Don’t Get Ripped Off In The Pet Food Aisle

Pet food is expensive. Understatement of the century, right?

But what are you spending your money on? Marketing hype or truly good nutrition for your pet? Before you buy another bag of dog or cat food, understand these pet food definitions.

Be Objective

Companies trying to sell a product know us better than we know ourselves. Countless hours go in to knowing what colors, words, or packaging will make us “buy now”! In turn, we get sucked in by emotion and forget to think.

We walk out the door overly confident in our $48 purchase of the new one pound bag of Artisanal Gourmet Blend Handcrafted by Elves for Petite Beige Dogsgeneric packaging

Approach the purchase of your pet’s food with an objective mind and color-blind eye. Don’t get sucked in by colors, meaningless words, and great pictures. You aren’t feeding your pet those!

food terms answers

[For more on who does the defining, see the end of this post.]

Know Your Pet Food Definitions


“Natural” is defined by AAFCO , (not the FDA or USDA). The AAFCO definition states that ingredients and additives are not chemically processed. Think lack of artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

This does not apply to minerals, vitamins or trace nutrients as many of those are often synthetically produced. This may sound bad, but it isn’t and is often necessary.


Pet food manufacturers use the same definition of organic (from the USDA) that is used for human food. In order to display the USDA organic seal, 95{cc651acb8fd21d18461bab90e3951e117ad976e0f5f2bec6fa2ec763fee94208} or more of the ingredients must be organic (not including water or salt).

Few pet foods are entirely organic (most often canned if they are). You are more likely to see “made with” organic ingredients, where 70-94{cc651acb8fd21d18461bab90e3951e117ad976e0f5f2bec6fa2ec763fee94208} of the ingredients are organic. ingredient listOr there may just be one or two organic ingredients in the packaging (as you can see here in this label).

Light or Lite

fat orange catThe AAFCO definition of “light” or “lite” in pet food labeling means the food has a nutritionally significant reduction in calories compared to a “regular” counterpart. There are also calorie restrictions. For example, with dry dog food to be labeled “light” there can be no more than 3100 kilocalories/kilogram.

One example, Hill’s Science Diet Large Breed dry dog food has 3659 kilocalories/kilogram and the “light” version of their large breed dog food has 2989 kilocalories/kilogram.

Gluten Free

This is something we are seeing in the pet food realm due to the increase in awareness of gluten issues in humans. In dogs, however, a true gluten intolerance is rare. Really rare. But, for a food to claim it is gluten free it must follow the FDA definition for gluten free–the same one for humans. This definition will mean there are no more than 20 parts per million of a prohibited grain (e.g., wheat, rye, barley and oats if contaminated).

Also of note, there are thousands of different glutens. The one of concern is gliadin. Gliadin is NOT found in rice, soy, or corn. Yes, friends, corn is actually free of the problematic gluten, gliadin.

Again, gluten free does NOT mean carb free!

Are The Rest Just Hype?


Grain Free

Grain free is not defined by AAFCO so there isn’t any standard or consistency. Most importantly, indicating something is grain free (e.g., no wheat, barley, rye or oats) doesn’t tell you about the quality of the food or the nutritional value of the ingredients that are used.ear of corn

Grain free has been popularized in part by nutritional misunderstandings and savvy ad campaigns to scare consumers. The trend is also influenced by the low carb frenzy in human diets. In pet foods, just because there are no grains does NOT mean the food is carb free. In fact when pet foods remove grains, they may substitute other carbohydrates that have less protein, vitamins, and minerals than say corn.

Unless your pet has a medical reason for needing a grain free diet, you may not need to head down this row.


Senior DogBelieve it or not, the term “senior” as it applies to a pet food for older pets does not have any definition or nutritional specification by AAFCO. This does NOT mean that as pets age they have the same nutritional requirements over the lifespan. On the contrary. To find the best diet for your aging pet, we encourage you to talk with your veterinarian.

So Who’s In Charge?

Several groups and government agencies are involved in the labeling, terms, and oversight of your pet’s food. Here are a few of the major players.

AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials): This group writes all the pet food regulations. They oversee the nutritional requirements for our pets so when you buy a bag of dog or cat food with an AAFCO statement on it, that diet will provide complete and balanced nutrition. While AAFCO writes the regulations, they do not enforce them.

FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration): This government agency controls the safety and requirements for our own food, but did you know they do the same for pet food? The FDA legally defines what is required on a pet food label and is the agency that handles recalls of suspect pet food and treats (same for people food).usda organic label

USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture): This agency deals with the inspection and approval of the processing of our food and pet food (e.g., slaughterhouse, packing plants, meat department at a grocery store). They also define what is considered organic and what is required in order to be able to use the organic label.

Each state is also involved in the pet food regulation and oversight process. Other agencies (e.g., FTC, NAD) deal with the advertising rules and regulations for what companies can and cannot say in the advertising of their product.