dog diets

Reading to decipher dog food ingredients

I bought kibble yesterday.


I never buy it, but for various reasons we needed some and I wanted a conventional kibble, not a grain-free one (when I am buying grain-free I get Orijen). I wanted the conventional kibble with the most meat.

Here are the first few ingredients of the three brands we looked at:

1) Brand A: Duck, Chicken Meal, Chicken, Brown Rice, Pearled Barley, Oatmeal, Menhaden Fish Meal

2) Brand B: Deboned Chicken, Deboned Whitefish, Chicken Meal, Oatmeal, Ground Peas, Ground Barley

3) Brand C: Chicken meal, brown rice, white rice, rice bran, cracked pearled barley, peas

OK, so which one did I buy?

If I say C, does that surprise you? Because that’s what I bought.

Here’s why: The protein levels in the three kibbles were 24%, 24%, and 26%, respectively. Meat all by itself, in a dried form, is about 40%-50% protein, depending on the species. Brown rice is 7.5% protein. So the further you get away from that 40-50 amount, the lower the meat content.

The 26% protein kibble, which is the one with the fewest named meat ingredients, is actually the one with the most meat.

What gives?

The trick is to know the names. The AAFCO, which is the body that governs how dog food ingredients can be listed, distinguishes between the meat and the meat’s “meal.” When a company includes a meat with no word after it, that means they weighed it raw and wet, right off the animal. When the word “meal” is used, it means the meat has been cooked, dried, and ground.

The raw product is always going to weigh more than the cooked and dried product, but they’re weighing water. Make no mistake, they’re going to have to make that raw stuff into its “meal” before they can extrude it into kibble – it’s not like the dog isn’t getting the mealed form of it, and there’s no advantage to not buying something labeled meal. Leaving off the word meal just lets them put the meat higher on the ingredient list.

All three of these kibbles, by the way, are good ones. I’m not knocking A and B. I have, however, had several people tell me that brand C wasn’t a good kibble, because there were so few meat ingredients. But comparing the protein levels shows that it’s not true.

There are a ton of reasons to pick different kibbles, and I don’t want anybody to go rush out and buy brand C all of a sudden. What I want to point out is that you can’t stop after you read the list of ingredients. You need to compare them with the analysis of the protein (and, for some brands, the fat, though in this case that was not nearly as helpful because it didn’t follow the same progression as the protein – brand A was 16% fat, B was 11% fat, and C was 15% fat) to know what you’re actually looking at. If your kibble has a ton of fancy ingredients but a low protein level (21 or 22% is common), it’s pretty much guaranteed that in fact the greater proportion of the kibble is the grain ingredients.

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  • Reply TGIQ November 4, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Interesting…a question though…could some of the protein in C (or any of them for that matter) not be vegetable protein? How can we tell what proportion of the protein is meat-based vs veg-based?
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    • Reply rufflyspeaking November 4, 2010 at 1:34 pm

      Some of the protein is, of course. Every vegetable and every grain has some level of protein. But all food companies formulate things the same way – protein above the level of the grains (grain-only protein tends to be around 10% depending on the mixture – oats are around 14%, for example) is provided by meat sources. Super cheap and crappy foods use meat and bone meal, next up is a fish meal, next up is a chicken meal. I prefer to get foods based on chicken because I know it’s cheap. They’ll use it more freely, as a greater proportion of the protein source, because it’s inexpensive. That means a chicken kibble tends to be a better one – if you define better as more meat, less veg/grain – than ones that use other meats, especially the ones that use bragging-value meats like venison or beaver or emu or whatever.

  • Reply Allison Marion Butler November 4, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Great post! I used to work in an independent pet supply store and I spent all day switching people from grocery store foods to higher quality kibble. This is exactly what I used to tell them.

  • Reply Joanna Kimball November 4, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks, Allison :).

  • Reply Joanna Kimball November 4, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks, Allison :).

  • Reply Liz Powell November 4, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Do you have any recommendations for a dog who is very active, runs agility, but is prone to pancreatitis. it seems the things he needs for energy and stamina are the very things dogs prone to pancreatitis should avoid.

  • Reply Kristy Wiland November 5, 2010 at 4:17 am

    We feed raw. My Golden Winnie is allergic to corn and chicken. Our Vet is having us do an elimination diet, because she thinks Winnie is also allergic to beef. We can feed raw, but I have to give Winnie a non-typical protein. So, since I can’t afford to feed Winnie raw lamb, elk, or bison, we’ve sadly gone to feeding him kibble. I LOVE feeding him raw, but I’ll do what best for my dog. As a raw dog, his main protein source was chicken.

    So, I’m feeding my dog the Fromm Family kibble. Do you think this is good for him? My research shows that this is an excellent food for him. We’ve been doing this for a month, and giving him the nice raw meaty bone when we can manage.

    My question is this: if you can’t feed your dog chicken or beef, and he can’t deal with corn, what is a good kibble?

    I know you’ve no obligation to answer me, but it surely doesn’t hurt to ask,

    So, thanks in advance!

  • Reply Amy November 7, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Any chance you’d share the brand? I have to travel 90 miles for Orijen. I can’t make the trip today and ran out of kibble last night!

  • Reply Joanna November 7, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Amy– I got Canidae. Some people HATE Canidae but I’ve always had good results with it; I have a bunch of puppy people using it. I think the issues some have experienced are because their dogs don’t do well with mixed grains; mine have always done fine but I do watch closely.
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  • Reply Amy November 7, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Thank you, Joanna!

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