-products”. As you can imagine, these generic labels could refer to any number of different types of meat ingredients.

These ingredients have sometimes gotten a worse reputation than necessary. They are regulated and won’t include things like hooves, fecal matter, or hair. They include beneficial organ meat that may look and sound disgusting to humans but is ultimately a healthy choice for your dog.

That said, non-specific meats could come from any number of different animals. Non-specific protein sources are a risky choice, especially for dogs with sensitivities to certain meats.

Ideally, look for dog food with named proteins. Some examples of these specifically named proteins are: “beef”, “chicken meal”, “turkey”, “turkey liver”, and “eggs”.

Complete and Balanced

Here’s another phrase on dog food packaging that tells a story about the food within: any food labeled as “complete and balanced” has been approved by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). It’s certified as a nutritionally complete food. It’s safe to give your dog this food for every meal.

Premium, Organic, and Natural

Foods labeled as premium, gourmet, or ultra-premium may be a perfectly good choice for your dog, but the label doesn’t mean anything other than that the manufacturer wants you purchase their product. There’s no official regulation on the use of this word on dog food packaging.

Products labeled as “natural” must, according to FDA guidelines, not contain any food ingredients that have been chemically altered.

The organic label is more meaningful. According to the USDA’s National Organic Program, any product labeled as organic must be “produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.”

Organic, natural, premium, and holistic foods all vary in quality, so the ingredient list is always the most important indicator of how healthy a dog food actually is.

What To Look For In Dog Food: Checking Ingredients Is More Complicated Than You Thought 3

What is the best type of dog food?

Great dog food comes in many different forms. Here are some of the pros and cons of each type of dog food available.

Dry Kibble

This type of food is popular for a reason: it’s cheap, convenient, and dogs tend to love it. You can easily find low-quality dry dog food that’s packed with artificial dyes, preservatives, sweeteners, and fillers, but kibble can also be nutrient-rich and filler-free.


  • Super convenient – it’s easy to store and serve
  • Doesn’t spoil easily and requires no refrigeration
  • Often more affordable than other types of dog food
  • Comes ready to eat


  • More processed than other types of dog food
  • Typically contains fillers
  • Low in moisture
  • High carbohydrate content can be bad for your dog’s teeth


Water is an important part of your dog’s diet, and wet food delivers high moisture content that helps to keep them healthy. Because it doesn’t require binders, wet dog food can offer lower carbohydrate content than dry food, which is good for dogs with diabetes or who are sensitive to plant matter like potatoes, corn, and rice.


  • High in moisture
  • Easy to eat – especially important for dogs with bad teeth
  • Comes ready to eat and requires minimal preparation


  • Requires refrigeration
  • Demands specific feeding times and can’t be left out all day
What To Look For In Dog Food: Checking Ingredients Is More Complicated Than You Thought 4


The drying process packs in the nutrients and enzymes that are destroyed during the cooking process, while giving the food a longer shelf life, killing pathogens, and making it more convenient to serve.


  • A minimally processed form of dog food
  • Offers maximum nutrition from food with integrity
  • More convenient than raw or homemade food


  • Rehydration can take several minutes
  • You can’t leave this food out all day


Raw food approximates your dog’s natural ancestral diet by allowing them to eat nutritionally complete food of the kind they might find in nature, including muscle and organ meat, bones, and fresh fruit and vegetables.


  • Raw meaty bones are good for your dog’s dental health
  • A close approximation of your dog’s ancestral diet
  • Raw food retains its nutritional integrity


  • Requires careful preparation to avoid illness for dogs and humans
  • Not convenient for those who aren’t at home with their dog at mealtimes


Whether raw or cooked, a homemade diet allows you to choose exactly which ingredients you’d like to go into your dog’s meals. It’s great for those who are very well-read on canine nutrition or who have expert-recommended recipes. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to give your dog an imbalanced diet.


  • Allows you to choose exactly what goes into your dog’s body
  • You can use whole, minimally-processed ingredients
  • Preparing food for your dog can be a bonding experience


  • Requires serious research to get it right
  • Time-consuming – typically not a good choice for people on the go
  • A high risk of offering your dog an improperly balanced diet
What To Look For In Dog Food: Checking Ingredients Is More Complicated Than You Thought 5

Can dogs eat table scraps?

The first commercial dog food wasn’t introduced until around 1860, when James Spratt brought the first dog biscuit to England. Prior to that time, most dogs shared food with their people, subsisting on table scraps and anything else they could scavenge.

The commercialization of dog food provided incentive for the de-popularization of feeding scraps whatsoever. In reality, however, feeding your dog “people food” is a nuanced issue. It can be either good or bad, depending on what you feed your dog.

Many human foods are toxic to dogs and a diet comprised entirely of scraps probably won’t offer complete and balanced nutrition. That said, occasional scraps and other human food, when properly selected, can make a healthy addition to your dog’s diet.

Healthy “people foods” include:

  • Unseasoned meats (no cooked bones) – chicken, beef, pork, duck, and other meat
  • Cooked eggs
  • Yogurt
  • Honey
  • Peanut butter
  • Fish
Food toxic to dogs

Foods that you shouldn’t let your dog eat:

  • Avocados
  • Chocolate
  • Alcohol
  • Any sugar-free food – xylitol is highly toxic to dogs
  • Grapes and raisins
  • Onions and garlic
  • Macadamia nuts and almonds
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The Characteristics of a Great Dog Food

Regardless of which type of dog food you choose, the first several ingredients should be real meat from named sources. After that, any plant material should be nutritionally-packed and appropriate for your dog.

The food should be free of anything artificial and any unspecified meats.

Since you’ll typically feed your dog only one food for all of their meals, it’s important that the food you buy is a complete and balanced source of nutrition. Check the labeling to ensure that the food is a nutritionally-comprehensive diet.

Finding the Right Food for Your Dog

Depending on your dog’s size, age, and any medical conditions, their dietary needs may vary. Besides that, it’s important to find a food that your dog loves to eat. Finding the right food for your dog is a matter of experimentation, close monitoring, and an understanding of your dog’s unique needs.

What To Look For In Dog Food: Checking Ingredients Is More Complicated Than You Thought 6

Life Stages

Dogs’ dietary needs can fluctuate as they age.

Large-breed puppies like Great Danes and Mastiffs, for example, require a calcium-controlled diet. For these puppies, too much calcium can lead to developmental orthopedic disease. All puppies require a higher feeding frequency than adult dogs.


While generally speaking, different breeds don’t have unique dietary needs, your dog’s nutritional requirements could vary based on their size. A chihuahua naturally requires smaller kibble than a Saint Bernard.

Health Conditions and Allergies

If your dog has any medical conditions, it’s recommended that you consult your veterinarian to determine which food is best for their unique situation.

Keep a record of your dog’s reactions to each different dog food, noting any increase in itching and scratching associated with a specific ingredient. A journal will also help you to note any other changes – increased energy with a grain-free food, better dental health after switching to raw, or weight gain after switching to a high-fat diet.

Here’s an informative video on choosing the best dog food:

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