Ingredient Label Tricks – Ingredient Splitting

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imageLooking at the ingredient list on a dog food label is tricky.  In many cases, the lists are long and contain names of ingredients that we are not familiar with.  Today we begin a multi-part series that explains some simple ways to judge the ingredients in your dog’s food and provide some tips to help you spot label ‘tricks’ that might hide the food’s real quality.

First is Most

Like human food, dog food labels are required to list ingredients in order of their prominence in the food.  Specifically, according to AAFCO, ingredients are “required to be listed in order of predominance by weight. The weights of ingredients are determined as they are added in the formulation, including their inherent water content.[…]”

In theory, this means that the first ingredient on the label is the most predominant ingredient (by weight), the second ingredient is the second most predominant, etc.  Pretty straight forward, and why many people look for foods with a protein as the first ingredient.

Splitting Hairs

Still, we must be careful when looking at the ingredients as the lists can sometimes be deceiving.  Why?  Because lower quality ingredients can be ‘split’ on the label so that it appears that their contribution to the food formula is less than it actually is while simultaneously improving the position of higher quality ingredients even though the amount of the higher quality ingredient is not changed at all!  An example can help illustrate.

Here is a list of 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 1st ingredient, notice that a form of wheat is the 2nd and 3rd ingredient, and a form of rice is the 5th and 6th ingredient.  It is quite possible that if you added the wheat and rice ingredients together, that the food list might look a little different.  For example:

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

Not quite the same story, especially if you look for a food with a protein as the 1st ingredient.  What appeared to be a predominantly meat based food now looks more like a grain based food.

How Common is Splitting?

Mom, this has FILLER in it...

Mom, this has FILLER in it…

Ingredient splitting has been called a “trick” (and worse) that some dog food manufacturers intentionally use to make inferior products look better to the average consumer.  That may or may not be the case.   Yet, we couldn’t help but wonder how prevalent split ingredients are in today’s commercially available food.  So we combed through our database of about 2,200 foods and treats and looked for cases where ‘filler’ ingredients were named more than once in their ingredients list.  In this experiment, we defined filler as being Corn, Rice, or Wheat.   We found that there were 370 such cases, or about 17% of our entire data set.  Further, we found that in 64% of these cases the filler was Rice; about 18% of the cases were Corn and  another 18% were Wheat.

Although 17% seems like a reasonably low value, we can’t say with certainty whether or not these statistics are good or bad because we don’t have a reference point.  It would be interesting to have been able to compare these values to dog food labels 10 or 20 years ago—as an exercise to see if ingredient splitting is becoming more or less common.  Our hope is that these numbers are lower than they were in the past, which would be a reflection of the increasing proportion of higher quality foods and food brands that have been created to satisfy consumer requests for high protein, low grain/filler diets.

Just for fun, we decided to count how many foods and treats contain any of the filler ingredients, even if they are listed only once. Before disclosing the stats, which we will do next week, are there any guesses?

What percentage of the 2,200 foods and treats do you think contain Rice, Corn, or Wheat? We’ll give a hint: it is greater than 17% (which is the percent that have these fillers listed at least twice in the label).


We’re joining the Tasty Tuesday Blog Hop sponsored by Sugar, the Golden Retriever and Kolchak from Kol’s Notes:

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  1. this is great information, i always research any food i feed my pets

    urban hounds
    urban hounds recently posted…Easy Beefy BitesMy Profile

  2. Ok, we are now waiting for next week! This whole food thing is so complex. We think our food is pretty good, hopefully it is.
    emma recently posted…Intermediate Counter Surfing 201 | GBGV | Monday MischiefMy Profile

  3. Fillers are empty calories and not good for dogs. It’s amazing how many food/treat manufacturer continue to add fillers such as corn n rice. Very curious of the %. Happy Tasty Tuesday. Hope Jack n Maggie to get some extra delish treats (with no fillers). Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar
    SUGAR: Golden Woofs recently posted…Tasty Tuesday: Strawberry Chips w/ Banana DipMy Profile

  4. My guess would be 100% of all commercially processed food and treats have fillers, including the so-called “grain-free” formulas. Maybe I’m being unfair to WellPet, so I’ll change my guess to 98%.
    My mom used to say that dog food was regulated more strictly than people food. But that was in the 60’s and 70’s, before the Berlin Wall came down and before trade with China opened up. Back then the USDA had fewer companies to deal with and more people to do the job. But it was also before we had to worry about GMOs. (Thanks so much, Monsanto!)

  5. I know that I feed my dogs cheap food. I do. I also know that there’s little to no filler in their treats. And that the duck and chicken poo they eat is probably mostly grain. 🙁
    Flea recently posted…Sausage Sticks Make Dogs SmileMy Profile

  6. It’s so obnoxious that they do this. I’m sure they do the same with human food, as when you read the labels looking for sugar you see it disguised by about 7 different names. So annoying!

    Looks like Rita’s Blue Buffalo Wilderness food is not rated in the widget, but it gets 5 stars at DogFoodAdvisor. Hopefully they aren’t liars/scam artists like most food manufacturers seem to be these days. Sigh
    Jackie Bouchard recently posted…Monday Mischief: Were Our Bunnies Robbed??My Profile

    • We are missing ingredients for some of the Blue Wilderness formulas, but this line of food ranks high with us- 8/10 on average.
      Steve recently posted…Ingredient Label Tricks – Ingredient SplittingMy Profile

      • Cool. Good to know. (I suppose if I were a better pawrent I’d shoot for 10 out of 10 but the convenience of the kibble, with some of the wet canned stuff or some home cooked meat/veg mixed in, is the way to go for this lazy girl.) 🙂
        Jackie Bouchard recently posted…Monday Mischief: Were Our Bunnies Robbed??My Profile

  7. Interesting. I never thought about ingredient splitting in that manner, but it makes perfect sense for manufacturers to attempt this so they can pass off their product in a different way. Sage has been on Acana for several years and seems to thrive. We also try to always give her ‘grain-free’ treats. Acana’s not in your database, but it’s sister food is Orijen. Both are rated very high by various reviewers.
    Sage recently posted…B & W Sunday: Happiness is…My Profile

    • Thanks for the tip on Acana. We will do the research and add to our data set.

      Orijen is a good food. Our current ranking system actually under ranks it and we are making some tweaks to account for some of the ‘unusual’ but ‘natural’ ingredients that are in this line of food.
      Steve recently posted…Ingredient Label Tricks – Ingredient SplittingMy Profile

      • We also feed ACANA, specifically ACANA Pacifica usually… and would love to see it in the food rating tool.

  8. Hi Y’all,

    Thanks for the info…I’ve noticed the different forms of the same item listed on ingredients, but was not looking at it as a way to promote a protein up the list. You given me a new perspective. Great info. Thank you!

    BrownDog’s Human
    Hawk aka BrownDog recently posted…Let Me Introduce Myself!My Profile

  9. Thanks for pointing this out – one of my biggest pet peeves when looking at pet food labels!
    Stefanie recently posted…Every day is take your dog to work day…My Profile

  10. I would like to think the splitting has more to do with the FDA (or whatever the dog food equivalent is) than outright deception but it can sure be “tricky” for pet parents to figure out. My Dad had to create an ingredients list for his cupcake recipes (he owns a fancy cupcake shop) and the regulating agency was very meticulous about how he “split” the ingredients (making him split further and further).
    Jessica recently posted…Peanut Butter, Banana, Coconut Kong StuffingMy Profile

  11. I’m guessing that the number is pretty high. I think a lot of them use some kind of filler, but I’d like to be pleasantly surprised!
    houndstooth recently posted…The Best Dog EverMy Profile

  12. My Mum is really interested in this stuff, it will be good to see next weeks post too! 🙂

    Have a fun weekend,

    Your pal Snoopy 🙂
    snoopys recently posted…Are dogs smarter than people?My Profile

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