Cracking the Code: How to Read Pet Food Labels and Make Informed Choices

Cracking the Code: How to Read Pet Food Labels and Make Informed Choices

As a veterinarian, I understand the profound impact that proper nutrition can have on our pets. It's not just about providing sustenance; it's about ensuring their well-being and health. That's why it's essential to pay close attention to what you're feeding your cat.

Today, I'm thrilled to guide you through the intricate world of pet food labels so you can make informed choices for your four-legged family members.

Pet food labels are your gateway to understanding what goes into your pet's diet. But deciphering these labels can be a challenge, with all the terminology and information presented. Fear not, though – I'm here to simplify it all for you.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll dive deep into the art of reading a pet food label, equipping you with the knowledge you need to make wise dietary decisions for your pets.

Let's begin!

The Truth Behind Pet Food Labels 

The label is more than just a pretty design; When you get in front of the shelf at the supermarket, what you see is only a tinny portion of what products contain. In fact, you only see the part that brands want you to see.

What brands don't want you to see

Luckily, the label doesn't stop at the front of the pack, the part you see in stores. There are rules and regulations that brands must follow. Labels are a vital communication tool between pet food manufacturers and pet owners like you.

The pet food industry is subject to specific regulations and guidelines set forth by regulatory bodies, such as the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These regulations are in place to ensure that pet food manufacturers provide accurate and transparent information on their labels.

On a pet food label, you'll find details such as the brand name, product name, ingredient list, guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy statement, feeding guidelines, etc. Each of these components plays a crucial role in helping you make informed decisions about your pet's nutrition.

Let’s dig a little bit into each on these sections!

The Front of Pack

The front of pack generally includes the things that will make us grab a product from the shelf.

Let's take a look out our single-ingredient cat treats:

Feastfuls, Single Ingredient Cat Treats

The brand (Feastfuls), product's name (Freeze Dried Chicken), who is the product for (Cat Treats) and claims to make the product more appealing (100% Chicken), or (Treats as Nature Intended).

While this information is great, it often says very little about the product itself.

There's a huge amount of information on the back of pack that you'll be able to understand after reading this article. It's EASY!

The process is symple:

  1. Check for BAD Ingredients (they are easy to find and once you spot them, you can stop reading, that product doesn't belong in your home)
  2. Check the ADECUACY of the product (what % of each nutritional value does the product provide, you only really need 3)
  3. Check for QUALITY of the ingredients (some ingredients look the same but are not, and you'll learn here how to differenciate the good from the bad)

Let's dig in!

Interpreting Pet Food Ingredients for Better Health

The ingredient list on a pet food label provides vital insights into the composition of the food and can help you determine if it's the right choice for your pet.

Ingredients on a pet food label are listed in descending order by weight, with the most predominant ingredient first. This means that the first ingredient listed is the most abundant ingredient in the food, and subsequent ingredients decrease in quantity. Pay close attention to the top few ingredients, as they make up the majority of what your pet will consume.

See these examples below:

Healthy Ingredient List

Take a look on the following label as an example:

Understand cat food label

Green flags: A named meat source as the first ingredient is generally a positive sign of a quality pet food. The law doesn’t force companies to detail the type of meat or meat parts, however, the companies that detail this in the labels voluntarily is a sign of transparency.

Not-so-Healthy Ingredient List

Now take a look at this other one. See the difference?

unhealthy cat food

Red Flags: Be cautious with ingredients like corn, wheat, or soy, which do not provide high quality nutritional value to the food. Additionally, look out for by-products, which are secondary animal parts (like viscera or bones) and may not be as high in quality as the primary protein source. 

The Whole Story on Meat, Meal, and By-Products: What's Really in Your Pet's Food?

Dive deep into the reality of meat, meal, and by-products in your pet's food, understanding their origins, processing, and how they affect your pet's diet.

The AAFCO defines these concepts as follows:

  • “Meat”: Meat is the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to the part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh.

These are the most nutritious animal parts for cats. So, always try to maximize the content of meat in your cat’s diet.

  • “Meat by-products”: Meat by-products are the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, and stomachs and intestines free of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth, or hoofs.

In the case of poultry by-products, it consists of the ground, clean parts of the carcass of poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, viscera, and whole carcasses, exclusive of added feathers.

Try to avoid by-products in your cat diet, because these animal parts have poorer nutritional value than meat!

These concepts can be accompanied by the term “Meal”. Meat or Meat by-products Meal is a the same as described before but dry rendered.

BONUS TIP! Pay attention to “fresh ingredients”. Fresh ingredients contain a high percentage of water, and they are not very rich in proteins or other nutrients. Named meat meals, such as "chicken meat meal" or "lamb meat meal," can be beneficial in pet food. These meals are concentrated sources of protein because they've had their moisture removed, which can make them a more concentrated source of high-quality proteins than fresh meat alone. When you see named meat meals listed on a pet food label, it's a positive indication of higher protein content.

Comparing Pet Foods: Using Guaranteed Analysis to Make Better Choices

What is the Guaranteed Analysis?

The guaranteed analysis is a crucial section of the pet food label that provides essential information about the nutritional composition of the food. It offers insights into the minimum and maximum levels of specific nutrients within the product.

Key Components to Look For (Protein, Fat, Fiber, Moisture)

When reviewing the guaranteed analysis, focus on four primary components:

  • Crude Protein: Protein is the building block of muscle and plays a vital role in overall health. Look for a protein percentage that aligns with your pet's life stage and activity level.
According to Hand, Thatcher, Remillard, Roudebush, and Novotny in the book Small Animal Clinical Nutrition (2010), for healthy animals as dry matter basis:
    • Growth & Reproduction: 35-50%
    • Adult: 30-45%
    • Crude Fat: Fat is a concentrated source of energy and provides essential fatty acids. It's crucial for coat health and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

    According to Hand, Thatcher, Remillard, Roudebush, and Novotny in the book Small Animal Clinical Nutrition (2010), for healthy animals as dry matter basis:

    • Growth & Reproduction: 18-35%
    • Adult: 10-30%
    •  Crude Fiber: Dietary fiber aids in digestion and can help prevent certain gastrointestinal issues.

     According to Hand, Thatcher, Remillard, Roudebush, and Novotny in the book Small Animal Clinical Nutrition (2010), for healthy animals as dry matter basis:

    • Growth & Reproduction: <5%
    • Adult: <5%
    • Moisture: Moisture content is especially relevant for wet or canned pet foods. It indicates the amount of water in the food and can impact your pet's hydration. Don’t miss our article The Importance of Water Intake if you want to master the important topic of hydration for cats.

    These are the mandatory nutrients to be displayed on the label. However, the companies can voluntarily declare the content of other nutrients into this section of the label.

    How do you check carbohydrates in cat food?

    May you be wondering… And carbohydrates? Why are they not listed on the guaranteed analysis for some cat products?

    Among the most elusive pieces of this puzzle are carbohydrates, a key nutrient that, surprisingly, doesn't always make its way onto the guaranteed analysis section of pet food labels.

    Carbohydrates are not listed on the guaranteed analysis for cat products primarily due to regulatory reasons and the way pet food nutritional content is required to be displayed.

    The guaranteed analysis on pet food labels is mandated to include four key components: crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and moisture. These requirements are set by regulatory bodies, such as the AAFCO and the FDA in the United States, which establishes guidelines for pet food labeling to ensure that products meet minimum nutritional standards for the intended species.

    But carbohydrates are a group of nutrients that have a huge implication in cat health, and they are not declared in the labels.

    We can easily calculate their content from the information we already have, as follows:

    Carbohydrates % = 100 - moisture % - crude protein % - crude fat % - crude fiber %

    PRO TIP: Try to keep as low as possible the percentage of carbohydrates in your kitty’s diet since they are not essential nutrients for cats.

    Comparable Nutrients: Values on Dry Matter Basis

    The values of the guaranteed analysis are expressed as fed basis. So, in order to control if these values are adapted to your pet needs and in order to compare the nutritional composition of different products, you have to transform these values to dry basis (DM basis).

    I explain how to do it in one simple step:

    (% of nutrient in the label) * 100) / (100 - moisture %)

    Let’s try to put this calculus in practice using the following label:

    Guaranteed Analysis Meaning

    The crude protein percentage on dry matter basis of this product will be:

    (40% * 100) / (100 - 12) = 45.45%

    And proceeding in the same way we obtain the values of crude fat and crude fiber being 15.34% and 2.84%, respectively.

    Moreover, the carbohydrates content will be:

    Carbohydrate % = 100 – 12 – 40 – 13.5 – 2.5 = 32%

    Understanding Calorie Content

    From crude protein, crude fat and crude carbohydrates it is possible to determine other very important information: The calorie content, which is normally expressed by Metabolic Energy (ME).

    At this point, you probably are thinking what is ME?

    Let’s dig a little bit into that concept.

    Metabolic energy, or metabolizable energy, is a concept used in nutrition and physiology to describe the energy available to an organism from its food after accounting for energy losses during digestion, absorption, and metabolism.

    The statement of the calorie content in the labels is mandatory and it is expressed as kcal per kg of product or unit of product. This value expresses the energy density of the food.

    Lowering the energy density of the food of your cat can be an effective strategy for the prevention and treatment of obesity without impairing the ingestion of other nutrients.

    Not sure if your cat is in its ideal weight? Take a look on our article Is Your Cat Fat? Start a Weight Loss Journey! to evaluate its corporal condition.

    When Food is Intended for Supplemental Use Only

    The Nutritional Adequacy Statement, often referred to as the AAFCO statement, is a crucial aspect of a pet food label that provides vital information about the food's suitability for your pet's dietary needs.

    The AAFCO statement typically reads something like "This product is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage]." This statement signifies that pet food has been formulated to meet the nutritional standards set by AAFCO for a particular life stage.

    What "Complete and Balanced" Means

    When you see the term "complete and balanced" on a pet food label, it indicates that the food contains all the essential nutrients your pet needs to thrive within their specific life stage, as defined by AAFCO. These nutrients include proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals, all in the appropriate proportions.

    To ensure you're selecting the right food for your pet, pay close attention to the life stage mentioned in the AAFCO statement. Different life stages have varying nutritional requirements, and it's vital to choose a food that aligns with your pet's age and development stage.

    Tailoring Portions to Meet Individual Needs

    Feeding guidelines offer recommendations on how much to feed your pet. While it might be tempting to eyeball portion sizes, following these guidelines can have a significant impact on your pet's health and well-being. Here's why they matter:

    • Proper Nutrition: Feeding guidelines are designed to provide your pet with the right balance of nutrients, ensuring they receive the necessary vitamins, minerals, and energy.
    • Weight Management: Following recommended portions helps prevent overfeeding or underfeeding, which can lead to weight issues, such as obesity or malnutrition.

    Although feeding guidelines are a valuable starting point, it's essential to recognize that each pet is unique. If you don’t feel confident in this aspect, ask your veterinarian to tailor the daily portion to your cat specific needs.

    Now that you already know the “how much”, jump to our article Best Time to Feed Cats: A Comprehensive Guide to Feeding Cats to understand the “when” about the feeding guidelines.

    Common Labeling Tricks and Pitfalls

    Misleading Marketing Terms (Natural, Organic, Human grade)

    Pet food labels can sometimes be a minefield of marketing jargon, and it's essential to be discerning when encountering terms like "natural," "organic," or "human grade". While these words may sound appealing, they can be misleading.

    Here's what to keep in mind, according to AAFCO regulation:

    • Natural: The term "natural" implies a food derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolisis or fermentation, but not having been produced or subject to chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as may occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.
    • Organic: Only pet food which is produced and handled in accordance with human organic regulation may display organic label claims. There are three labelling categories: “100% organic”, “Organic”, “Made with organic [specified ingredients or food groups]”, which have to be certified to display these claims.

    Products that are not certified only can identify the certified organic ingredients as organic in the ingredient statement list and the percentage of organic ingredients on the information panel.

    • Human Grade: Claims that a product contains or is made from ingredients that are “human grade”, “human quality”, “people foods”, “ingredients you would eat”, “foods that you would feed your family,” or similar claims are false and misleading unless the entire product itself meets the standards for foods to be edible by humans.

    Understanding "Flavor" Claims

    Labels often feature phrases like "chicken flavor" or "beefy taste," which can be misleading. These terms indicate that the food is formulated to taste like a particular ingredient, but they don't necessarily mean that ingredient is a significant part of the food's composition. The flavoring could come from a minimal amount of the mentioned ingredient or even artificial additives.

    To ensure your pet is getting the desired protein source, check the ingredient list for named meats or meat meals rather than relying solely on flavor claims.

    Identifying Hidden Additives and Preservatives

    Pet food manufacturers may use additives and preservatives to enhance shelf life and maintain product quality. While some additives are safe and necessary, others may be less desirable.

    Keep an eye out for common additives like BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), as well as artificial colors and flavors. These ingredients may have potential health implications for some pets. Opt for foods with fewer artificial additives or seek out natural preservatives like tocopherols (vitamin E).

    Scrutinizing the ingredient list can help you identify hidden additives and preservatives and make informed choices that align with your pet's nutritional requirements.

    Label Comparison: Real Example of Label Comparison

    Now that we've covered the fundamentals of reading a pet food label and understanding common pitfalls, it's time to put our knowledge into practice.

    In this section, we'll conduct a side-by-side comparison of the labels of two different pet food products.

    This exercise will help you see how the principles we've discussed play out in real-life scenarios:


    Product A


    Product B


    A B

    Ingredient list

    The first ingredient is a by-product.

    It contains vegetable ingredients.

    The first 4 ingredients are meat.

    It doesn’t contain vegetable ingredients.

    Guaranteed analysis

    First, we transform the values to DM basis according to the previous steps:

    Crude protein: 57.89%

    Crude fat: 10%

    Crude fiber: 10%

    Then we calculate the carbohydrates content as described previously:

    Carbohydrates: 4.2%

    First, we transform the values to DM basis according to the previous steps:

    Crude protein: 70%

    Crude fat: 20%

    Crude fiber: 2.5%

    Then we calculate the carbohydrates content as described previously:

    Carbohydrates: 1.5%

    Calorie content

    Lower calorie content

    Higher calorie content


    Lower quality product

    Better quality product



    Congratulations! You've successfully navigated the intricacies of pet food labels, gaining the knowledge and tools necessary to make well-informed choices for your beloved furry companion. Throughout this comprehensive guide, we've covered essential aspects of pet food labels, from understanding the basics to decoding ingredient lists, analyzing guaranteed analysis, and spotting common labeling tricks.

    Remember that your pet relies on you for their nutrition and well-being. Continue to be vigilant when selecting their food, and always consult with your veterinarian for personalized dietary recommendations, especially if your pet has specific health considerations or dietary restrictions.

    Should you have any further questions or require more guidance in the future, don't hesitate to contact us or return to this guide as a valuable resource.

    Thank you for being a dedicated and caring pet owner, and may your furry friend enjoy many wonderful meals ahead!


    Neus Torrent

    Veterinarian & Animal Nutritionist

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