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Can You Judge Dog Food Solely by Its First Ingredient?

Kristin Hitchcock

Judging dog food can be overwhelming. There is a lot that you need to keep in mind when checking out dog food. You may be tempted to shorten the process by only looking at the first ingredient. While you can throw out a dog food from the competition based on the first ingredient, you shouldn’t feed your dog a food solely because the first ingredient seems high-quality.divider-dog

What to Look For

dogs eating_Phuttharak_Shutterstock
Image Credit: Phuttharak, Shutterstock

Many dog foods may include a quality first ingredient but be full of fillers otherwise. Others may have what appears to be a so-so first ingredient but be full of high-quality ingredients otherwise. Furthermore, the macronutrient content is also important, as is the company’s recall history. You can’t find these things out from the first ingredient alone.

With that said, sometimes the first ingredient is so low-quality that you can disqualify the food immediately. For instance, things like corn and wheat shouldn’t be the first ingredient in any dog food. These formulas can be disqualified based on the first ingredient alone. But you should never decide to feed your dog something based on the first ingredient alone.

What Should the First Ingredient in Dog Food Be?

The first ingredient in most dog foods should be a high-quality meat. What counts has high-quality is a bit complicated, however. Whole meat is one of the most obvious high-quality options. Things like “chicken” and “beef” signify whole meats. These are not necessarily human-grade meats. Many may be for pet consumption only. However, whole meat does signify that it is the muscle meat of the animal.

What is Chicken Meal in Dog Food?

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Credit: Sophie Louise Davis, Shutterstock

Meat meal is another high-quality choice. For instance, “chicken meal” and “beef meal” are considered a high-quality option. Meal has simply been cooked down. It is whole meat that has been boiled to reduce much of the water content. In other words, it is dehydrated meat. This is actually more nutritiously dense than whole meat. It also doesn’t contain much water content, which is often necessary for dry food.

Any meat ingredient should have the source listed. “Chicken” or “beef meal” is a solid option, as the source is named. However, you don’t want to feed your canine “meat meal” or “bone and meat meal,” as you have no idea what it is or where it came from. This stuff is basically mystery meat and is the last thing that you want to feed you dog.

Often, this unnamed meat can come from roadkill, euthanized animals, or even zoo animals. Other times, it is simply the cheapest kind of meat the company could find, which is likely not what you want to be feeding your canine.

By-products are an okay option. The problem with by-products is that you don’t know what part of the animal is being used. It simply distinguishes that it is parts that are not suitable for human consumption. This isn’t always bad, as it can include nutritious pieces of the animal, such as organ meat. Cats often eat the whole prey animal in the wild, so this is similar to how they would eat naturally.

However, by products can also contain substances of very little nutritional value. For instance, feathers and cartilage from the animal’s face may also be included.

Of course, all by-products should be named as well. “Meat by-products” is simply not a quality option. However, “chicken by-products” may not necessarily be a low-quality option. There is no way to know, though.

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What Should I Look for When Choosing Dog Food?

dog eating_Shutterstock_Jaromir Chalabala
Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

There are several things you should consider when choosing your dog’s food – besides just the first ingredient. These other points will help you figure out if the dog food is high-quality enough for your pooch.

Other Ingredients

Everything in the food’s ingredient list matters. However, some things matter more than others. The first five ingredients are going to be the most important. Food is often listed by weight on the ingredient list, with the heaviest options at the top.

(This isn’t always the case, though. The ingredients may be weighed before or after they are processed. Whole meat weighs a lot before it is cooked down and dehydrated to make dry food. Some ingredients are also “split.” For instance, the company may list “pea protein” and then “pea starch” as separate, even though together they make the whole peas. This allows the company to list them lower on the ingredient list, even though there are technically more peas in the food than the ingredient list makes it appear.)

You preferably want most of the food to be meat. A variety of meat is best. This prevents canines from developing an allergy to any particularly protein source and ensures that they’re getting a variety of different nutrients. Different meats contain different vitamins and minerals, as well as different macronutrient contents.

Grain-free foods don’t necessarily contain extra meat. Often, these foods use low-quality veggies like peas and potatoes instead of the usual grain. This can actually be worse for your dog, as health problems have been linked to high amounts of these ingredients. For this reason, we recommend a grain-inclusive food unless your canine is specifically allergic to grain. Many dogs actually do better with the higher fiber content of the grains.

Ingredients included in the food should improve its nutritional content. While all foods can be helpful in small amounts, some useful foods, like peas, can be used as fillers. These fillers should be avoided.

Macronutrient Content

The protein, fat, and carbohydrate content of a food is very important. Canines thrive off a food that contains a high protein and fat content but with fairly few carbohydrates. Their food should reflect this, including lots of meat and similar foods. You should avoid foods that include tons of carbohydrates, such as corn and wheat.

To determine the macronutrient content of the food, you can look at the guaranteed analysis. This will tell you the protein, fat, fiber, and water content of the food. As you might have noticed, the carbohydrate content of the food is not listed. However, the higher the protein and fat content, the lower the carbohydrate will be.

You can also determine the specific percentage of carbohydrates by subtracting the protein, fat, and fiber content from 100.

Nutritional Statement

You should also ensure that the particular food includes a nutritional adequacy statement by the AAFCO. To be sold, dog foods do not have to list this statement. However, the AAFCO establishes food guidelines for various pet foods, including both dog and cat foods. Any dog food compliant with these guidelines should include a statement and seal from the AAFCO stating that it is a complete diet.

This is the only way to determine that the food contains everything your canine needs. Otherwise, it may be missing key nutrients that your dog needs.

The food should also list what specific life stages the food is suitable for. This is because different life stages require different nutrients. Puppies need different food than adults.

There are no guidelines for a “senior” diet. Most senior diets just meet adult maintenance guidelines with a few nutrients included.

What Ingredients Do You Not Want as the First Ingredients?

Meat is the preferably first ingredient for any dog food. You don’t want a grain or low-quality filler. For instance, wheat and corn should not be the first ingredient. These are generally not as nutritious as meat and contain far too many carbohydrates for most canines.

You should avoid veggies that may sound nutritious as well. Many formulas will include lots of peas. Some pet owners mistakenly believe that these are good for their canine, since they’re good for people as well. But, while some peas are good for dogs, you don’t want them to make up the vast majority of their food. They simply don’t have all the amino acids that your dog needs to thrive.

Water is not necessarily a bad first ingredient. In many cases, you can often skip it as an ingredient altogether. Many wet foods need added water or broth to make them wet. Water doesn’t introduce any nutritional values and isn’t really considered an ingredient, though the company has to list it anyway. Broth is the same as water but with extra nutritional content.

You should avoid any high-carb food as the first ingredient, including grains, veggies, and fruits. Soy should also be avoided as any ingredient on the list. Soy is not nutritionally-complete and is one of the most pesticide-ridden foods around. Furthermore, soy is estrogenic and not very food for a canine’s digestive system.

Chihuahua dog eat feed
Image Credit: tanyastock, Shutterstock

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Conclusion

You cannot judge a dog food by its first ingredient alone in most cases. If the first ingredient is something low-quality, you can generally write that food off as an option for your canine. However, just because the food contains a high-quality first ingredient doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best option for your canine.


Featured image credit: Nancy Dressel, Shutterstock

Kristin Hitchcock

Kristin is passionate about helping pet parents create a fulfilling life with their pets by informing them on the latest scientific research and helping them choose the best products for their pets. She currently resides in Tennessee with four dogs, three cats, two fish, and a lizard, though she has dreams of owning chickens one-day!