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Nutrition Primer
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Lessons in Healthy Eating
A primer on nutrition and label reading.
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One of the most important and challenging decisions we make as pet guardians is what to feed our dogs. Providing them with a wholesome diet is vital to maintaining their good health and quality of life, so it is incumbent on us to be well informed about their nutritional needs and how best to fulfill them.

There are more choices than ever these days when it comes to top-quality commercial foods, not to mention the wide array of forms the food comes in — kibble, canned, semi-moist, dehydrated, raw. Plus, home-prepared meals are becoming increasingly popular, with many people either supplementing commercial foods or replacing them entirely with meals they cook. However, the convenience and ease of feeding a commercial diet keep these foods at the front of the pack. This is all the more reason to learn how to differentiate among the product choices.

There are two things to keep in mind when you’re deciding which diet is best for your dog: First, every dog is an individual, so what one might thrive on could be an allergen to another. Second, high-quality (organic preferred), fresh ingredients trump all other factors. When we prepare food in our own kitchen from ingredients that we’ve selected, it’s fairly easy to control the quality. But how can we know about the quality of the ingredients in commercial pet foods? It starts with deciphering a pet food label.

What’s on (and in) a bag of dog food?
Reading the label on a package of pet food can be an exasperating exercise. Although all labels must include certain elements, finding out where these items appear and what they mean can be difficult. Even skilled nutritional experts like Marion Nestle admit that reading a petfood label “is no simple task … and hardly anyone can make sense of them.”

Another issue is how these elements are identified. Nutritional standards for the production of pet food are set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This nongovernmental group is made up of state and federal representatives as well as people directly involved in the pet-food industry. This means that people who manufacture pet food have a voice in establishing not only pet-food standards but also most of the label requirements and feed-trial protocols. Though the FDA, a federal regulatory agency, sets rules for three of the label items, its oversight of petfood production is still very limited. As we learned during the 2007 recall, the FDA could not order companies to recall products containing melamine-tainted ingredients. (Sadly, it still doesn’t have recall power.)

AAFCO’s Nutrient Profiles list the minimum amounts (and minimum is the operative word here) of nutrients required by pets. The group recognizes only two canine feeding stages: adult dog maintenance and “growth and reproduction.” So, unless they’re puppies or lactating females, all dogs fall into the “adult maintenance” category regardless of their age, health status or level of physical activity.

Labeling
There are two components to a pet-food label: marketing and informational. The former is intended to convince you that the product inside the bag or can is the best and tastiest. The content of the latter is, for the most part, dictated by the FDA and AAFCO. These guidelines specify the major components:

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More in Nutrition Primer:
Toppings
Treats
What's on (and in) a bag of dog food?
Pet Obesity
Dry-Matter Basics
Important Vitamins and Minerals for Your Dog
Canine Nutrition Basics