What Does Crude Protein Really Mean in a Dry Dog Food?

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What Does Crude Protein Really Mean in a Dry Dog Food?

Is the amount of crude protein in kibble a reliable way to judge the best dog food for your own pooch? Maybe not! I think the words “crude protein” should have a blinking caution light on dog food labels. Those two words can be misleading. If there is a high percentage of crude protein on a dog food label we might assume it indicates high quality protein and top notch food — but if we really understood what those two words mean, we would think about it differently when choosing a dry food for our tail-wagging family members.

Does Crude Protein Mean Meat?

Protein — especially good quality protein from muscle meat —  is the most expensive ingredient in any food, whether for pets or people. Therefore, pet owners who pride themselves on reading labels believe they should seek out high protein pet foods. But what nobody tells us is that it all boils down to where that protein comes from! People mistakenly believe those foods with high protein are the best — without questioning the origin of that protein percentage. It’s logical for pet owners to believe that the percentage of crude protein on a label (as required by the regulatory body AAFCO) refers to how much animal protein there is in the food. Unfortunately, they are wrong, because crude protein is measuring something else!

The True Meaning of Crude Protein

“Crude protein” is actually a chemical analysis of the food whereby the amount of nitrogen present is used to estimate the amount of protein in the food. While nitrogen does come from animal protein, it also comes from non-animal proteins like grains, as well as other non-protein nitrogen (NPN) sources. This obviously creates a gap between what you think you are buying and feeding your dog — basically thinking she is getting food with a high percentage of animal protein — and the way that “crude protein” has actually been determined. Remember the pet food health scare and related food recall in 2007 over toxic levels of melamine in some pet food brands? That ingredient had been added to pet foods as a non-protein nitrogen (NPN) source to increase the appearance of high protein content in those pet foods. Not only was there no added protein in the food, the melamine caused life-threatening kidney failure.

Crude Protein Blog - Inline ImageIs the Crude Protein Actual Meat or Floor Sweepings?

For many dry food manufacturers, their ingredient listing of “crude protein” includes carcasses and other waste from slaughtered animals, rendered into a “meal.” The word “meal” on a pet food bag may indicate the inclusion of such ingredients, along with meat not fit for people to eat. This certainly helps clean up the slaughterhouse floor without having to call the garbage company! Unfortunately, inferior protein meals can give a dog food a high percentage of crude protein — without being high in quality protein.

Since pet food can include a variety of questionable ingredients, and crude protein measurements always include non-animal protein, here are some ways to find dog food with high quality protein.

  1. Choose a food that lists real whole meat on the bag as the first ingredient — chicken, lamb, salmon, etc. — because then you are getting true quality protein, not ingredients used to increase the nitrogen levels (and thereby give a higher crude protein percentage).
  2. Seek out foods that use whole vegetables and whole grains, which are hallmarks of higher quality nutrition sources.
  3. Read the entire label and make sure you understand all of the ingredients. A pet food doesn’t need to have any mysterious words on the label — it should be plain as day.
  4. Call the pet food company and ask about their protein or any of the ingredients you have questions about. A company should have a well-trained customer service staff as well as a veterinarian or nutritionist that can answer your questions.

People Ask What Kibble My Own Dogs Eat?

I like to choose a kibble based on whether their high percentage of protein comes from real meat in their recipes — real actual meat, the way they do in their canned foods. There are many premium pet foods that can make that claim, with Merrick being high on that list. That is one of the reasons I invited Merrick to sponsor my radio show DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!). They make a wide variety of kibble from different protein sources that I rotate and feed my own dogs as part of their daily meals.

Crude Protein Discussion on DOG TALK®

Because this topic is of so much interest to people — and so little understood — I invited veterinary nutritionist Ryan Yamka on my NPR show to unravel what “crude protein” actually is. You can listen here.

—Tracie Hotchner

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Merrick is a sponsor on Radio Pet Lady Network, by our invitation.