Flip the Bag Over: What Do Pet Food Labels Really Say?

*The views expressed in this presentation are my own and do no not reflect those of companies I have worked with.

Scientific Claims 101

There are several different packaging claim types. One such type is puffery. Puffery is a claim that has no scientific support, such as “protein rich” or “high quality.” Another claim is structure function, like “helps support strong bones.” This is a literature-based scientific claim but is not species specific.

A common claim type used is “clinically tested or shown.” This type of claim requires one test that demonstrates a positive outcome. This could be a simple digestibility study. The claim “clinically proven” requires two or more tests that demonstrate the same positive outcome.

Foods with “drug-like” claims such as “maintains urinary tract health, hairball control, and low magnesium” require pre-market approval while foods with medical indications must be veterinary prescribed. FDA-regulated drug claims need FDA drug approval.

Animal Raising

There are many pets in a cage looking attentively to the side, hens and roosters close-up on a poultry farm with a platform for walking in the fresh air

Cage free does not mean that the animals have access to the outdoors or adequate spaces. They can be group housed in one building with insufficient or inadequate space.

Farm raised does not mean that the animal you are sourcing is humanely raised or meets any other animal raising claims. Farm raised chickens can live in cages, never see daylight, and can be raised on factory farms.

Farm-fed animals means exactly that: They were fed on a farm. This is true for all animals, whether it is a factory farm or a small family farm. Farm fresh or fresh caught is not an indicator of better quality, nor is it an indicator of how the animal is raised.


ingredients oat, meat, zucchini, broccoli, carrot for pet food natural on white background.

In general, I like to oversimplify the definition of natural. Think of it as taking a whole ingredient (e.g., a pea), processing (drying) and separating (e.g., grinding and air classifying) it to produce two individual ingredients (e.g., pea protein and pea starch). Conversely, synthetic processes involve reactions that build up or produce a new unique ingredient (A+B=C). For example, reacting sulfuric acid with phosphate rock produces phosphoric acid.

Flip the Bag Over

The key is to not judge a book by its cover. Don’t fall for the “romance copy” like “high quality ingredients, high quality protein, healthy complex carbohydrates.” These are all examples of marketing hype and do not describe the actual ingredients in the food.

Claims and benefits like “strong bones and teeth” or “healthy skin and coat” are “structure function” claims meaning that literature supports the claims but not the testing of the actual food. These claims are not species specific.

Stuff That Matters

Be sure that you are ignoring the marketing tactics on the front of the bag, and, instead, flipping the bag over to look at the information that matters when determining the quality of the food. Look specifically at the ingredients, nutrients, nutrition adequacy statement, and the feeding guidelines. Examining the ingredients and determining which are protein sources, carbohydrate sources, vitamins and minerals, and preservatives can also help determine the quality of the food. If a food claims to be “high protein,” but the carbohydrates account for the majority of ingredients in the food, that should give you pause about the quality of protein. Ultimately, diving deeper into the important information enables you to make a better and more educated decision about what food to feed your pets.



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