MISSION, KS--(Marketwire - Oct 4, 2012) - (Family Features) Pet owners want the very best for their animals, but it can be hard to choose the right food. With hundreds of pet food products available, how do you decide what's best for your pet? It's smart to start with the label -- but labels can be confusing if you don't know what to look for. Here's what you need to know.

Pet Food Names
So what's in a product name? More than you might think. According to the manual produced by The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), if a pet food name says:

  • Chicken, beef, seafood, lamb -- it must contain 95 percent of that ingredient.

  • A combination of ingredients (Chicken and Liver) -- the two named ingredients together must make up 95 percent of the total weight. The first ingredient should be the predominant one. This only applies to animal-based ingredients.

  • Dinner, entrée, platter, formula, etc. (Beef Dinner; Seafood Platter) -- it must contain 25 percent of the listed ingredient. If more than one ingredient is included in the name, the combination of ingredients must total 25 percent of the product.

  • With (Lamb with Rice) -- it must contain 3 percent of the primary ingredient.

  • Flavor (Chicken Flavored) -- no minimum requirements, but the pet should be able to detect the taste.

Ingredient List
The primary goal of pet food is to deliver key nutrients to your pet. The higher the ingredient quality is, the easier it is for your pet to absorb and use the nutrients they contain. Here's a closer look at pet food ingredients, the primary nutrients they deliver and the health benefits they offer to pets.

  • Fresh meat, chicken, poultry by-product meal, meat by-products, soybean meal and egg -- High quality protein for muscle tone and development and healthy skin.

  • Animal fat, fish oil and vegetable oil -- Fats and essential fatty acids for energy, improved taste and healthy skin and coat.

  • Corn, rice, barley, sorghum -- Carbohydrates for energy and other nutrients for healthy skin and coat.

  • Cellulose, soybean mill run and beet pulp -- Fiber sources that promote intestinal tract health; some are helpful in weight control.

Chemical names in the ingredient list are most often vitamins or minerals added for complete nutrition.

What about by-products? A by-product is a secondary food item that is made from a primary ingredient production stream. A by-product like "chicken by-product meal" can contain organ meat that has a high nutritional value. In fact, it's a more concentrated protein source than raw chicken alone and contains high quality, highly digestible protein.

Not all by-products are created equal. For example, a high-quality pet food often recommended by veterinarians, such as Hill's (makers of Science Diet and Prescription Diet), only accept high quality by-product ingredients. However, bargain brands may use inferior ingredients that include feathers or other lower-nutritional parts of the animal.

Guaranteed Analyses
By law, pet food packaging must show the minimum percentages of crude protein and fat, as well as the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture in the product. This is not an indication of the actual nutrient content or a guarantee of nutritional quality.

  • The minimum amount guarantee shows the lowest amount of nutrient in the food. For example, a product may have a minimum fat guarantee of 8 percent, but actually contain 15 percent of fat.

  • The maximum amount guarantee may be 5 percent fiber, but the product may only have 1 percent fiber.

Remember, if the actual nutritional content is not clear on the packaging, you can always
contact the manufacturer directly via their product information toll-free number on the package.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets the nutritional guidelines for pet foods sold in the United States. The nutritional adequacy is determined by one of two methods -- formulation and feeding trials.

  • Feeding trial method -- This requires the manufacturer to utilize an AAFCO-protocol feeding trial using the food as the sole source of nutrition. The pets' performance is documented when fed the food. A sample label statement might read, "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures indicate this food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs."

  • Formulation method -- This requires the manufacturer to formulate the food to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles for dogs and cats. Because it is a calculation of nutrient levels, and AAFCO feeding trials with pets are not required, this is a faster, less-expensive method. A statement on a product using this method might read, "Formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO Cat Food Profiles for maintenance of adult cats."

Ages and Stages
The AAFCO guidelines only govern food for three pet life stages: growth and reproduction, maintenance, and all life stages. Foods formulated for all life stages must meet the most nutritionally demanding life stage -- growth and reproduction. So while getting an all life stages food to feed several pets of different ages might sound good, in reality, this food is designed for pets under a year old, or for nursing animals -- and may not be a good choice for the nutritional needs of pets in other life stages.

More information about pet food labels can be found online at www.fda.gov/animalveterinary under "Resources for You," and you can learn more about pet nutrition and choosing the perfect food for your pet at www.feedingisbelieving.com.

What Does "Natural" Mean?
AAFCO has developed some guidelines for natural claims for pet foods.

  • In general, the term "Natural" is applied to products that are free of artificial flavors, artificial colors and artificial preservatives.

  • While preservatives are needed to prevent food from going rancid, natural products use natural source preservatives instead of artificial ones.

  • "Holistic" has no legal definition and can be used however the manufacturer chooses.

  • The word "Organic" refers to how the source plants were grown or animals were raised. Currently, USDA and state regulators allow the usage of "organic" on pet food labels if human guidelines are met.

Organic terminology includes the following:

  • 100 percent organic. Everything in the bag or can is organic.

  • Organic -- at least 95 percent of the content is organic.

  • Made with organic -- at least 70 percent is organic (however, the USDA "Organic Seal" may not be used on the label).

  • Any product with less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot be called organic, but may list organic ingredients in the product's ingredient list as organic (e.g. organic chicken).

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Matthew Barksdale