You'd like to feed your dog the very best food he can possibly eat, but you might wonder what the difference is between low-grade or low-quality food and top-grade or high-quality food. There are differences, but sometimes it's hard to understand what they might be. Part of the confusion has to do with labeling and claims by the dog food companies.
Labels and Claims
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), claims of "premium," "super premium," "gourmet," and other quality claims have no regulation and, therefore, are marketing words. When distinguishing between a top-grade and a low-grade food, pet owners must look beyond the claims. Dr. William Burkholder, D.V.M., Ph.D, the Center for Veterinary Medicine's pet food specialist, recommends looking at the list of ingredients, the life stage claim in the nutritional adequacy statement, and the company's contact information.
List of Ingredients
Possibly the most important way to tell top-grade from low-grade dog food is to look at the list of ingredients. The ingredient panel lists the ingredients from largest amount to least according to weight. Most higher protein and, therefore, top-grade foods have an animal protein source that usually is listed as the first ingredient and usually is a form of meat, meat meal, or by-product. Low-grade foods usually have high amounts of carbohydrates in the form of grain, such as corn, wheat, or rice, and their protein source usually is plant-based or listed as "meat and bone meal."
Having meat (such as poultry, beef, or chicken) as the first ingredient doesn't mean that the food is top-grade. Many manufacturers try to hide their carbohydrates by listing them separately. For example, they may have corn, wheat middlings, and wheat bran, all of which may outweigh the "chicken." Also, the meat itself may be mostly water weight and may not provide more protein than a food with the meat meal, which is ground and has water removed.
Be careful about fillers. Along with too much carbohydrates, dog foods can have things like added colors, sugar, or high salt content. The extra fillers in low-grade foods end up in your dog's poop, thus causing you to feed more. Top-grade foods have fewer or no fillers, so you will have less poop to scoop and you feed less because the food is highly digestible.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement
Dog food doesn't have to be complete and balanced, but if it has a nutritional adequacy statement, it does. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established food guidelines for adults (maintenance) and puppies (growth). If the dog food doesn't have an AAFCO statement, you can assume that the food doesn't meet or exceed AAFCO guidelines. While top-grade and low-grade dog foods may have the nutritional adequacy statement, your should avoid food that doesn't. Be certain to pick the right food for your dog's age.
Pet food manufacturers are required only to have an address, but good dog food companies have phone numbers and internet contacts so you can ask questions. You can ask if the food is highly digestible, that is able to be metabolized by the dog (a premium food should be). The dog food company should be able to give you a digestibility percentage. Top-grade foods should be at least more than 70 percent digestible, with some being more than 90 percent.