Understanding pet food labels

 

Just like the nutrition labels on the foods we eat, the nutrition label on your pet’s food is designed to help you learn more about the product by providing information about the ingredients, nutrient levels, and nutritional adequacy.

But navigating the pet food aisle can be a tricky business.  Pet food labeling is not exactly the same as human food labeling.  Though there are specific pet food labeling requirements which are strictly regulated by the FDA, words on the label can be misinterpreted and marketing claims can be subjective.

As a pet owner who is focused on their pet’s health and well-being, it’s a good idea to learn how to decode these pet food labels. The more skilled you are at interpreting nutrition labels, the better you’ll be able to find the best food for your pet’s individual needs.

We recently conducted a survey to determine where pet owners get stumped the most when decoding pet food labels. Our survey yielded interesting results, which may help you make better decisions when choosing your pet’s food based on the nutrition label.

 

How Many Pet Owners Actually Read Nutrition Labels?

Knowing the meaning and importance of the items on your pet food labels only matters if pet owners are actually reading the labels.  The good news is that our survey data showed that by a wide margin pet owners do read the ingredients and nutrition labels on pet food.  An overwhelming 92% of respondents said they read the ingredients list when buying new pet food, with more than half of those doing so “always” or “often”.

 

Pet food labeling survey question: How often do you read the list of ingredients when buying new pet food?

How often do you read the list of ingredients when buying new pet food?

 

Of the 8% who never read the ingredients, this may not be due to apathy over their pet’s health.  It may simply be a result of a lack of information on the packaging.  84% of pet owners said they would be more likely to read the labels if more information regarding nutrition and ingredients were provided.

 

Pet food labeling survey question: If more information regarding nutrition and ingredients were provided on the pet food label, would you read it?

If more information regarding nutrition and ingredients were provided on the pet food label, would you read it?

 

So with all those pet owners reading nutrition labels, what should you be looking for?

 

Determining the “Right” Nutrition for your Pet

No two pets are the same. Therefore, it is not about finding the “right” pet food or the one that’s “better” than other foods. You need to look at the food’s nutrition label to determine if the food meets your pet’s individual needs including their:

  • Age
  • Activity
  • Lifestyle
  • Reproductive status
  • Health
  • Environment
  • Breed

 

Pet food selection criteria: age, activity, lifestyle, reproductive status, health, environment, breed

 

This is done by taking a careful look at the ingredients in your pet’s food.

 

Pet Food Ingredients: The Meat of the Story

You may notice the ingredient list first when reading your pet food nutrition label, which lists ingredients by weight.

Some pet owners may believe a pet food is healthiest when it lists meat as the first ingredient.  However, according to the FDA, meat is 75% water and so without the water weight meat would fall lower on the ingredient list.  Meat meals, on the other hand (chicken meal, bone meal, etc) are a different story, as they concentrate animal protein and remove most of the water and fat.

Byproducts and Preservatives

Meat meal can also contain other animal parts as byproducts, such as stomachs, blood, bone, brains, cleaned intestines, hearts, tongues, livers, and udders. This does not include horns, teeth, or hair.

While meat byproducts aren’t bad for your pet’s health (and in fact your pet probably loves them), preservatives and stabilizers in pet food are controversial for some owners. These ingredients must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA says that preservatives are largely safe, but some pet owners and scientists disagree.

If you’re unsure about feeding your dog artificial ingredients and the shelf-life of your pet food isn’t a major issue, it’s a good idea to check the nutrition label on your pet food’s packaging. Artificial ingredients and preservatives typically include high fructose corn syrup and benzoyl peroxide.

So if artificial ingredients are not ideal, how does a pet owner determine which products have ingredients that are natural?  Or is it organic?  Holistic maybe?   Or…?

Organic, Natural, Holistic – Oh My!

The ingredients included in pet food products are crucial to many pet owners as evidenced by the results of our Pet Food Packaging Survey.  But when it comes to terms like Organic, Holistic, Natural and Human Grade, are these nutritionally meaningful terms or just buzzword marketing?  And do they impact pet food owners’ buying decisions?

First, it helps to understand the key differences between these words that are important to know when reading your nutritional label:

  • Natural: For pet food companies to use the word “natural” on their packaging, they’re legally required to use natural ingredients without chemical alterations. However, the vitamins, minerals, and trace nutrients used in the food are allowed to be chemically altered.
  • Organic: Pet food that’s labeled as organic is legally required to follow the same rules that are applied to human organic food. According to the USDA, organic food is grown with fewer pesticides than conventional food.
  • Holistic: When used in pet food, the term “holistic” has no meaning. Any pet food can use this term as it has no legal or regulatory requirements.
  • Human grade: There are few pet foods that use the word “human grade” because it’s generally not allowed on a pet food label unless the pet food has been made in a plant that’s been approved to manufacture human food. But this regulation doesn’t apply to advertising and so a pet food company may use the term “human grade” on their products.
  • Gourmet/Premium: Like “holistic” and “human grade”, these terms have no meaning when it comes to the nutritional value of your pet’s food. The words can be used legally and without regulation, which means pet food that’s made anywhere and in any manufacturing plant can use the word “gourmet” or “premium” on its label.

Now that we understand better what these terms mean, how do they actually impact pet owners’ purchasing decisions?  Our survey results tell an interesting story.

 

 

Pet food labeling survey question: Are you more inclined to purchase pet food with a label of "organic", "natural", "holistic" or "human grade"?

Are you more inclined to purchase pet food with a label of “organic”, “natural”, “holistic” or “human grade”?

 

  • 45% of pet owners said they were more inclined to purchase pet food labeled as “natural”.
  • 23% of pet owners said they were more inclined to purchase pet food labeled as “organic.”
  • Overall, 82% of pet owners said the use of any of these terms influenced their decision to purchase that product.

 

What about the more nutritionally vague marketing terms like “gourmet” and “premium” — do those impact buying decisions?

 

Pet food labeling survey question: Are you more inclined to purchase pet food with a label of "Premium" or "Gourmet"?

Are you more inclined to purchase pet food with a label of “Premium” or “Gourmet”?

 

Our survey data shows that a majority of pet owners do respond positively to these terms, but at 60% it is not an overwhelming majority. This indicates that pet food shoppers may see these terms as a bit too vague or empty to have any real meaning to them, or perhaps they feel the product may be more expensive than they can (or want to) pay.

 

AAFCO: An Important Name in Pet Food Labeling

AAFCO Statement on pet food labels

The AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control) is a voluntary membership association that establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods.  Though they have no legal authority to regulate pet products, most states follow AAFCO model regulations.  Enforcement of violations is the purview of local, state, and federal agencies that are charged by law to regulate the distribution and sale of animal drug remedies and food.

An AAFCO statement on pet food determines the nutritional adequacy of the product. It ensures that the food is balanced and complete for your pet’s specific life stage and physical activity. It also determines if the food doesn’t meet the complete and balanced requirements that the pet food claims.

A pet food product can make the claim that it’s nutritionally balanced and complete if it meets one of these three requirements:

  1. Product Family Establishment. A pet food is deemed nutritionally balanced if the lead product member of the pet food passes a feeding trial under AAFCO protocols. The food needs to be deemed nutritionally similar to the lead product and must meet calorie and nutritional criteria.
  2. Feeding Trial. A feeding trial is when the pet food undergoes a test using AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Feeding Protocols. These protocols include factors such as diagnostic tests involving gestation, growth, and lactation.
  3. Formulation. Pet foods can advertise that they’re formulated to meet every nutrient your pet needs. The AAFCO Dog Food or Cat Food Nutrient Profiles can determine if those claims are fact.

The AAFCO statement on a pet food’s nutritional label is a crucial component in determining that the food’s claims for nutritional value are true. But that doesn’t mean an AAFCO statement is enough for pet owners to consider buying a new type of pet food.  Our survey results found that the majority of pet owners (67%) said they do not look for an AAFCO statement on their pet’s food when they buy it.

 

Pet food labeling survey question: Do you look for the AAFCO Statement (guaranteed analysis) on the pet food label when considering a purchase?

Do you look for the AAFCO Statement (guaranteed analysis) on the pet food label when considering a purchase?

 

Feeding Instructions: The Often-Ignored Label Element

Considering AAFCO protocols test pet foods based on the pet food’s claims, which include feeding times, it’s a good idea to follow these instructions.  After all, the nutritional values and benefits indicated on the product are in large part based on the presumption that the pet will be fed according to the recommended directions.

However, our survey indicated that more than 40% of pet owners do not follow the feeding directions on their pet food labels.

 

Pet food labeling survey question: Do you follow the feeding directions on the pet food label?

Do you follow the feeding directions on the pet food label?

 

This may be another opportunity for pet food brands to take a look at their packaging and labeling to ensure they are utilizing their packaging real estate most effectively to ensure this crucial information is not being buried or overlooked.  Though this may seem like a relatively insignificant finding, factors like these that directly correlate to a pet’s health and well-being are likely to correlate to the owner’s own satisfactions with the product, translating into higher sales and brand loyalty.

 

How Pet Food Labeling Impacts Sales

When pet food brands provide nutritional information in detail on their products, it’s a win-win situation both for the pet owner and the pet food company.  Our survey found that it is the packaging and nutritional information on a product that is the most significant influence on a pet food owner’s purchasing decision — more important than advertising, referrals and other research.

 

Pet food labeling survey question: Which of the following most significantly impacts your decision to purchase a pet food product?

Which of the following most significantly impacts your decision to purchase a pet food product?

 

Which of the following most significantly impacts your decision to purchase a pet food product?

  • 42%: Packaging and nutritional information
  • 25%: Online research and reviews
  • 18%: Word of mouth/referrals
  • 7%: TV commercials or online ads
  • 9%: Other factors

With so many pet food owners making their purchasing decisions based on the packaging and labeling, it begs the question as to what specific aspects of a pet food product’s labeling would make a pet owner less likely to buy that product over another one.  Our survey showed that a lack of information and difficult to read text were the most significant factors.

 

Pet food labeling survey question: What characteristics of a pet food products packaging make you less likely to buy it?

What characteristics of a pet food products packaging make you less likely to buy it?

 

What characteristics of a pet food product’s packaging make you less likely to buy it?

  • 41%: Label does not provide enough information
  • 25%: Text is too small to read
  • 15%: Label does not specify age or breed
  • 18%: Other

Takeaways for Pet Food Brands

The numbers don’t lie.  84% of pet owners want more information on pet food labels.  42% say the biggest factor in choosing a pet food is its label information.  41% says the biggest deterrent against purchasing a pet food is the lack of information on the label.

What does this all mean for pet food brands?

The data overwhelmingly indicates that consumers want more detailed and clear information on their pet food products.  Pet food brands must be sure they are supplying enough information about their product to their consumers, in a clean, clear and easy-to-find way.

Today’s labeling constructions and technological advances mean that there are numerous ways to achieve these goals, ensuring that both marketing information and required regulatory information can live together on packaging labels in a harmonious and effective manner.  Extended content labels, such as booklet, fold-out and peel-reseal labels can provide a clean way to incorporate a lot of information in a small amount of physical package space.

By supplying consumers with more information about the nutritional value and the ingredients that go into their products, pet food brands can not only make their consumers happier but they can also boost their own sales.  When pet owners have the information they need, they’ll be more likely to buy the product and pass on a good word about the product both online and by word of mouth. But before they can do that, they need to know that the product they’re buying really is the best option for their pet’s needs.