KSL Investigators Compare Popular Brands Of Dog Food
Jul 9, 2018, 10:15 PM | Updated: May 21, 2023, 4:03 pm
PUTTING NUTRITION TO THE TEST
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Americans spend billions every year feeding their pets. But with very little independent testing, choosing the best food for your pet can be confusing.
When the KSL Investigators learned much of the nutritional testing that’s been done on dog food has been done by the food makers themselves, they decided to independently test dog food bought at the supermarket to find out if buying the cheapest dog food will cheat a dog out of nutrition.
Vinnie is a Schnauzer. Like most pets, he’s considered a member of the family.
“The kids really love him and I really like him,” said Avery Atwood. “He was our first child.”
For all his eight years with the Atwoods, Vinnie’s diet has pretty much been the same: dry dog food from the supermarket.
“It’s been fine for him,” said Atwood. “He’s been really healthy.”
Vinnie eats Purina Dog Chow, a real value at 44 cents a pound.
KSL Investigator Debbie Dujanovic has always spent a little more on her dog Riley, a Blue Heeler mix: about $1.50 a pound for Purina One, because like many pet owners, buying the cheapest option made her feel guilty.
Most supermarkets offer options that cost much more – up to $3.00 per pound at the stores we checked.
Regardless of their choice, Americans are expected to spend nearly $30 billion on pet food this year according to the American Pet Products Association.
While the FDA does require dog food to include safe ingredients, the agency doesn’t regulate its nutrition.
There are voluntary guidelines from an industry group called the Association of American Feed Control Officials made of up officials from local, state and federal agencies.
If a bag of dog food carries an AAFCO statement, the manufacturer guarantees it meets the group’s minimum requirements for protein, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
TESTING FOR NUTRITION
Using those guidelines, the KSL Investigators sent five popular brands of dry dog food in a variety of price-points to an independent lab to test nutritional quality:
- Pet Pride Crunchy Bits & Bones (Kroger store brand): 67 cents per pound
- Kirkland Signature Adult Formula Chicken, Rice & Vegetable (Costco store brand): $1.02 per pound
- Iams Proactive Health Adult Mini Chunks: $1.43 per pound
- Purina One Smartblend Chicken & Rice Natural Adult Formula: $1.87 per pound
- Blue Buffalo Chicken & Brown Rice: $3.00 per pound
When the test results came back, all five brands met AAFCO’s levels on the four nutrients we tested for: protein, fat, fiber and moisture.
We asked Doctor Kara Thornton-Kurth, a dog lover and a researcher at Utah State University’s Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences department to review the results.
“Generally, when you look at a dog food label on the bag, that is going to be reflective of nutrients that went into the feed prior to processing,” explained Dr. Thornton-Kurth. “I was actually pleasantly surprised at how close those values were to what was on the bag because we know cooking is going to change the nutrient content.”
The FDA says the main ingredient must be listed first. On four of the foods we tested, that first ingredient turned out to be a protein: chicken. For the cheapest food we tested, Pet Pride, the first ingredient is corn meal.
“Corn itself isn’t necessarily bad for dogs,” said Thornton-Kurth. “But it’s going to be really high in energy and high in things like carbohydrates.”
She says nothing in the results would stop her from buying any of the five foods we had tested.
“It really depends on what the owner feels comfortable feeding their dogs and how their dog is going to respond to that food,” Thornton-Kurth said.
“I don’t think there’s one perfect product that works for every single dog out there,” veterinarian Rachel Walton of University Veterinary Hospital told us.
She fields questions about choosing a good dog food all the time. One answer she will not give: buy the most expensive one.
“I don’t usually think of price as the way to determine the quality of a pet food,” Walton remarked. “I would be cautious to equate more expensive foods with being higher quality foods.”
Walton will tell you to only buy dog food with the AAFCO statement on the label. While it is voluntary for dog food makers, it is the only guarantee of what is in the bag.
“The AAFCO statement says the food is formulated to meet their guidelines,” explained Walton. “It also tells you at what life stage the diet is for and I think that’s really important information.”
She also says the AAFCO statement will tell dog owners if the food they’re buying has only been formulated to AAFCO guidelines, or if it has undergone a feeding trial. There’s a difference.
“Formulated means a chemical analysis. It’s just a recipe,” Walton explained. “If it’s been through a feeding trial that means the diet has been fed to animals for a period of time and they have successfully survived and thrived on that particular diet.”
Like Thornton-Kurth, Walton believes grains like corn, barley and rice shouldn’t give dog owners too much pause.
“For pets, true grain allergies are very uncommon. You’re going to want to avoid those things if your dog is allergic,” said Walton. “If you have an adult, healthy dog then grains are fine. They’re a good source of nutrition.”
PUPPY VS. ADULT FORMULAS
Another thing Walton believes is important: look for a dog food made with your dog’s age in mind. A food formulated for a puppy might not be appropriate for an elderly dog that’s not as active.
“Young puppies need a lot more nutrients and calories than the average dogs do. So, that could lead to weight gain if you’re feeding food designed for puppies to your adult dog,” said Walton.
MAKING SENSE OF THE MARKETING
The pet food aisle is full of choices and marketing claims: gourmet, organic, all-natural, premium and grain-free; and includes a variety of price-points.
Both of our experts agree certain words like “natural,” “super premium,” “holistic” and “wholesome” are more about marketing than actual nutritional benefits for dogs. There is no clear standard a food maker has to meet in order to use those words on labeling.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean those types of foods… are better for your animal,” Dr. Thornton-Kurth. “But it’s a value we as humans might value ourselves.”
“I think there’s a lot of marketing that’s a little bit of hype,” remarked Dr. Walton. “It’s not necessarily based on science or nutrition.”
And neither expert was overly concerned by preservatives used in dry dog food.
“Most of the time they’re being utilized to have the kibble hold its shape or as a preservative that’s necessary for the safety of the diet,” explained Walton.
“I’d rather get a food that has a little bit of a preservative in it rather than a food that has a chance to spoil or cause my pet to be sick,” said Dr. Thornton-Kurth.
CHOOSING BY PRICE?
Whether your dog is a Riley or a Vinnie or a Fido, our test results suggest the perfect pick for your pooch’s palate doesn’t have to be the priciest. Leave the guilt in the pet food aisle – the cheaper options are likely just fine.
You’ll know your dog is thriving on his diet if he’s at a good weight, his skin and coat look healthy (not flaky or dull), and there are no digestive issues.