The lowdown on labels: With pet food packaging, what you read is what you get.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the very opposite is true of pet foods. It’s not only possible to make an educated assessment of a product’s nutritional profile from its ingredient label, but it’s also a smart, responsible measure for those who love their four-legged companions.

In the pet food industry, we have advisory and regulatory groups that guide the disclosure of product contents in packaging literature. As a result, today’s pet food ingredient labels are much more than clever marketing messages and photos of adorable kitties and pups; they’ve become required reading for anyone serious about ensuring the proper diet and health of their pets.

And what a story the modern-day pet food label tells! Diligent package-studying consumers are able to discern healthful ingredients from lower quality ingredients. Whether the food contained in the package is an exclusive designer formula or a mass-marketed kibble, every pet food label must list all ingredients in the order of their addition by weight, from highest to lowest.

Some labels show nothing but wholesome, all-natural ingredients in their recipes, while others may list meat by-products as a contributing protein source as well as wheat, soy, or chemical preservatives or additives. Conscientious pet parents have learned what these ingredients may mean in terms of the effects — positive and negative — they will have on the overall health of their pet.

The Wellness® brand is an excellent example of a natural pet food whose label clearly indicates the wholesome ingredients that are contained in the product, as well as those — by their omission — that are not. The text on the label plainly states that Wellness foods are prepared using healthy, whole foods, including premium, USDA-grade meats free of added hormones and antibiotics— the highest quality protein sources of any pet food. Indeed, the Wellness label lists meat or meat meal as the first ingredient for each of its varieties.

Wellness foods contain whole grains for fiber and energy, and fruits and vegetables for antioxidant protection. The recipes also incorporate a number of supportive supplements and minerals, including Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids for the skin and coat, glucosamine and chondroitin for joints, and taurine for the cardiovascular system.

Of equal significance is the list of items not found in Wellness recipes: meat byproducts, wheat and wheat gluten, soy, dairy and artificial preservatives, flavors, colors and dyes. What is kept out — ingredients of lower quality that offer no nutritional value and are potentially allergenic or harmful — is absolutely as critical as what goes in.

It’s important to remember that, for pets as well as people, we are what we eat. Many people are very careful to look for healthy ingredients on the labels of the foods they buy for themselves. Just because pets can’t ask for it, that doesn’t mean they deserve anything less than the same carefully chosen menu and the wellness and happiness they derive from such a diet.

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