Q: Last week you mentioned that some manufacturers manipulate ingredient lists for marketing purposes. Can you explain?

A: This has become a real problem and is especially prevalent in the diets marketed as “grain-free.” People have been trained to look for meat as the first ingredient in a diet, assuming it means that there is more meat than anything else. Well, sometimes what appears to me mostly meat may actually be a primarily vegetable-based diet.

Ingredients are put in the pet food on a “wet weight” basis before cooking. That before cooking part is particularly significant in dry diets since 90% of the moisture will be baked out. Let’s look at an “ultra-premium” lamb and pea diet, where lamb is the number one ingredient and peas are the second ingredient. This same diet has pea starch, pea fiber, and pea protein as additional ingredients buried further down the list.

Since we don’t know exact amounts, let’s propose a possible scenario. Let’s say they use ten pounds of lamb for every eight pounds of peas. Then let’s say they use two pounds each of the pea starch, pea fiber, and pea protein. This scenario would give an ingredient list with “meat as the #1 ingredient!” (How many times have you seen that on a bag of pet food?)

Now, let’s analyze what’s really in the food. It’s important to remember that lamb meat is 70% water. Therefore, if ten pounds of the meat is cooked into a dry product, there will be just over three pounds of actual lamb left. A similar thing could be said for the peas, so let’s say that those peas end up weighing only two pounds after cooking off the moisture.

Now we need to remember those other ingredients much further down the list: pea starch, pea fiber, and pea protein. Those are already dry ingredients, so they don’t have any moisture to cook off. So we are left with a diet that is three pounds lamb and two pounds each of peas, pea starch, pea fiber, and pea protein.

But wait! What are peas made up of? Well they are starch, fiber, protein, and some vitamins and minerals. So why do you think the manufacturer has fractionated peas into their constituent components? The answer is that otherwise, the ingredient list would have to list peas as the first ingredient. The only reason they went to the trouble to do that was so they could say “meat is the number one ingredient!” – so you would buy it.

So we’ve established that the cooked form of the diet is actually eight pounds peas to three pounds of lamb. If the manufacturer hadn’t manipulated the ingredient list and used all fresh lamb and fresh peas, the math tells us that the real ratio would have been over twenty-five pounds of peas for every ten pounds of lamb. Does that sound like a meat-based diet to you? Of course, it’s not!

I actually prefer to see meat meals in the first two ingredients in a diet. The meals already have the moisture baked off, so they don’t move down the ingredient list when cooked. If I see a manufacturer fractionating ingredients into its constituent parts, I avoid that food simply for the fact that they are trying to manipulate me instead of providing me with useful information to make decisions for my pet.

Another trick that I use is look for salt on the ingredient list (or potassium chloride, which is sometimes used as a salt-substitute). That usually makes up only 1/16th of a teaspoon or less per cup of food – in other words, “a pinch.” Anything after that on the ingredient list means that there is barely any in the diet. That’s usually where you’ll find gimmick diets including things like blueberries, cranberries, or other fruits and vegetables. Try this at home: take a “pinch” off a fresh blueberry. Now, bake out 90% of it’s moisture. How much blueberry is left? Do you think that really does anything for your pet’s health? If I see that on a label, I’m insulted – as you should be, too.