There’s been a flurry of attention paid to pet food packaging over the last few decades. Companies have become very good at marketing their brands. But let’s not lose sight of what’s really important — the ingredients inside that shiny, colorful, zip-sealed bag.

Pet Food Ingredients

Pet food contents are monitored by The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Foods labeled as ‘complete and balanced’ must meet one of two nutrient profiles or pass a feeding trial. While these guidelines are better than none at all, they don’t necessarily address the quality of the ingredients themselves. Some food companies combine filler proteins such as corn with vitamin packs to meet AAFCO requirements. In addition to whole meat proteins, you want to look for more real food vitamin sources like fruits and vegetables, and fewer manufactured supplements. Here’s a sample ingredient panel from a popular commercial pet food. We’ve highlighted some questionable ingredients. Remember that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.

Popular Commercial Brand Ingredient List:

Corn, Soybean Meal, Beef And Bone Meal, Ground Wheat Flour, Animal Fat (BHA used as a preservative), Corn Syrup, Wheat Middlings, Water sufficient for processing, Animal Digest (source of chicken flavor), Propylene Glycol, Salt, Hydrochloric Acid, Potassium Chloride, Caramel Color, Sorbic Acid (used as a preservative), Sodium Carbonate, Minerals (Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Oxide, Manganous Oxide, Copper Sulfate, Calcium Iodate, Sodium Selenite), Choline Chloride, Vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin A Supplement, Niacin Supplement, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine Mononitrate, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement), Calcium Sulfate, Titanium Dioxide, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, BHA (used as a preservative), Dl Methionine.

Here are the definitions of a few of these ingredients:

  • Corn: An inexpensive filler protein. Corn is the source of many food-related pet allergies and is generally difficult to digest. Further, a carnivore’s teeth are designed to tear meat instead of grinding corn.
  • Animal Fat: Obtained from the tissues of mammals and/or poultry in the commercial process of rendering or extracting. Animal fat has no specified source such as chicken or beef fat, making it an unknown source of fat.
  • BHA: BHA/BHT are short for Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluence (BHT), both of which are artificial chemical preservatives. BHA and BHT have been banned from human use in many countries. In the US, they are still permitted in the use of processed human and pet foods. These chemicals were linked to the Menu Foods pet food recall in 2007.
  • Animal Digest: A material which results from chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean, undecomposed animal tissue. No specific animal source.
  • Propylene Glycol: A colorless, viscous, hygroscopic liquid used in antifreeze solutions, hydraulic fluids, and as a solvent. Used as humectant is semi-moist kibble to keep it from drying out.
  • Hydrochloric Acid: The solution of hydrogen chloride in water. It is a highly corrosive, strong mineral acid and has major industrial uses.
  • Coloring/Flavors: Artificial flavors and colors are humanly-contrived additives used to enhance a product and to appeal to the human eye. These ingredients have no nutritional value, and make the product appear better than it is.

Natural Balance Ingredient List:

Chicken, Brown Rice, Chicken Meal, Oats, Potatoes, Dried Peas, Pea Protein, Duck Meal, Carrots, Chicken Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols), Natural Flavor, Menhaden Oil, Pea Fiber, Tomato Pomace, Flaxseeds, Oat Fiber, Salt, Potassium Chloride, DL-Methionine, Dicalcium Phosphate, Choline Chloride, Taurine, Minerals (Zinc Amino Acid Chelate, Zinc Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Iron Amino Acid Chelate, Copper Sulfate, Copper Amino Acid Chelate, Sodium Selenite, Manganese Sulfate, Manganese Amino Acid Chelate, Calcium Iodate), L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (Source of Vitamin C), L-Tryptophan, Vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, Niacin, d-Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin A Supplement Riboflavin Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid), Mixed Tocopherols and Citric Acid (preservatives), Dried Cranberries, Dried Blueberries, Dried Spinach, L-Lysine, Dried Kelp, Dried Yucca Schidigera Extract, Rosemary Extract.

What to look for:

  • Whole, Recognizable Protein Sources: The first few ingredients should be meat protein sources like chicken, chicken meal, beef, beef meal, lamb, lamb meal, etc.
  • Whole Grains (exclusive of grain-free foods): Unprocessed grains like barley, oatmeal, and brown rice.
  • Fruits, Vegetables, and Probiotics: Fruits and vegetables are naturally-occurring sources of several vitamins & minerals, and a great source of fiber. Probiotics aid in digestion and boost the immune system.

Two Scientific Distinctions About Your Pet

Fundamentally, cats and dogs are carnivores. A carnivore is a mammal that relies on its nutrition from animal tissue. With sharp teeth and short digestive systems, carnivores can fall into two categories:

  • Facultative Carnivores: Exist on a diet that is predominantly meat-based but eat and glean the benefit of plat matter. Dogs are such carnivores.
  • Obligate Carnivores: “True” carnivores that pull all their nutrients from animal tissue and are unable to digest and synthesize the nutrients found in plant matter. Cats are obligate carnivores, relying on a grain-free diet for ideal health.

Why should a science lesson matter? An informed owner is the best benefit to their pet!

Rotating Foods

Imagine having eggs one morning for breakfast… then having eggs again for dinner… then eggs the next morning. Imagine repeating that cycle for the rest of your life. Not only would you quickly become sick of eating eggs, but your body would soon start to miss the variety of nutrients found in other foods. While eggs are a great source of protein, humans rely on a variety of food sources for balanced nutrition. Your dog needs variety in a similar way.

Like humans, pets enjoy and benefit from variety. There is no one food that has is all or is perfect for your pet. In fact, feeding the same food over your pet’s lifetime could actually be detrimental to their health. Varying the type of food and rotating among proteins allows for a more diverse and complete micro-nutrient intake. Variety also exposes your pet to exciting tastes and textures that will keep them interested in mealtime.

Rotate your pet’s food (the protein source and occasionally the all-natural brand) on average every 3 months for:

  • A balanced nutrient intake
  • Reduced risk of food allergies
  • New tastes and textures to retain interest

Want to learn more?  Reviewing the history and origins of pet food can go a long way toward helping us understand the state of the industry today.


It’s easy to take modern pet food for granted. After all, most of us don’t remember a time when our pet’s food didn’t come in cans or conveniently bagged. But what we feed our pets has a long and interesting history!

  • 1950’s: The Purina Company discovered the extrusion process. Extrusion produced small pellets of food that, when bagged, were convenient and more marketable than ever. While this production process continues to be used by commercial as well as independently-owned pet food companies, the quality of the ingredients vary significantly between these two groups of producers.
  • Present day: The pet food industry has grown exponentially since it’s 19th Century beginnings and the pet nutrition controversy is still going strong. The independent producers, many of whom were dog owners looking for better food to feed their own pets, offer pet parents high quality (and yes, very affordable) food choices. Ingredients are the foundation of each food and are at the core of the pet food debate: Should carnivores really be eating corn? Should we be feeding our pets meat that we wouldn’t eat? Are artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors really worth the elevated cancer risks? These are all excellent questions that Whole Dog Market is committed to address.
  • 1860: James Spratt first introduced processed dog food. Spratt’s Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes were made from wheat, beet root, vegetables, and beef blood. This concept of feeding dogs processed, mass-marketed food versus table scraps quickly became popular in England through the end of the 19th Century.
  • 1890: Commercial dog food had spread to the United States, and a controversy over pet nutrition, similar to the one that rages on today, was born. In fact, many pet owners at the time made a strong argument that table scraps (usually consisting of things like meat, connective tissues, bones, organs, and possibly a few left over veggies) had kept their dogs healthy and happy for years.
  • 1930’s: During the Great Depression, dog owners were forced to look for cheaper ways to feed their pets. Less raw meat was fed, and more grains and cereal products were introduced into home diets. Many marketers of new dog products even boasted that they were able to utilize waste products such as grain hulls, sweepings, and meat unsuitable for human consumption.