Behind the Ratings: Pet Food

pet parents 1

Between 1988 and 2015, overall pet ownership in the United States has increased from 56% to 65%. Today, more than 79 million households own at least one pet. Pet owners are prioritizing and investing in the care and health of their pets, encouraging the pet care industry to quickly replace the term “pet owners” with “pet parents”.


People want their pets to lead healthy lives—They plan activities for them, comfort them, search for the best gear and bathing supplies, learn about their nutrition needs for every life-stage, and invest in pet beds for a comfortable night sleep. For many families, pets are members of the family.

A study by Pew Research showed that 85% of dog owners considered their pet to be part of their family

pet parents 2With the same expectation of feeding our human family nutritious food, choosing the best food for your pet can be tricky. Pet food nutrition labels are often formatted similarly to human food, but the nutritional values of pet food is hard to understand. Transparency about ingredient amounts, sources, and processing methods is often difficult to obtain. Plus, many brands use the same ingredient providers and manufacture products at the same processing facilities.

So, how do you choose the best pet food, with the highest nutritional value for the best price?

Avoiding the Hype:
Marketing claims about pet food have little to do with nutritional quality. For example, there is no scientific basis to differentiate between “synthetic” vs. “natural” preservatives for health reasons.

Similarly, while “organic” conveys something useful about how some ingredients in a product were grown, it is not a certification that was intended to apply to pet foods, and doesn’t mean that all components of a product were produced according to organic standards.

Our pets can’t make purchasing decisions. Which means pet food companies design everything from their advertising and marketing to their packaging and appearance of the food to attract and appeal to human purchasers. Just because an ingredient seems less appetizing to a person doesn’t mean that it doesn’t provide valuable nutrients for a pet — in a way that can be both bioavailable and tasty.

The pet food industry often relies on by-products and wastes generated from making human food.

The words “complete and balanced” or “100% nutritious” only indicate that the product can be used as the sole source of nutrition. Products that don’t use this language should be used only as treats.

How Does GoodGuide Review and Rate?

1) Nutritional Adequacy (Most important)
Regulations developed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) require the presence of a nutritional adequacy statement on all pet food packages. Nutritional adequacy can be met either through feeding trials or through formulated tests. Feeding trials are conducted with animals to ensure that nutrients in a given food or line of foods are

a) present in sufficient quantities to promote good health
b) bio-available to the animal ensuring the nutrients are digested properly.

Formulated products are generally laboratory tested to confirm nutrient content, not tested with animals. Since feeding trials allow for an in vivo product evaluation, they are preferred over formulations.

2) Caloric Content Disclosure
Given the growing concern about obesity in pets, caloric disclosure and labeling is essential for consumers to purchase pet foods that meet the energy needs of their pets. Unfortunately, caloric disclosure is not currently required by regulation and is optional for manufacturers. Without information on caloric content, pet owners run the risk of overfeeding their pets, which may result in obesity and related health problems. As a result, products that disclose their caloric content receive a higher score for allowing consumers to select more appropriate feeding portions. Scoring is based only on disclosure, not the actual caloric density of the food.

3) Life Stage
AAFCO requires that foods meet and disclose one of two nutrient profiles based on the pet’s life stage. The “maintenance” life stage nutrient profile is designed to meet the nutritional needs for adults. The “growth and reproduction” nutrient profile is designed to meet the nutritional needs for puppies/kittens as well as pregnant or lactating adults. Products that meet both standards are designated as ‘all stages’. Pet food products designed for a single life-stage (i.e. ‘maintenance’ or ‘growth and reproduction’) better match the nutrient profiles for pets in that life stage. All Stages products may contain excessive amounts of some nutrients, which can result in overfeeding, making the preferred practice to feed pets with a food designed for a single life stage.
Ingredients (Least important)**

As long as a manufacturer passes an AAFCO nutritional adequacy test, there are few limits on what ingredients can go into a pet food. To systematically account for the wide variety of ingredients and different formulations, GoodGuide categorized each cat food and dog food ingredient into one of four categories from a health perspective: ‘desirable in high quantities’, ‘desirable’, ‘less desirable’, or ‘extraneous’ as described below:

  • Most ‘desirable in high quantities’ ingredients are categorized as a source of many nutrients, and should generally be present in high quantities in the food. The threshold for ‘high quantity’ was assigned to the first five ingredients listed in the ingredient statement.
  • Desirable ingredients include many nutrients and sources of soluble fiber that are important for health, but need not be present in high quantities such as vitamins (i.e. listed within the first five ingredients).
  • In most cases, less desirable ingredients are those that have low nutrient bioavailability, provide non-nutritional content to the food (e.g. artificial colors or stabilizers), are undefined by AAFCO, or are potentially harmful. Many fruits, vegetables, and other seemingly healthy ingredients are identified as less desirable because there is no AAFCO definition for the ingredient. If an ingredient definition does not exist, AAFCO regulations state that it “shall be identified by the common or usual name.” For example, ‘Apples’ may contain seeds, stems, leaves, skins, or pulp. While apple pulp may contribute nutrients to the food, the generic definition does not clearly exclude any other parts that may not be beneficial to the animal’s health. For this reason, ingredients without definitions are designated as ‘less desired’. Scores for foods containing any potentially harmful ingredients, such as garlic, are capped at a maximum of 2 for this criterion.
  • Extraneous ingredients do not impact scoring and include ingredients such as: water, broth, non-essential nutrients, and manufactured flavoring agents.

The relative frequency of ingredients in each category was calculated using the above categories. Ingredient counts by category were translated into a summary ingredient score by applying a weighted equation. Based on our ingredient assessment and categorization, we made the judgment that ‘desirable’ ingredients are 2-3X more important than ‘less desirable’ ingredients and ‘desirable in high quantity’ ingredients are 1.5-2X more important than ‘desirable’ ingredients.

Ingredient Assessment Limitations
Due to the challenges inherent in categorizing pet food ingredients and the systematic ‘high quantity’ definition, the ingredient criterion is less meaningful than the other criteria. Data problems affecting ingredient assessment include:

  1. There is no generally accepted systematic practice for defining ingredients that are present in ‘high quantity’ (so GoodGuide assumes the first five ingredients on a product label are in this category).
  2. Ingredient order can be manipulated by using high weight, water-dense ingredients, or by “splitting” ingredients such as wheat into components such as wheat middlings, wheat flour and wheat germ meal.
  3. AAFCO ingredient definitions can be vague. For example, ‘meat by-products’ can contain liver, kidney and lungs (high in nutrient value), or udder, bone and connective tissue (poor in nutrient value).

GoodGuide’s Science Team worked closely with a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) to ensure that our ratings criteria were science-based, and feedback from these experts consistently indicated that reliance on pet food ingredient categorization alone would be a poor indicator of a product’s overall health impact for a pet.

You can find the complete ratings of all 1,200 + reviewed pet food products >>

About GoodGuide Team

GoodGuide's mission is to provide consumers with the information they need to make better shopping decisions. The team behind creating this blog content includes GoodGuide's science and product teams, industry experts, and guest bloggers.
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