The ingredients on the package aren’t as important as you think they are

As humans, we’re accustomed to hearing that we should buy foods that only contain natural ingredients, because they’re said to be the most nutritious. And it turns out many of us believe the same is true for our pets, too.

A 2016 Nielsen study revealed that more than half of all cat and dog owners consider the type of ingredients used to be the most important factor when choosing what their pet will eat.

But according to Dr. Heinze, the ingredient list on pet food labels is structured the way it is for marketing purposes. As a result, it’s generally unhelpful for measuring nutritional quality.

She told INSIDER, “You usually have to dive a lot deeper than the label [and ingredients] to make a good decision.”

This is because what often happens is that similar, or sometimes near identical ingredients can be present in different forms, as noted by both Dr. Heinze and Dr. Lisa Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVM and fellow Professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. For example, whole chicken, which contains water, will show up on a label as simply “chicken.” Since the moisture content makes it weigh more, it will be printed near the top of an ingredient list. On the other hand, chicken meal (which is essentially just dehydrated and processed chicken protein), doesn’t weigh as much as the “whole chicken” and thus gets pushed further down the list.

It creates an illusion that the chicken meal isn’t providing as much to the diet as the whole chicken, even though the opposite may be true. Yet they’re still allowed to list them on their label based on passing certain weight requirements.

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