When selecting a new dog food, take a few moments to read and compare the label claims on a variety of different brands. You may notice two things. First, many of the claims are identical, making it impossible to differentiate one brand of food from another in a meaningful way. Popular and frequently used claims promote a food’s natural properties (labels are overrun with these), as well as inclusion and exclusion of various components. Many of these claims are either not helpful at all or of limited aid in the pet food selection process.
Second, you will also notice a proliferation of health-related claims (just as you see more of these on many human foods). Commercially available dog foods not only make the hefty assertion of providing complete and balanced nutrition for your dog’s stage of life (or even for all of his stages of life), they also may purport to do the following: boost your dog’s immune system, keep his joints healthy and mobile, slow the signs of aging, support his cognitive function, keep his waistline trim, make him smarter (if he is a puppy), and promote efficient digestion.
Here is some information about certain types of label claims that can help you differentiate among brands as you review labels and evaluate foods, as well as additional information that, at least in my humble opinion, should be included on pet food labels but rarely is (a girl can dream, can’t she?).
Inclusion claims are declarations that the food contains a desirable ingredient or nutrient. If you are selecting a dog food based upon an interest in a particular set of ingredients, these claims can be helpful, provided your reasons are sound and evidence-based. This is a significant prerequisite, of course, and one that is often ignored by dog owners and pet food companies alike. Unfortunately, a substantial number of the “We have it cuz it’s good” and the “We don’t have it cuz it’s bad” claims are marketing responses to current feeding fads that are designed to sell more food rather than to impart knowledge or support healthful choices.
Inclusion claims that can be helpful to consumers are those that identify specific types of protein or carbohydrate sources, the type of fat and fatty acids in the food (e.g., inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil), the inclusion of organically grown plant ingredients or humanely produced animal-source ingredients, and the inclusion of locally or regionally sourced ingredients.
Inclusion claims that are less helpful in differentiating among products are those that make claims about the food containing antioxidants (all processed dry foods must include antioxidants to prevent rancidity), essential vitamins and minerals (again, they’ve all got ’em), or “Contains fiber for gastrointestinal health” (a balanced and complete diet should contain fiber, usually about 3 to 6 percent, so this doesn’t help you differentiate between good and not-so-good foods).
Claims of exclusion can be particularly difficult to interpret and decipher, given the rapidity with which new dietary theories, fads and health-promoting practices arrive on the market and the fervor with which certain ingredients are denigrated. Unfortunately, pet food manufacturers exacerbate these trends expressly to boost sales. When enough dog owners begin to believe a common ingredient is harmful, manufacturers respond by making label claims that their food is free of the targeted ingredient, which, via circular reasoning, appears to confirm that the ingredient is harmful.
As a rule of thumb, new feeding trends, most of which have little or no scientific evidence, arrive on the scene in the pet food market a few years after they show up in the human marketplace. Recent examples include the Atkins Diet (high protein, low carbohydrate dog foods); gluten-free diets (gluten- and grain-free pet foods); probiotics in yogurt (as supplements and incorporated into dog foods); and one unique to pet foods, the “no fillers” claim, an essentially nonsensical term.