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Ingredients to Avoid in Dog Food: The Shakedown

Ingredients to Avoid in Dog Food: The Shakedown

Jun 02, 2021
AUTHOR Dr. Ross Bernstein

Reviewed by Dr. Ross Bernstein

Dr. Ross Bernstein is a seasoned veterinarian who we’re fortunate to have as the head of our Board of Pet Experts. Dr. Ross earned his doctoral degree in veterinary medicine at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where he was trained under the guidance of some of the country's most renowned veterinary professionals.

Our dogs are omnivores. They will gulp down just about anything — meat, veggies, fruit, candy, table scraps, grass, dirt… sometimes even poop! The truth is they have absolutely no idea what is good for them and what isn’t, and if something smells remotely tasty or intriguing, they’ll grab a bite to see what it’s like.

The same goes for commercial dog food — if it has an alluring aroma, your dog will dig right in. Relying on their taste alone when it comes to the choice of their chow is a bad idea — you have to make sure you get them the best grub you can find. That means you have to understand every single ingredient on a dog food label.

Dogs are what AlphaPaw is all about, and we will do everything in our power to help you make the best dietary choices for your pooch. Read on to learn which ingredients should never touch your pup’s bowl.

Dog Food Ingredients Yays and Nays

You know what parents are like — they study baby food labels to the tiniest detail to ensure their bundle of joy gets only the best of the best. Dog parents should be no different. Feel free to be as persnickety about the nutrition of your furry baby as you would be about your human baby’s food — read labels religiously to make sure you know exactly what goes into their tummies.

Dog food is a particularly slippery slope. While human food is closely inspected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), dog food is much less monitored. Unlike human-grade food, pet food is “feed grade,” which means a lot of the bad stuff can sneak in there.

Nutritionally, it needs to comply with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommendations, but many companies get away with cheats to meet those requirements. For instance, numerous fillers, additives, and low-quality ingredients can boost the food’s taste or its protein content.

Commercial dog food packaging isn’t making it easier for us to choose the best kind, either. You’ve likely been lulled into a sense of false security by big, colorful words printed on the packaging, such as “REAL CHICKEN,” and failed to notice that what follows is a barely visible “meal.”

You need to learn to see past the pretty pictures on the bag or can and make it a habit to read the fine print. AlphaPaw has guides to the best dry dog food and the best canned dog food where you can find out what it is about those formulas that make them truly exceptional.

Here, we deal with the ingredients you don’t want to see on the dog food label at any cost. Some are harmful in the long run, others only in large quantities, but some are downright toxic for dogs. Whatever the case, you want none of that yuck in your pup’s grub!

What Ingredients to Avoid in Dog Food

Credit: statelypetsupply

To get to the bottom of what we want to see on the label and what to avoid in dog food, we consulted:

  1. Veterinarians, who told us about the nutritional requirements of our pooches and warned us about the health concerns linked to harmful ingredients in dog food
  2. Chemists, who explained to us how to recognize the compounds in dog food that may otherwise slip our attention
  3. Our prior dog food reviews and everything we learned from them (check out small-batch dog food, Wellness CORE dog food, Halo dog food review, and many others to see what we found out about those well-known brands)

What we want is “complete and balanced” nutrition according to AAFCO requirements for fats, protein, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. You’d be amazed to learn how many brands tout their formulas on the packaging, but when you look at the ingredient list, the chances are you won’t understand what half of the items are.

That is not a good sign. We took expert advice and made the following list of the worst ingredients in dog food:

  1. Sub-par protein sources: meat meals, by-products, corn
  2. Filler ingredients: inexpensive, gluten-packed grains
  3. Artificial preservatives: carrageenan, BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, propylene glycol
  4. Unnecessary additives: Sodium Hexametaphosphate, food dyes
  5. Flavor enhancers: rendered fat, sugars, salt, digests, flavors, monosodium glutamate

We also made sure to provide examples of the healthy alternatives to the dangerous ingredients in dog food, so you know both what to look for and what to avoid in dog food.

Avoid at All Cost: Meals and By-Products

Credit: Wikipedia

We’ll cut a long story short and just say it — steer clear from any unnamed, ambiguous primary ingredients in your dog’s food. By that, we mean anything along the lines of:

  • Meat (and bone) meal
  • Animal meal
  • Fish meal
  • Poultry meal
  • Any mention of by-products

Unnamed meals point to suspicious ingredient origin — the source of the meal is anybody’s guess, so why bother to name it? Low-quality meat meals are made in rendering plants that use animal carcasses (or their remains) that are not fit for human consumption — yum, right? Wait for it — here is only a fraction of what makes up an unnamed meal:

  • The four Ds — dead, dying, diseased, or disabled animals
  • Roadkill
  • Slaughterhouse waste and other by-products, such as bones, hooves, feathers, beaks, feet, skulls, tumors, diseased organs, together with antibiotics that the animals were given to preserve their meat and pesticides from the food they were fed on — anyone hungry yet?
  • Expired or foul supermarket meat (and its plastic packaging because who’s going to bother unwrapping it all?)
  • Euthanized animals (the meat of which contains pentobarbital, an anesthetic used to put animals down)
  • Any trinkets that were left on animals, like collars, implants, ID tags, insecticide patches, surgical pins, etc.

All of that is heated extensively to get rid of fat and moisture, kill pathogens, and render it into a uniform stew-like mass. Then it is dehydrated and ground into a fine powder that is pressed into kibble but deprived of a whole lot of nutrients and enzymes in the process.

The moral of the story? Even when the end product meets the AAFCO dog food requirements, how can you be sure that your rescue dog isn’t eating one of their buddies that were simply not as lucky?

What to Look for Instead?

The best source of animal protein is a real, named cut of meat, like turkey or pork. Named meals, such as chicken meal or beef meal, are also fine because you know you are getting a processed product from a named animal and nothing else. In fact, quality-made meals contain as much as 60% protein and 10% moisture (while raw meat has about 20% protein and 70% water), so you know you’re getting an energy-packed product.

Bad Ingredients: Corn, Wheat, and Soy

Credit: Agro Daily

Wheat, soy, and corn are the most common ingredients in processed food, including pet food. Corn and wheat are inexpensive whole grains and sources of fiber and carbs, while soy is a rich vegetable protein source. The problem is that these three are among the most frequent allergens for dogs, and they are almost without fail genetically modified (GMO), which makes them even less expensive and more tempting for food manufacturers.

Corn especially is dirt cheap, so if you see it listed among the main ingredients in your dog’s food, rest assured that the manufacturer used it to cut corners. Corn is protein-packed, which will show up in the guaranteed analysis of the formula and inflate the protein count on the label, but it doesn’t have enough amino acids to make the protein digestible for your dog. Wheat and corn (as well as oats) also contain gluten, which dogs aren’t built to digest. As a result, your poor doggo will likely get tummy issues from these ingredients.

What to Look for Instead?

The best protein source is real meat, and grain-free formulas are a safe choice if your pup is suffering from ingesting all that gluten. If you are looking for plant-derived carbs and fiber, sweet potato is a good option.

Harmful Ingredient: Sodium Hexametaphosphate

This ingredient makes not only our tongues twist but also our stomachs turn. Although it is added to dog food to prevent and reduce tartar buildup on our pooches’ teeth, it is known to cause problems with the canine GI tract and various skin issues.

What to Look for Instead?

How about brushing your dog’s teeth regularly or providing them one of the tried-and-tested and overall best dog dental chews?

Useless Ingredient: Carrageenan


Credit: MRDC

Carrageenan is used in many ways in human food, and it is a common thickener in wet dog food, too. It has no nutritional value, and it is known to cause digestive upset in canines, along with other health concerns:

  • Gastric inflammation
  • Ulcers
  • Lesions
  • Colon cancer
  • Weakened immune system

What to Look for Instead?

Canned food that doesn’t use any preservatives because the canning process takes care of that.

Dangerous Ingredients: BHA, BHT, and Ethoxyquin

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), and Ethoxyquin are artificial preservatives that are widely used in pet food.

BHA and BHT are dangerous chemicals that keep oils and fat in dog food from spoiling. They are particularly common in dog treats (check out the best dog treat brands and the worst dog treat brands). Both of these compounds are known carcinogens that can also cause reproductive complications and kidney and liver damage.

Ethoxyquin is a veiled enemy because it usually doesn’t appear on food labels. It is sprayed on freshly caught fish to keep it from spoiling, and it enters the rendering plant unnoticed. Fish meals are also ridden with this preservative, which is yet another reason to go for foods with named ingredients.

What to Look for Instead?

There are plenty of safe and healthy ways to preserve food. We already mentioned canning, but vitamins C and E are excellent dry food preservatives that are also beneficial for your pooch.

Questionable Ingredient: Propylene Glycol

Propylene glycol (PG) is a food moistening agent. It is typically found in wet or semi-moist dog food and treats. PG is a component of antifreeze, although one slightly less frowned upon than ethylene glycol (EG), which is PG’s exceptionally poisonous counterpart. Rumour has it that PG is not toxic for dogs as they are unable to absorb it, but we dare say that serving dog-friendly antifreeze to your pup will hardly bring you any consolation.

What to Look for Instead?

The best alternative is to go for preservative-free wet food options or choose the kibble that has non-toxic preservatives, such as vitamin E (tocopherols) or vitamin C.

Unnecessary Ingredient: Food Dyes

Credit: The Atlantic

Let’s not beat about the bush — artificial dyes are unnecessary in canine (or any other animal) food. Your dog couldn’t care less about the color of their kibble, and nor should you. Food colorants have been linked to hyperactivity and are best avoided.

The most commonly used food dyes are Blue #2, Red #40, Yellow #5, and Yellow #6. They all contain benzidine, which is a known carcinogen. Another surprising dye is listed as caramel on the dog food label. Yes, it’s not the sugary thingy in this case (although it would also be harmful to your dog) but a color that is listed as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe). The question is — is that good enough for your pooch?

What to Look for Instead?

Naturally colored dog food may be less pleasing to your eye, but the difference means absolutely nothing to your woofer. Stick with blends that list no artificial dyes among the ingredients and the kibble that has slight hue variations among pellets.

Suspicious Dog Food Ingredients: Rendered Fat

Rendered fat (or anything ambiguous, such as animal fat, poultry fat, fish oil, or vegetable oil) is usually filled with toxins that the animal or plant it comes from came in contact with at some point. Those can be pesticides, insecticides, antibiotics, or any other chemical. If the source of the fat is unnamed, it likely came from one of the four Ds we already mentioned — diseased, disabled, dying, or dead animals.

What to Look for Instead?

Look for named oils and fat, such as salmon oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, olive oil, pork fat, chicken fat, etc.

Allergenic Ingredients: Monosodium Glutamate

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a nasty flavor enhancer that is a common allergen among doggos. It is often hidden in other ingredients, but you will likely recognize it on the dog food label as any of the following:

  • Hydrolyzed protein
  • Monopotassium glutamate
  • Texturized protein
  • Protein isolate
  • Glutamate or glutamic acid
  • Autolyzed yeast
  • Soy extracts or concentrate
  • Hydrolyzed yeast
  • Calcium caseinate
  • Disodium inosinate
  • Guanylate
  • Sodium caseinate
  • Yeast extracts
  • Natural flavors (like chicken flavor)

What to Look for Instead?

Instead of buying food that needs taste enhancers, go for the chow that uses whole ingredients that provide a natural flavor that your pooch will recognize and enjoy. Nothing can trump the taste of real meat and delicious fruit and veggies, especially if the food contains some of the spices and herbs that are alright for dogs to consume.

Flat-Out Harmful Dog Food Ingredients to Avoid: Sugar Substitutes

Sugar, sugar alcohols, and sugar substitutes are detrimental for your dog’s health, and some of them can even be deadly.

Sugar alcohols, such as maltitol, sorbitol, and xylitol, raise your pooch’s blood glucose level, and then cause it to suddenly drop, increasing the risk for hyperglycemia, seizures, and in the long run, diabetes and liver damage. Even if things don’t go out of hand for your dog, they will still get addicted to sugar, experience cravings, and possibly refuse to eat any food that doesn’t contain sugar.

What to Look for Instead?

No sugars or sugar substitutes are necessary in dog food. If you want, occasionally offer your doggo recipes with naturally sweet ingredients, such as fruits, carrots, beets, pumpkin, or sweet potatoes.

Bloaty Ingredients: Salt

Credit: essencenutritionmiami

Salt is essential for the optimal health of your furry companion, but excess salt intake can have dire consequences for their health. AAFCO recommends at least 0.3% sodium in dog nutrition for all life stages, and that amount is naturally achieved through quality ingredients. If manufacturers do add it, it is purely for flavor enhancement.

The rule of thumb is that salt should be listed among the last ingredients of your dog’s food. That is because any ingredient that follows salt on a dog food label is found in trace amounts, usually 1% or less.

What to Look for Instead?

No salt or salt as one of the trace ingredients (in that case, make sure your dog drinks enough water).

Absolutely Useless Ingredients: Digest or Flavor

Animal digest, chicken flavor, bacon flavor, or smoke flavor are typical taste enhancers in pet food. A digest or flavor is nothing more than broth sprayed over pet food to give it the aroma that it didn’t get from its sub-par ingredients.

According to the FDA, a small amount of actual chicken is needed to create the chicken flavor that will allow for the “Chicken Flavored Dog Food” inscription on the packaging (even if no chicken is added to the blend!).

What to Look for Instead?

Real meat.

What About Animal Bones?

Credit: aarp

Bones are a critical part of your goggie’s nutrition — they are loaded with calcium and phosphorus that are essential for your dog’s skeletal system. Any pooch loves to chew on bones (it’s amazing for their gnashers!), but you should be careful about what kind you give them.

Experts warn against the dangers of real bones and only recommend chew toys for dogs’ dental health, while others say big, raw bones are fine for our fluffers to gnaw on. One thing’s for sure, though — cooked bones, especially poultry bones, break easily and can cause damage to your dog’s intestines, so those are strict no-nos.

If a commercial dog food has a named meal among the main ingredients, it probably already contains bones that have been processed and ground. That way, the choking or splintering hazard of whole bones is eliminated, while the nutrients are preserved. If you see a dog food label that mentions beef bones or pork bone meal, for example, you should definitely go for it.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_food
  2. Olivry, Thierry, and Ralf S. Mueller. “Critically Appraised Topic on Adverse Food Reactions of Companion Animals (5): Discrepancies between Ingredients and Labeling in Commercial Pet Foods.” BMC Veterinary Research, vol. 14, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1186/s12917-018-1346-y.
  3. Murphy, Lisa A., and Eric K. Dunayer. “Xylitol Toxicosis in Dogs: An Update.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, vol. 48, no. 6, 2018, pp. 985–990., doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2018.06.004.
  4. Thompson, Angele. “Ingredients: Where Pet Food Starts.” Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, vol. 23, no. 3, 2008, pp. 127–132., doi:10.1053/j.tcam.2008.04.004.
author image

Dr. Ross Bernstein

Member of Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts

Dr. Ross Bernstein is a seasoned veterinarian who we’re fortunate to have as the head of our Board of Pet Experts. Dr. Ross completed his undergraduate studies at Duke University, earning his B.S. in Neuroscience with a minor in Economics and Psychology. He then went on to pursue his doctoral degree in veterinary medicine at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where he was trained under the guidance of some of the country's most renowned veterinary professionals.

After UC Davis, Dr. Ross completed a one-year rotating internship in Medicine & Surgery at the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine, and recently completed an additional year of further training in small animal surgery at the Las Vegas Veterinary Specialty Center, where he gained extensive experience in complex soft tissue, orthopedic and neurological procedures.

Dr. Ross shares his home with a Golden Retriever named Duma. We’re lucky to have someone as experienced, knowledgeable, and passionate as Dr. Ross in our pack – not only as our trusted advisor, but also as our good friend. Thank you, Dr. Ross!

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