Having a basic understanding of the ingredients list of your dog food is the first step to ensuring you're getting good value on your chosen brand, and not paying a premium price for a less than premium food.
All 'complete' dog foods registered with the PFMA (like ours!) must meet their guidelines for the essential vitamins and minerals your dog needs to stay healthy. As with humans, these limits do not necessarily promote optimum health but they should prevent your dog becoming unwell from a deficiency. This is done via a series of nutritional supplements which are added to the food when it is made. This is often shown as the 'additives'. They represent either pure vitamins or compounds (e.g copper/E4) which ensure all the essential minerals and vitamins reach your dog. This is also where some of the grotty stuff can be listed, and there's too many to go into here, but if you're suspicious about an additive a quick search on a site like Wikipedia can give you reliable unbiased information. Only using food which claims to have no artificial colours, preservatives or additives however neatly sidesteps most of the nasties you might want to avoid.
The ingredients on your dog food have to be, by law, arranged with the main ingredient first, the second highest percentage 2nd, the third highest goes third etc etc. In most cases the first three ingredients make up the bulk of the product. Watch out for little tricks though... by grouping the wheat, oats and rice together as 'cereals' for example, a producer can make it look like meat is the 2nd highest ingredient when in fact this may not be the case. It's better for you if companies list each ingredient separately without too much grouping, even better if they give you the actual percentage!
There are three main groups of food used in dog food - meat, vegetables and grains.
The most expensive, and the most nutritious, ingredient in any dog food is meat. So long as your dog food is made by someone registered with the PFMA then you can be sure that you are feeding your dog only meat that comes from the British human food chain. This guarantees a certain quality and a certain degree of animal welfare. The meat content in dog food tends to come in three main formats.
Meat (eg. 'chicken' or 'lamb') - refers to fresh meat, which is the best quality but this includes the water too (meat is around 70% water) so this needs to be considered when comparing to a meat meal product (which has had the water removed).
Meat Meal - dehydrated fresh meat, ground into a powder - good quality meat but some nutrients may be lost in the drying process. Look for a food which names the meat source, such as 'lamb meal' rather than 'meat meal' to ensure you are getting just one protein source. The broader term 'Meat meal' is also often of lower quality and usually contains mixed protein sources which can cause digestive upset in dogs.
Meat & Animal 'Derivatives' - this is a vague term that covers any fleshy part of an animal and also its carcass. It is not necessarily bad for your dog, but it tends to be of lower quality and the food probably contains meat from more than one animal. This can cause digestive issues (beef for example is particularly tricky). Because it's so vague, this term also allows companies to change the formula from batch to batch, which is cost effective for them but can be problematic if your dog has allergies.
If your food contains vegetables they will be listed in the ingredients. The phrase 'derivatives of a vegetable origin' (or similar) can refer to any part of a vegetable or grain - the great bits right down to the terrible bits. Chances are however the quality will be poorer if the company uses this term rather than if they list the vegetable themselves - such as 'peas', 'sweet potato' or 'alfalfa', and as a result the nutritional benefit is likely to be poorer too. As with meat derivatives the formula can also vary from batch to batch which may be unhelpful for owners of sensitive dogs.
Grains form the cheapest ingredients in dog food and can include wheat, barley, oats, rice & maize/corn. They contain much less nutritional benefit and are mainly used to fill your dog up (much like us!).
There's been a massive explosion in 'grain free' feeding of late, the benefits of which is still hotly debated. Dogs however have been eating grains alongside humans for a very long time and our belief is that, like humans, some dogs cope better with grains than others. Similarly not all grains are created equal. Wheat, for example, tends to cause more problems than other grains (which is why we don't include them in our food), whilst rice & oats seem to be fairly easily tolerated by most.
That said however, if your dog suffers from 'loco motions', stomach upsets, itchy skin, hot spots or mucky eyes or ears it might be worth trying a grain free diet - it's a small change that can make a massive difference!
That pretty much sums up the basics of the ingredients in dog food. Obviously there are other things you might want to avoid such as 'EC permitted colourings/preservatives', sugar, cellulose or soya but we hope this brief summary gives you a better understanding of what the small print means and enables you to make a more informed choice.
The ingredients panel for any dog food can be found on the side/back of the bag, and we highly encourage you to take a look because a big price tag does not always equate to a superior food!
We are happy to answer any questions you may have on the ingredients in any of our foods and on dog food in general, but we can't comment on other brands specifically.