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What Do Pet Food Label Terms Really Mean?

Flavor, Formula, Dinner Platter: Does It Make a Difference?


I've always noticed all the buzz words on the labels as I select food for my four cats. In the past, I've gotten them seafood entrees and chicken dinners and beef platters, without really knowing what that meant. I simply chose something I thought my spoiled indoor kitties would like, just as I do with toys and treats.

In truth, I never even realized that a pet food label is a legal document until I visited the Hill's Science Diet Pet Nutrition Center, where nutritionist Dr. Bill Schoenherr shed some light on this confusing subject. Now my view of those buzz words is forever changed because I know what they're truly saying.

Below is a quick list of what some of the terms actually mean when used for cat and dog food. These definitions are dictated by a regulatory body called the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and some of the definitions might surprise you.

One Hundred Percent

If a pet food label says that something is "one hundred percent" of an ingredient, you'd probably assume that it means the entire product is made up of that particular ingredient. You might possibly be right. Then again, you might be wrong by as much as five percent.

According to Dr. Schoenherr, the term "one hundred percent" can actually mean anywhere between 95 and 100 percent. Thus, a pet food that's said to be one hundred percent meat could actually contain as much as five percent of non-meat fillers.

If you see a pet product that uses the words "one hundred percent" on its label, don't just assume that you know what you're getting. Read the exact list of ingredients for a more accurate picture of what you're going to put into your pet.

Dinner, Platter, Entree, Formula or Recipe

I frequently see the words "dinner," "platter," "entree," "formula," and "recipe" on both canned and dry cat food. I didn't realize that these words had legal definitions. I used them more as guidelines to choose flavors my spoiled kitties might like. For example, they tend to enjoy fish, so something called "seafood platter" or "whitefish entree" has a good chance of making it into my shopping cart.

Actually, those words refer to the amount of the ingredient in that particular product. In the case of seafood, when I buy those foods, they should contain between 94 and 25 percent fish. The same is true of beef, chicken, or whatever else is listed on the label with one of those terms.


The term "with" sometimes acts as a selling point for me. For example, my cats all adore fresh pet grass, which I often buy for them at the pet store. Thus, I've tried certain pet foods that advertise "with greens."

I never really thought about just how much of an ingredient "with" really meant. In the case of greens, I figured there was probably a sprinkling throughout the food. If a pet product came "with" cheese or vegetables or some other ingredient, I'd think the same thing.

Actually, "with" means there has to be between three and 24 percent of the specified ingredient. That's a pretty big variance, depending on the ingredient.


So many dog and cat foods tout themselves as being "Savory Beef Flavor" or "Tasty Tuna Flavor" or whatever the taste in question might be. Flavor doesn't have to be directly linked to ingredients, or at least not in a major way. It can be less than three percent of the contents of the food. It just needs to be "recognizable to the pet."

Of course, it's rather hard to ask a canine or feline, "Does that taste more like beef or pork to you?" or "Are you catching that hint of shrimp?" as you serve it up in a bowl and the animal wolfs down its dinner. Companies do their best to meet this standard by using ingredients that would be reasonably expected to impart the flavor in question.


Many pet foods and pet treats claim to be natural. This claim is valid in the eyes of the law as long as their ingredients are not chemically altered in any way.

Some dog and cat food makers use the word "holistic" in their labels. Unfortunately, consumers have no way to know what that really means because it has no legal definition. Any pet food company can put the "holistic" label on its products, regardless of what they contain or how they're made.

Ingredient Order

We all know that ingredients listed on food labels have to appear in descending order. Thus, we would reasonably expect that a dog or cat food label listing the ingredients as "beef, grain, vegetables, and water" would contain meat as its top ingredient.

In theory, that would be correct. In practice, if a pet food contains the same amount of two or more ingredients, the manufacturer gets to choose the order in which it lists those items. In our hypothetical example, the food could contain just as much water as it does meat if it happens to be made up of 25 percent of each of those ingredients.

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