Debunking dog food labels

Debunking dog food

Debunking dog food labels

Food labels can be very confusing and often manufacturers are happy for you to be confused as they can hide the not-so nice ingredients under mysterious names! In this article I will look at the most used ingredients and de-mystify them so that you can make better choices for your dog!

Meat derivatives / Meat by-products

The term ‘Meat derivatives’ covers all warm-blooded land animals. Usually, it means the bits of the carcass that remain once the ‘good bits’ have been removed for human consumption. As such, generally this means organ meat (now organ meat is very nutritious, so this is not so bad) as well as the rest of the carcass in its entirety (beaks, feathers, hooves, etc – less ideal).

The advantage to the manufacturer is that they can change the animal source at any time to suit what they have in stock. This is not great for us, dog-owners, as you don’t actually know what you are purchasing and if your dog has any intolerances or sensitivities, products with meat derivatives in could cause undesirable health side-effects.

Additionally, the manufacturers will use the cheapest ingredient available at the time of production and unfortunately cheap usually means poor quality.

It’s rather interesting that in the USA meat derivatives are referred to as 4Ds by those who know what they mean, which are Dead, Dying, Disabled, Diseased.

The EU has stricter rules therefore one can assume that roadkill animals for instance, would not be used under meat-derivatives. However, now that the UK is no longer in the EU, more care must be taken when purchasing dog food originating from the USA.

Vegetable derivatives

These are ingredients from plants and they can mean many different things, similarly to meat derivatives. It could mean the cellulose part of vegetables, which are not digestible by dogs (or humans) or it could mean beet pulp or who knows what? Beet pulp is a by-product from the processing of sugar beet which is used as fodder for horses and other livestock. Beet pulp is the fibrous material left over after the sugar is extracted from sugar beets. In other words it’s a sugar filler and as such can cause weight gain!

Cereals /  Grains

Cereals usually mean wheat, corn and rice or other similar types of carbohydrate. Whilst cereals in a human diet can be beneficial and essential especially if the right type is chosen, they are usually not so great for dogs.  Wheat, rice, and other grains can be difficult for dogs to digest.

Furthermore, these grains are often treated with a number of chemicals prior to harvesting. These chemicals can transfer into the dog food formula and slowly cause issues as the years progress. Some grains are ok to use in a dog’s diet, in small quantities and these are:

  • millet – easy to digest
  • rice / brown rice
  • sorghum
  • oat
  • spelt
  • quinoa

Dogs do need some carbohydrates, however, vegetables are the ideal sources for them such as carrots, sweet potato, broccoli, etc. When it comes to cereals, rice is one that can be included in small quantities especially if your dog has an upset stomach. Corn (aka Maize) should be avoided as dogs cannot actually digest it (neither can we  and the evidence is there for us to see ). Manufacturers use corn to bulk up the food.

Vegetable oil

This could mean any vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil, palm oil, corn oil, rapeseed oil and the likes. There is no need for a dog to consume any of this and unfortunately simple vegetable oils like the ones mentioned are highly inflammatory meaning that they will make certain health conditions worse or simply cause some. For instance, skin conditions can be due to the inclusion of these vegetable oils and if your dog suffers from health conditions such as irritable bowel, arthritis, diabetes or any local inflammation, vegetable oils will worsen these.

Brewers Rice

We already know that rice should not form the main part of a dog’s diet but I thought I’d just clarify what Brewers Rice is. It is the smallest fragments of rice kernels that have been separated from the larger kernels of rice that is milled. Many within the pet food industry describe grain by-products such as Brewers Rice as “Floor Sweepings”. While this may seem like a joke, it is not and is not an inaccurate description of these type of ingredients. Along with Rice Flour, and Brewers Rice, other examples of low-quality grain by-products are Rice Bran and Rice Gluten, as such these are, without a doubt, a low-quality grain ingredients and low-cost fillers which should have no place in dog food.


Glycerine is basically used as a sweetener albeit it is also helpful as a binder to bind ingredients into a chewy form. Not only should it not be in a dog’s meal but it is also dangerous if it’s origin is other than vegetable as it could actually be the by-product of processing diesel!


The worst offenders are butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), which are added to oils to prevent them from going rancid. Sadly, they are carcinogens, i.e. cause cancerous tumours! Natural preservatives, such as antioxidants are much better to use as preservatives. However, we are lucky if our human foods are preserved with these (vitamin C & E are the most common ones) never mind our canine’s food!

Bone meal

Bone meal or ground bone is added to some dog foods as a natural calcium and phosphorous supplement. Its definition is very vague as it could come from any animals so if your dog is intolerant to a specific meat, bone meal is probably best avoided.

Hydrolysed Animal Proteins

Proteins are formed from long chains of amino acids and by using enzymes and/or acids to perform a process called hydrolysis, these chains can be broken down into their constituent parts. The resulting substance, now called protein hydrolysate or hydrolysed proteins are then spray dried to form a powder which can be useful in pet food for a number of reasons, such as:

  • flavour enhancers
  • for those dogs who are allergic to certain protein as these allegedly don’t trigger an allergic reaction
  • cheap source of amino acids found in protein (amino acids are building blocks or thousands of things in dogs and humans therefore extremely important)

The starting product for hydrolysed animal proteins usually come from slaughterhouse castoffs albeit some companies use better quality ingredients.

As a nutritionist, I believe that what is best for dogs and us humans are the natural things in life, things that look like nature intended. It’s a bit like being a vegan and eating nothing but Quorn or fake meat for protein (instead of healthy options such as tofu, legume, nuts & seeds. Now that is no way healthy in my view and that person would do much better if actually ate some good quality steak or chicken. Same rule applies to dogs, if it’s not natural it shouldn’t form the main part of the diet.

Meat meal

Meat meal is made from the parts of animals that aren’t consumed by humans. This could be up to a third to a half of the original animal and generally includes residual meat, offal, connective tissues and in some cases bones. It is a fine, dry, brown powder which, for many years, has formed the backbone of the dry dog food industry around the world.


Ash is not an added ingredient, it simply refers to the mineral content of the food, therefore it shouldn’t be viewed as bad or good.


Look for ingredients like meat (be it human-grade, dried or freshly prepared), vegetables (other than the ones mentioned above or those toxic to dogs), herbs, fruit, acceptable grains but only in small quantities and that’s it really. Added vitamins and minerals can be included but not necessary.

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