The Myth of the 'First Ingredient' on the Pet Food Label

Pet parents want the best food possible for their fur kids. We try to make the best possible choices by carefully reading the pet food labels and using tools believed to help accurately decipher the label contents. Unfortunately, what seems to be fact often isn’t.

As pointed out in last week’s post, the definition of “meat” for pet food makers is very different than what is commonly thought of as meat. This is because the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has carefully defined meat for pet food makers. AAFCO also sets the standards for all other claims on pet food labels, including the pet food ingredients. But AAFCO’s rules for the ingredient list have led to the popular belief that the first ingredient listed in pet food is the major component of the food.

Again, perception is not fact.

The First Ingredient Rule

AAFCO mandates that ingredients must be listed in order of their weight contribution to the pet food. The first ingredient should represent the largest ingredient by weight.

Most food makers list a meat as their first ingredient, so pet owners have come to believe that meat is the largest ingredient in their pet’s food. Not so fast.

AAFCO allows meat to include its water weight! For meat, that is about 70-80 percent of its weight. If the water, which provides no nutritional value to the food, is subtracted, then the first ingredient is not the largest protein source in the food. The second and third proteins are probably the largest ingredients.

We have no way of knowing the weight contribution of the first ingredient because AAFCO does not require the actual weights or percentage of weights for each ingredient.

Here is an example of an actual pet food ingredient list for “Real Duck + Sweet Potato” dog food:

Deboned duck, turkey meal, salmon meal (source of omega 3 fatty acids), sweet potato….

The main proteins in this pet food are turkey meal and salmon meal, not duck. Minus its water weight, we have no way of knowing how much real duck is actually contributing to this food, but it is not the primary protein or ingredient.

Here is another real example of a “Prairie” puppy food:

Bison, lamb meal, sweet potatoes, egg product, pea protein, peas, potatoes…

Remember the prairie bison in this case contains water, so the primary proteins in this food come from lamb meal, egg products, peas, and pea protein. We have no idea how much bison protein is really in the food, and clearly most of the protein does not come from the prairie.

So what are we pet parents to do to ensure we provide our pets the best food possible? Unfortunately, the choice to feed commercially made pet food will always compromise quality regardless of what we would desperately like to believe about our chosen brand. This is true from the cheapest dry food available at discount retailers to the pricier, raw, frozen loafs in boutique pet stores. Pet food affordability relies on using the parts of meat that cannot be marketed to humans.

There is a growing trend of specialized “kitchens” that make and sell pet food made with USDA restaurant grade ingredients. Whole Foods actually stocks one of these products. But presently, most are geared for lower manufacturing volume, geographically limited in distribution and priced for more affluent customers.

Making your own homemade is more affordable than the specialty kitchen sources because you are taking out the labor costs for production and eliminating the mark-up on the ingredients. Homemade can actually be as affordable as premium wet pet food if you shop carefully and take advantage of sales. And most importantly, you control the quality and safety of the diet.

Unfortunately, making homemade pet food does not fit everybody’s lifestyle. Also, homemade diets that are not properly supplemented can be more unhealthy and dangerous than commercial pet food.

I wish the pet food industry were more transparent so it would not be so darn difficult to research our pet’s food. It is hard to make decisions with limited information. I hope these posts have helped clear some of the air.


Laurelwood Animal Hospital

9315 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway
Beaverton, Oregon 97005

Phone: (971) 244-4230
Fax: (503) 292-6808

E-mail:[email protected]