The Good and Bad of Dog Food Ingredients
Food is an important part of your family’s diet. Processed foods for dogs and humans should be avoided.
The poor choices made in a dog’s diet can expose them too many of the same health problems their humans suffer from if they don’t think about what they eat: cancer, obesity, circulation issues, digestion problems, diabetes, exposure to toxins, etc.
For us, our dog’s and their health come first and we would like to share some basic information and how to ensure that your dog’s receive the same nutrition as the rest of your family.
You want the best food for your dog, but that’s difficult when marketing and economics get in the way of what’s healthful for your dog.
Let’s learn to identify bad dog food ingredients so that you can feed your dog the high quality they deserve.
You can’t trust the dog food brands themselves, as dog food companies can use tricks to make their food appear better than it actually is.
The package and the commercials can be misleading, but the ingredient list offers a more truthful look at what’s actually in your dog’s food.
These bad dog food ingredients are some of the worst offenders in the pet food industry.
While these ingredients are legal to put in dog food in Canada, they’ve been outlawed in many countries, and are just not worth the risk.
Quick List of Ingredients To Avoid In Dog Food
You should check the ingredient label of your dog food to ensure that it does not contain any of these common, but potentially harmful, ingredients.
Check your food as well, as some of these ingredients can be found in human food.
Ingredients that are deemed to be "human-grade" (even though few foods can put these on their labels, so you won't see them on any kibble packages).
What To Look For In Dog Food Kibble
- Natural preservatives (Vitamin C/E) or no preservatives.
- Made in the U.S.A.
- Human-grade ingredients (although there are very few foods that can put this on their label and you won’t find this on any packages of kibble).
- Food made in the U.S.A.
Ingredients To Avoid In Dog Food
- Meat and grain meals and by-products.
- Food Dyes (Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6, 4-MIE).
- Meat and grain meals and by-products.
- BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole).
- BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene).
- PG (Propylene Glycol).
- Rendered fat.
What's “Good” About Dog Food
Most commercial foods are convenient for dog owners to open, defrost, and serve, whether they are dry food, canned food, or frozen food.
With our society increasingly focused on convenience instead of health, processed foods that require little to no preparation have become popular among dog owners.
Nutritionally Complete and Balanced Commercially - Dog food is required to be nutritionally complete and balanced for all life stages, so dog owners can be assured that their animal companions will consume an appropriate amount of protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Labeled List of Ingredients and Recommended Feeding Guidelines - Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates commercial diets and treats, and the product label must list all ingredients properly in order of weight, as well as Guaranteed Analysis (percentages of crude protein, fat, and fiber).
There is also a recommended amount of food based on the dog’s weight that should be fed daily.
What's “Bad” About Dog Food
Let’s move on to “the bad.”
The Bad Feed-grade ingredients cooked at nutrient-destroying temperatures. Almost all commercial dog food is made with ingredients considered to be feed-grade instead of human-grade. Ingredients for feed are inferior to those for human consumption.
Moreover, feed-grade ingredients have allowances for toxins, such as mold-produced mycotoxins, that are acceptable in much smaller quantities in human-grade foods.
A meat meal, such as meat and bone meal or by-products, is produced from rendering and contains dead animals from farms, ranches, feedlots, marketing barns, animal shelters and other facilities, or fat, grease, and other food waste from restaurants and supermarkets.
Even the less-questionable ingredients may not be as healthy as you think. Dry (kibble) and canned foods are cooked at high temperatures to kill bacteria, but this also deactivates beneficial enzymes and denatures proteins. It is the same as microwaving or nuking your food, which reduces the nutrients in it.
Chemicals & Preservatives Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), and Ethoxyquin
These are 3 nasty chemical preservatives. BHA and BHT are chemicals added to oils (fats) as preservatives that can be found in pet foods and treats.
According to California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, BHA is on the list of Known Carcinogens and Reproductive Toxicants . BHT is also a carcinogen and causes kidney and liver damage in rats.
Ethoxyquin is another chemical preservative which is illegal to use in human foods in the United States, yet can still legally be added to dog foods.
Human safety data reports Ethoxyquin to be harmful if it is swallowed or directly contacts skin.
Ethoxyquin often enters through ‘fish meal’ and may not even appear on a label.
It’s best that your dog food and treats have no preservatives, but natural options like Vitamins C and E are safer choices.
Propylene Glycol (PG)
A humectant (moistening agent) found in some soft dog foods and treats. It is chemically derived from ethylene glycol (EG), also known as antifreeze, which is extremely toxic to animals.
PG is touted as non-toxic and non-absorbent for your dog, but consuming ‘dog-safe’ antifreeze’ will not improve your dog's health.
Food Dyes Blue 2, Red 40, and Yellow 5 and 6
Food dyes have been documented to contribute to hypersensitivity (allergic-type) reactions, behavior problems, and cancer in humans.
More recently, caramel color has come under fire as it contains 4-methylimidazole (4-MIE), a known animal carcinogen. When it comes down to it, artificially coloring food only appeals to humans and not dogs.
Rendered Animal Fat
Rendered animal fat provides flavor enhancement for kibble and is a source of microorganisms (Salmonella, etc.) and toxins (heavy metals, etc.) If moisture penetrates a dry food bag, then harmful bacteria and mold can flourish.
Contaminants FDA Compliance policy CPG Sec. 675.100
The FDA “does not object to the diversion to animal feed of human food adulterated with rodent, roach, or bird excreta.”
Therefore, your dog or cat may be eating such undesirable and disease-causing substances otherwise not permitted in human foods.
Meeting your dog’s nutritional requirements, but doing so with sub-standard quality and potentially toxic ingredients, can cause both short and long-term health consequences.
For your dog's sake, offer a diet of human-grade, whole-food-based ingredients early in life and minimize the consumption of dry and canned diets and treats.
Watch out for these 24 Bad Ingredients in Your Dog’s Food:
Preservatives like these are used in foods for humans and dog food to preserve fats. BHA and BHT are banned in some countries, but are approved for food use in small quantities in Canada, the US, and Europe.
BHA and BHT have been linked to hyperactivity and even cancer in children, but studies have been inconclusive so far.
In addition, there is promising research that they can be used to treat herpes and even AIDS. However, there are no guarantees.
When possible, avoid these potentially harmful additives until more research is available.
Dry cereals, butter, beer, margarine, chewing gum, and beer are human foods that contain BHAs and BHTs.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links (Amazon Associate or other programs we take part in). As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.
Healthy Alternative: Natural Preservatives or Canned Food
There are many natural preservatives used in dog foods, such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), and rosemary.
They’re not as effective at preventing fat rancidity for as long as artificial preservatives are (so they have shorter expiration dates), but they’re safer.
Canned dog food is the best option if you wish to avoid preservatives completely.
The canning process eliminates the need for chemical preservation, which is one benefit of canned dog food.
Most (if not all) of the nutrition in white flour has been stripped away. White flour causes a spike and then a drop in blood sugar levels, making you (or your dog) hungry again shortly after consuming it.
Consuming too much white flour can lead to weight gain, obesity, and diabetes.
Healthy Alternative: Whole Grains or Grain-Free
Choose novel whole grains instead of white flour for your diet or your pet’s diet. Quinoa, oats, and brown rice are excellent alternatives.
You can also look for foods that contain legumes, sweet potatoes, or other high-fibre nutritious vegetables.
Meat or Meat Meal in Dog Food
Dogs can consume meat as a nutritious food. Meat should make up most of a dog’s diet.
If, however, you see “meat”, “meat meal”, or “meat and bone meal”, your dog is getting the worst source of meat he can get in processed food. Meat is another ingredient that will keep showing up on this list of bad dog food ingredients.
Diseased meat can be included, as well as meat from dead animals, expired meat from grocery stores with plastic packaging, you name it.
After the concoction is compiled, it is heated extensively to kill any pathogens that might be present (which they are). The process also removes most of the nutrients that might be present in these questionable ingredients.
This results in a hard-to-digest, nutritionally deficient filler that boosts the protein content on your dog food bag, but adds little to your pet’s health.
Healthy Alternatives to Meat
Real meats like chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, or salmon, or meals from these meats, should be your first choice.
These ingredients are likely to have been processed less and to contain more natural nutrients and usable protein.
Artificial colors increase visual appeal. Using artificial colours has been associated with hyperactivity as well as several biochemical processes within the body.
Foods are only dyed artificially to improve their appearance to the consumer. This is completely unnecessary for humans and pets.
There are many prepared foods that contain MSG (mono sodium glutamate). However, MSG can cause problems for humans as well as dogs, despite its widespread use.
In dog food, it is used to compensate for the lack of taste in low-quality ingredients. As well as being nutritionally useless, MSG is also a very common allergen for humans and dogs.
Although MSG is not required by law to appear on pet food ingredient labels, you can often find it in the following ingredients:
- hydrolyzed protein,
- protein isolate,
- texturized protein,
- natural flavors (like chicken flavor),
- autolyzed yeast,
- hydrolyzed yeast,
- yeast extracts,
- soy extracts or concentrate,
- sodium caseinate,
- calcium caseinate,
- monopotassium glutamate,
- glutamate or glutanic acid,
- disodium inosinate or guaylate.
The 8 Ingredients To Avoid In Dog Food
1. Melamine in Dog Food
A type of plastic that contains nitrogen has been added to dog food to make it appear as if it contains more protein. Ingesting melamine is definitely toxic.
A dog’s size and dose can determine whether it will die from kidney failure or cause kidney failure.
As a result, it was responsible for one of the worst dog food recalls ever in 2007.
As of today, melamine testing is not mandated, so always ask questions if you’re unsure of the contents of your dog’s food.
2. BHA, BHT and Ethoxyquin
In some traditional dog foods and treats, these are artificial preservatives used to extend their shelf life.
Consumption of food and treats containing artificial ingredients can cause health issues after long-term exposure.
As an example, the fat preservative ethoxyquin is also utilized as a pesticide.
Several studies have shown that it elevates liver enzymes in the blood and increases hemoglobin pigment in the liver.
Beware if you see these warnings on a label.
3. Propylene Glycol ( PG )
Artificial additives are used to keep foods soft and moist.
Even though PG is generally considered safe by the FDA, it is still an artificial ingredient, so it is not recommended for dogs.
Furthermore, propylene glycol and ethylene glycol (antifreeze) are often confused.
The latter is extremely toxic to dogs, whereas the former has been used as a non-toxic alternative in antifreeze.
Carrageenan is an ingredient derived from red seaweed used as a thickener in wet dog food to maintain consistency.
Food additives such as poligeenan (which is not allowed in food) have been deemed safe by the FDA and AAFCO.
Studies suggest that it may lead to GI inflammation and possibly cancer. Basically, avoid it!
5. Meat Meal
Step away if you see the word “meal” on a dog food label. Rendering is the process of heating up scraps of diseased and dead animals.
The meat meal is left after the fat is removed. While meat meal contains protein, the quality of nutrition can vary wildly based on the animal parts it contains.
6. Food Dyes
Artificially colored pet food is only done to make it look more appealing to humans.
You shouldn’t sweeten your pup’s food either, especially not with corn syrup, which has a high glycemic index without offering any health benefits.
Your pup doesn’t even want sweet food, right? Both should be avoided.
How to Read a Dog Food Ingredients on a Label
It is important to read nutrition labels when choosing dog food. Here is what you need to know.
Similarly to the nutrition facts box on packaged foods for people, the dog food nutrition label is designed to help you compare products and learn more about the food.
1. How Do I Read the Ingredients on Dog Food?
For packaged pet food, the heaviest ingredients must be listed first, just like for humans. If you see that the first ingredient is meat, keep in mind that, according to the FDA, meat is 75% water.
It is likely that the meat would rank lower on the ingredient list without that water weight.
In case of meat meals such as chicken meal or meat and bone meal, most of the water and fat have been removed, concentrating the animal protein.
2. What Things Should I Avoid in Dog Food
It’s a matter of choice, according to veterinarians. A complete and balanced pet food should meet your dog’s nutritional needs.
Byproducts such as liver are rich in nutrients like vitamin A.
According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, meat byproducts can also contain blood, bone, brains, stomachs, udders, and cleaned intestines.
Hair, horns, teeth, and hooves are not considered byproducts, although an exception may be made in the case of unavoidable amounts during processing.
Meat meal may also contain animal parts that many people consider to be byproducts. Ingredients listed as “chicken” or “beef” may contain the heart, esophagus, tongue, and diaphragm.
Although all of these ingredients may not sound appealing to you, your dog probably finds them to be tasty.
Federal rules to prevent the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) ban some previously allowed parts of cattle and buffalo in animal feed, including pet food.
FDA regulation bans the use of body parts from animals that have tested positive for mad cow disease, as well as brains and spinal cords from older animals, as these are considered to be at higher risk of the disease.
3. What Are the Ingredients Typically Lower On Dog Food Bags?
In pet food, preservatives, artificial colors, and stabilizers must be either FDA-approved or generally recognized as safe, a category that includes everything from high fructose corn syrup to benzoyl peroxide, which is used to bleach flours and cheese.
Manufacturers are required to list preservatives they add, but do not always list preservatives in ingredients such as fish meal or chicken that are processed elsewhere.
Several manufacturers are using natural preservatives instead of ethoxyquin, BHA, or BHT, such as vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and herbs like rosemary.
Those also keep food fresh, but for a shorter period of time. Before buying or feeding your pet a food, check the “best by” date on the label.
4. How Do I Know If A Dog Food Is Good For My Dog?
On the label, look for a statement of nutritional adequacy.
Most pet food manufacturers adhere to the model regulations of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which establish the minimum amount of nutrients needed to provide a balanced diet.
Depending on the statement, it may say that the food is formulated to meet AAFCO standards or that it has been tested in feeding trials and found to provide complete nutrition.
AAFCO should also state what life stage the food is appropriate for. Puppy food should be suitable for all stages of growth.
Adult food should be suitable for all stages of life.
Depending on their health conditions, senior dogs’ nutritional needs can vary, and there is no AAFCO standard for senior food.
5. What Does Guaranteed Analysis Mean?
Dog food labels must state the minimum amount of protein and fat and the maximum amount of fiber and moisture.
Low-fat dog foods usually contain less fat and more fiber, which fills up a dog without adding calories.
According to the National Research Council, a scientific research unit of the nonprofit National Academies, at least 10% of the daily diet should be protein, and 5.5% should be fat.
Since dogs cannot digest all the nutrients in a food, dog foods contain more than those.
6. What Are “Natural” And “Holistic” Labels?
Basically, nothing. If they label food as natural, it should contain few synthetic ingredients.
They do not regulate it how the terms holistic, premium, and super-premium are used.
Beware of marketing terms such as “human-grade ingredients” or “made in a USDA-inspected facility.”
7. What is Organic Dog Food?
There is no official definition of it. However, the USDA’s National Organic Program, which sets rules for the use of the “organic” label, is reviewing the issue.