• Pawsome Pet Care

How to read a dog food label

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Reading and understanding what's in your dog's food: Guest post by Butternut Box.

Understanding dog food composition

There are many great mysteries in life: the Da Vinci code, house prices, fixing a printer, the M25. We think it's fair to say that some pet food labels could be added to that list too.

While the ingredients in human meals and farm animal feeds legally need to be individually listed, pet food makers are not required to spell out the exact contents of their dog dishes.

Here is a handy guide to help you decipher some of the confusing terms and help you make an informed decision on what to choose, what to look for, and what to avoid.

Complete vs Complementary

The term Complete is a legal definition set by the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF). Complete means that the product contains all the nutrients your pet needs to support its daily life.

A complementary food means that other food must be added in order to provide nutritional balance. Eg a “mixer”. These meals tend to be very carbohydrate rich.


Most pet foods are made from a recipe using several ingredients. These ingredients will be listed under Composition, in descending order of weight per moisture content. E.g. If corn is listed first and poultry second, there is more corn in the food than poultry.

When telling their customers their ingredients, pet food manufacturers have the option to declare by category as opposed to listing individual ingredients.

Many processed dogs foods will not list a single named meat on the back of the package, despite what may be advertised on the front. This is because the meat is usually a combination of animals. This falls under the loose terms animal derivatives or meat and bone meal.

So what do the ingredient terms mean?

Meat Meal

This is generally made from animal by-products but the tricky part is that the by-products can come from a mix of different species. The trouble with meat meal as a category is that it’s quite mysterious and so it’s difficult to pin down exactly what’s in it as it’s at the discretion of the pet food maker. They are the parts of an animal not classed as ‘flesh’ or ‘meat’, and can include internal organs, beaks, feet and egg manufacturing waste. These by-products get treated at a high-temperature and are ground into a protein powder to add to pet food.


Cereals or grains are a group of ingredients that contain carbohydrates and are used in pet foods, including rice, wheat, barley, sorghum and corn (maize). When used as a collective term the cereal used can vary from batch to batch. When cereals appear on some pet food labels, it means they can be anything from corn to wheat depending on what’s cheapest to buy at the time of production. For pooches with sensitive tummies, this can be a bit of a minefield.

Derivatives of vegetable origins

‘Derivatives of vegetable origin’ in other pet foods can sometimes mean that a random mix of vegetables are selected (depending on cost) and are cooked at high temperatures to create a powder to add afterwards, damaging some of the important nutrients.

How much meat is in my pet food?

What’s written on the front of a dog food packet isn’t necessarily what’s written on the back or what’s inside the bag. A food can be advertised as ‘with’ beef, chicken or fish as long as it comprises at least 4% of that animal protein.

Front of the bag (if we use beef as the named meat)

‘Flavoured with’ beef means less than 4% beef is required to be in the food. ‘With beef’ only requires a minimum of 4% beef.

‘Rich in beef’ only requires a minimum of 14% beef.

‘Beef’ requires a minimum of 26% beef.

Back of the bag

The rest of the meat in the product could be a combination of any unnamed meat.

Pet food makers are not required to spell out the exact contents of their pet food dishes. This allows many companies to change their recipe depending on what protein or grain is most abundant or cheapest at the time of manufacturing.

Why is Butternut Box different?

  • Butternut Box is 100% transparent

  • We only ever use freshly prepared, human-grade meat and vegetables in the meals we make.

  • Our recipes are made up of 40% vegetables and lentils as well as 60% single-source protein - which means when we say ‘beef’, we mean beef and nothing but the beef.

  • No hidden nasties. Freshly prepared and delivered, all our food is preservative, sweetener and filler-free. So there are no strange chemicals going into your dog’s body.

  • Gently cooked vegetables, flax seed, turmeric, sage, rosemary and thyme are all powerful antioxidants that maintain a healthy immune system, brain, skin and coat.

  • We cook all of these ingredients at a gentle 90 degrees so that we don’t kill their goodness (and vibe).

  • Butternut Box meals offer a complete diet for all life stages - from puppies through to golden oldies.

50% off your first two boxes from Butternut Box

If you're struggling to understand some of the things in your dog’s bowl, it’s probably time to give Butternut Box a try. Fetch 50% off your first two boxes today and see the difference it can make to your dog’s health and happiness.

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