First Ingredient Rule Deconstructed

One common rule that pet owners use to choose a pet food is the first ingredient rule. It states that the first ingredient on the pet food ingredient list should be a meat or fish.  At its core, this rule makes sense since dogs and cats are carnivores, and their food should contain animal or fish as the primary protein source.  However, like many simple rules of thumb, relying solely on this quick analysis can lead to questionable choices.

The two main reasons that using the first ingredient analysis leads to suboptimal food choices are the following:

1) Many of the secondary and tertiary ingredients that follow in the recipe may be inappropriate or even harmful to the pet.

2) Ingredient splitting can manipulate the ingredient weights, thus making it appear that the primary ingredient is a real meat when it might not actually be so.

Secondary Ingredients in Pet Food Matter

Because pet foods are formulated to be complete and balanced meals, they contain many ingredients. In fact, the average pet food contains over 40 ingredients.  So, looking at the first ingredient only means ignoring 40 some other ingredients altogether. Foods labeled with meat first could also contain a whole host of fillers, artificial colors or preservatives, and added sugars.  The only way to know for sure is to scour the entire ingredient list.

Pet Food Ingredient Splitting

Pet food manufacturers are required to list the ingredients in the order of predominance by weight.  Meaning, the ingredients at the top of the list contribute more, by weight, to the recipe than the ingredients near the middle and end do. The first position is important because it means that the first ingredient, which should be a named meat or fish for pets, is the primary ingredient in the recipe.

However, pet food companies are well aware that many pet owners look only at the first ingredient when making their pet food choices.  As a result, they find ways to make lower quality recipes appear as if their predominant ingredient is a meat when in fact, it might not actually be so. By breaking apart or splitting up inferior ingredients, food brands can move the meat or fish protein up the ingredient list. Here's an example.

Here are the first several ingredients of an actual dog food:

Chicken Meal, Ground Whole Wheat, Wheat Flour, Corn Gluten Meal, Ground Rice, Rice Bran, Chicken Fat.

Although Chicken meal is the first ingredient, notice that a form of wheat is the second and third ingredient, and a form of rice is the fifth and sixth ingredient. If you added the wheat and rice ingredients together, the food list might look a little different.

For example, the ingredients might really look like:

Wheat, Rice, Chicken Meal, Corn Gluten Meal, Chicken Fat.

Not quite the same story, is it? From a study we conducted a few months ago, we found that one out of every 3 dog foods had split ingredients in their recipes. Relying solely on the first ingredient means that you have a 33% chance of serving your pet a food whose first ingredient is, in actuality, not a named meat or fish protein.

The bottom line is that while the first ingredient of a dog food should be a named meat or fish protein source, the rest of the ingredients matter as well. Pet foods should be fully examined before you choose for your pet.