I was in the grocery store yesterday, and like I always do, sort of did a double take at what some of the brands are charging for their food.
Clients come in every day and say that they are feeding their dogs high quality, all natural food- a common example would be something like Beneful– believing it is top quality food simply based on the marketing. But when they go back and read the label, they are inevitably surprised.
“I can’t afford the really expensive food,” is something I hear every day. And I understand- I really do!- that when times are tough people need to compromise. But the point I really want to drive home is that you don’t need to feed your pet super premium dog food to improve the quality of what they eat- you just need to be willing to read labels.
For my Incredibly Unscientific Study of the Day, I decided to take 2 adult maintenance dog foods and compare the price per kilocalorie of food as a general way to compare cost. You can’t compare just price per ounce, as the amount of nutrients per cup of food varies widely from food to food. It’s harder than it looks- food labels can be tricky beasts.
The numbers are approximate- obviously the calculations vary depending on the size of the bag, so I tried to calculate two similar size bags of food. OK, let’s begin:
Contender One: Pedigree with Lamb and Rice Adult
Widely available and heavily marketed, this food describes itself as “Easy to digest: real lamb, wholesome rice. Made with highly-digestible ingredients like real lamb meat and rice — and no fillers or artificial flavors.”
Let’s look at the first 5 ingredients, which is a nice rule of thumb for evaluating the majority components of a food:
Ground Whole Corn, Chicken By-product Meal, Ground Wheat, Meat And Bone Meal, Animal Fat
Where’s the lamb and rice? Somewhere beneath “meat and bone meal”. Remember, according to pet food label rules a food need only have 3% lamb and rice to say “with”.
The price is $23.46 for 16.3 lb bag on Amazon. At 3450 kcal/kg of food, this works out to about of 1088 kilocalories of food for every dollar you spend.
Contender 2: Evangers Chicken with Brown Rice
Available in many feed stores in North America and online, but not as widely distributed as Contender 1.
The first 5 ingredients:
Chicken, Ground Brown Rice, Chicken Meal, Potato Product, Pearled Barley
Their online price is $26.98 for 16.5 lb bag.
At 3850 kcal/kg , the food works out to be about 1070 kcal per dollar of food.
Almost the exact same.
Pet nutrition is a huge topic with thousands of variables, but I think the number one skill for any pet owner to get the hang of is label reading. You don’t always have to spend more money to improve the quality of what your pets are eating. You really can pay a premium for packaging and good “looks”.
No one is arguing that there is no correlation between quality and price- Orijen Adult, for example, is approximately 767 kcal per dollar- a bit more expensive. Hopefully this indicates the quality of those calories is very high.
Let’s look: Their first five ingredients are “Fresh deboned chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal, russet potato, fresh deboned pacific salmon.” In this case, the ingredient list justifies the cost. In my opinion. 😉
Obviously this is the tip of the iceberg on this topic, but if it gets the dialogue going I can certainly expand and do more posts. Who else label reads? It’s pretty fascinating.
Small print: Company selection was random and not the result of any solicitation. I encourage you to try it on your own and see what you come up with!
I really wish every bag of pet food was required to have the kcal/cup and/or kcal/kg on it. I know it can be calculated approximately, but it can be really tough to find that information, especially with a workplace that only allows you to visit pre-approved websites. When crafting weight loss plans, I’d love to be able to tell the owner to bring in the label, or recommend a food and have the information easily at hand. Some of it’s on VIN… but not enough.
Which I know isn’t really the point of today’s post, but it’s almost related? The average person would have a difficult time performing the calculation you just suggested with a lot of foods, since calorie content is not required label information.
Dr. V says
You’d probably have to go online to find the kcal/kg for most foods. Surprisingly even though it’s not on the bag, I could find it online.
Yeah, it’s just hard when the ‘net is restricted at work; and even when I’m not at work, I have tried a few products and could NOT find it. Bah.
Dr. V says
I feel your pain on that one. I’m sure they do that by design. 😉
hidden exposures says
fantastic breakdown! i always used sites like (i think) the dog food project to get a sense of what was the best kibble for my dog, but most people don’t know such a resource is out there, not to mention don’t find it convenient to get food from a place other than somewhere like their grocery store (and for some of these people, even petco or petsmart is a stretch). beneful, while a result of clever marketing, really made me mad as it led people so astray – even those that were worried about the pet food recalls.
on a slightly different note, i got a cat about a year and a half ago and went through the whole “what do i feed my cat?” research. i tried feeding him tiki cat which he loved, but man, was he hungry. i started looking at it more and realizing there was a lot of liquid in the can. no calories were on the label so it was very hard to compare it to a pate style of food. i had to dig and dig and dig and dig and in the end finally discovered that it would have taken 2 full cans of tiki cat to match the caloric content of a grain-free food like evo. considering 1 can of tiki cat is about twice the amount of 1 can of evo, this made no sense financially! long story short, these issues exist in both cat foods as well as dog foods and if anything, might be a little easier to figure out in the world of kibble.
would also be interested to see a comparison of a high end kibble (my dog gets wellness core ocean formula) with some of the dehydrated foods like honest kitchen.
Dr. V says
It’s definitely hard if someone insists they want to feed only something from the grocery store. Though even there, I’ve seen Newman’s Organic at my grocery store and even Wal-Mart, so there are always options!
Canned food is very hard to calculate. You have to convert it to a dry matter basis first to really figure out the caloric breakdown.
Lisa W says
I’ve been feeding Natural Balance (the Dick Van Patten stuff). It’s pretty expensive, especially when you have a 53-pound six-month-old, but of the available options it seems to be the best one that won’t break me (although it’s close since I’m supposed to feed him 6-7.5 cups a day!). Sophie should be a little under 50 pounds but she’s allergic to potatoes, lamb, and pork, so finding something for her can be a challenge. It’s really difficult when you want to give them the best food but when you have larger dogs it can be prohibitively expensive… And no, I never feed Pedigree or any of the similar grocery store brands.
Dr. V says
Wow, that amount seems like a TON. Brody is 50 pounds at 7 months and getting closer to 3 cups a day (average), using Orijen and Acana.
She’s OK with chicken?
Lisa W says
I don’t feed Oscar that much but that’s their recommendation — as usual I think they overstate. He probably gets 4-5 cups though and he’s still pretty lanky.
Sophie is okay with chicken. I’d feed her Natural Balance except the only one without sweet potato has lamb!
Dr. V says
Have you looked at Wellness or Solid Gold? I think Eagle Pack has a duck and oatmeal one too. though I don’t know if they would be any cheaper.
I’d love to see this comparison done for cat foods! Fancy Feast vs Friskies? Purina One vs Iams?
I do also read labels for my own kitties, and feed dry Nutro mixed with dry Wellness (both of which list kcal on their bags), but *not* at the recommended amounts – that’s still more than my inactive kitties need.
Dr. V says
I feed well below recommended amounts too!
I’d love to see it done with cat foods too. 🙂
Having said that, I turned into a label reader after your series last year on cat food ingredients. We went through a time where we were feeding a store-brand canned food that had no grains in it (just lots of meat and meat by-products). But we got tired of the mess and expense and I went looking for a grain-free dry food that our cats would eat. I finally found a pet store not too far from me that had an entire WALL of grain-free dry foods, so we tried a few. I can’t remember what we finally settled on, but the first few ingredients are something like chicken, chicken meal, blueberry meal, and potato meal. The cats, thankfully, seem to like it, and they only eat about 1.5 cups per day between the two of them. Cost-wise I think it worked out to the same as the canned regimen, which had been pretty much the same as the vet diet they’d been on before.
Dr. V says
Oh good! I’m glad you found one you like.
We feed our dog and cats Orijen. It works very well for them, shiny coats, lots of energy, and they love the taste. We’ve started giving Chewy a little bit of raw food every Friday to supplement her diet, she seems to enjoy it.
Dr. V says
That’s one of Brody’s favorites. 🙂
I feed Clyde Chicken Soup for the Dog Lovers Soul mixed with Orijen. It helps cut down on the cost a little, but he still gets relatively high quality food. The real struggle at our house was with cat food. I finally found Fromms Surf & Turf (grain-free dry), and she absolutely LOVES it! It’s a little pricey, but it’s one food she will never refuse to eat. I feed her Natural Balance canned Limited Ingredient Diets (grain-free) in the morning and Fromms in the evening, and she’s been doing really well on that combination.
Dr. V says
That’s a new brand for me….Fromms, must look it up. 🙂
Oh I love-love-love reading the ingredient lists on dog food. In fact, I really aggravated my family recently because, after being dragged to Sam’s Club (I was tricked with promises of being able to go to Jo-ann’s Fabric) I walked through the pet “food” section, reading the ingredients really loudly for all to hear. “You call ‘chicken by-products’ passable food?!” And such. My mom thinks I’m crazy, which may very well be true, but the way I see it, is that most people think what’s on the shelves of their local grocery store must be good for their dog because why else would it be there? I know this, because I was that person before becoming friends with a boutique dog store owner and learning the truth. That’s why I like posts like these from any dog or cat (I guess pet) centric blog because it’s information people need. Oh my golly gosh, could I ramble any more? 🙂
Also, Pru adores her Acana Grasslands, and it can be a little pricey, but she has such a woozy stomach sometimes that when I find something she likes that doesn’t cause the “fun” kind of poops, I stick with it, no matter the price tag.
Dr. V says
I like Grasslands a lot too- it’s on our regular rotation.
I went through this sort of pricing and ingredient comparison when I was looking for foods for my cats that were grain-free and would be kind on their tummies (my two girls, but especially my little one, were having big problems with diarrhea). I ended up settling on Wellness canned (turkey, turkey & salmon, chicken & herring) for the little one as she wouldn’t eat raw, and then my other girl and her brother Percy both get raw (though he gets chunks whereas she gets ground meat, with felinefuture.com supplements).
I wish that more people would really look at what’s on the label, and what they’re really getting for their money.
Dr. V says
How did those work for their diarrhea?
Generally speaking, they work pretty well. They do occasionally get Orijen 6 Fish dry, but only a handful. I was finding that too much dry food would upset the equilibrium. (I did have them on Nature’s Variety Instinct rabbit meal dry, but the company has been having problems shipping their dry food to Canada and I haven’t been able to get it recently.)
(My little one gets some acidophilus probiotic in her canned food as well btw, as it seems to help keep her having normal BMs.)
I always enjoy these topics – I hope to have a pup this time next year and I’m just doing general reading up and learning about dog issues. I want to develop my label reading skillz so I can understand what I’ll really be feeding my dog. I can get Orijen here (Netherlands) but it’s kind of on the uncomfortable edge of my budget, so I’m hoping to find something that is a step down in price – and hopefully not too much of a step down in quality!