Assessing "Complete and Balanced" Pet Foods

When we look for AAFCO labels on food to mark them as “complete and balanced,” we assume the foods are formulated for completeness for our pets. In this series of MTM posts, we’re going to take a look at a few “complete and balanced” foods for dogs and cats to see if they are truly appropriate.

In this article, we will look at four scenarios of dog and cat kibble, raw and canned foods. In each scenario, I will walk through the food used, their feeding chart and AAFCO statement, and what the food actually looks like against the pet’s nutritional requirements. All products have been anonymized.

Though there are separate parts on cat and dog foods, assessing foods goes through the same process for both species. Each section will review a different aspect of concern when assessing commercial foods. I encourage readers to look through each part, even if you don’t own a cat/dog.

I will be using the RFN Sheet and the AAFCO Converter (available on standard RFN Sheet).

Chicken & Rice Kibble for Dogs

To start off, let’s consider a commercial kibble for dogs. We’ll call this “Chicken & Rice Kibble” for anonymity. We will be using an example dog, Teddy. Teddy is 75 lbs and currently eats 1200 kcal per day. He is at a good body weight and condition.

The kibble comes with the AAFCO label “[Chicken & Rice Kibble] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for maintenance of adult dogs.” This is a valid AAFCO statement and we assume the food has been formulated to AAFCO guidelines for adult dogs.

Looking at the feeding chart, a 75lb dog would need to eat at least 3 ¼ cups. The food is 360 kcal/cup, so 3 ¼ cups is 1170 kcal, just about what Teddy needs. From here, we would assume that the food is complete and balanced.

Example chicken and rice kibble feeding chart

To double check, let’s look at the nutritional profile of the food against Teddy’s requirements.

The Chicken & Rice kibble does not have a detailed, full nutrition profile of the food available online, but there is an expanded guaranteed analysis (GA) available. On its own, the GA is not very helpful as it only lists a few essential nutrients – calcium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, linoleic acid, vitamin E and vitamin E. There are 32 other essential nutrients for dogs that are missing.

Example chicken and rice kibble analysis

We’re going to take this information, with the feeding chart, and input it into the AAFCO Converter (available in RFN Sheet).

The AAFCO Converter will take the percentages and other essential nutrient information we’ve input and convert it to the RFN Sheet format. It will also estimate any missing essential nutrients based on AAFCO minimum values. This allows us to review a full, estimated nutrient profile of the kibble against Teddy’s requirements, not just the handful of nutrients that are directly listed on the GA.

RFN Sheet AAFCO Convert with chicken and rice kibble analysis

Since we can be fairly certain that this kibble is actually formulated to AAFCO’s requirements, we can enter in the feeding chart information here. This prompts the AAFCO converter to scale the missing essential nutrients for the weight and amount the food is formulated for. This gives us a better estimation of the overall nutrient content in the food.

RFN Sheet AAFCO Converter feeding chart section

For example, let’s look at a few nutrient values with and without the feeding chart information included (per 1000 g of kibble):

Iron

With feeding chart: 58.9 mg

Without feeding chart: 37.7 mg

Magnesium

With feeding chart: 883 mg

Without feeding chart: 566 mg

Calcium *

With feeding chart: 10000 mg

Without feeding chart: 10000 mg

* Calcium is the same because it was listed on the guaranteed analysis and the amount was specified on the AAFCO converter. Since the value is not estimated, the value does not scale or change with the feeding chart information.

As you can see above, entering the feeding chart information can result in a significant change in the estimated values. This should ONLY be used if you are absolutely certain the food is formulated properly to AAFCO standards. This should not be used for foods where the AAFCO statement does not line up with the ingredient list, the AAFCO statement is incorrect, or otherwise falsely applied. See this guide (available to RFN Facebook Group members) for more information on  how to discern if an AAFCO statement is not appropriate.

Let’s compare this food against Teddy’s actual nutrient requirements. First we’ll look at the requirements compared to AAFCO requirements.

RFN Sheet audit of chicken and rice kibble to AAFCO requirements

For the most part, this food looks complete and balanced against Teddy’s needs. Protein is showing up at 99% (could be a rounding issue), and the only other nutrients showing up at not complete are linoleic acid and selenium. These are listed as minimums on kibble’s website, so actual content may be higher. All in all, fairly complete for a commercial food.

Next, let’s compare this food against Teddy’s NRC nutrient requirements. AAFCO is based on NRC, so there should not be any major differences.

RFN Sheet audit of chicken and rice kibble to NRC requirements

We can see that compared to NRC, we do have a few more incomplete nutrients. 

Fatty acids, in particular, are low. This is because NRC has more requirements for fatty acids than AAFCO does, so ALA and EPA/DHA are not considered in AAFCO for adult dogs. This results in missing estimations (because there are no requirements to estimate from), which show content as “0”, but it is not necessarily true. You can check the ingredients list to see if there are any ingredients that may contribute ALA or EPA/DHA to get a rough estimation of their actual content in the food.

B vitamins also are low across the board. This can be safely supplemented at a gentle level.

tl;dr

Overall, this kibble is fairly complete and balanced for Teddy if he eats 1200 kcal a day. There are some limitations of the estimation, but we have a fairly clear idea of how the food stacks up.

Following Feeding Chart

However, if Teddy ate below 1200 kcal, the food would quickly fall below AAFCO and NRC minimums. Reducing the food even 10% would result in several more nutrients becoming incomplete. We need to follow the feeding chart in order for it to be complete and balanced.

Turkey Canned Food for Cats

Next, let’s look at a commercial canned food for cats. This will be referred to as “Turkey Canned Food” for anonymity. Our example cat Lily, is 10lbs and currently eats 200 kcal per day. She is at a good body weight and condition.

The Turkey Canned Food comes with the AAFCO label: “[Turkey Canned Food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for maintenance.” This is a valid AAFCO statement and we would assume the food has been formulated to AAFCO guidelines for adult cats.

Looking at the feeding chart, a 10 lb cat would need to eat about 2.5 cans (3oz) per day. The food is 98 kcal/can, so this would be 245 kcal per day. Lily only needs 200 kcal per day, and if we fed her 245 kcal per day, it’s very likely she would become overweight. At first glance, we would assume that the food is not complete and balanced and we should not feed it to Lily.

However, this company lists the full and complete nutritional analysis for this canned food online. Since all essential nutrients are listed, we can enter this into the RFN Sheet to see it actually looks against Lily’s requirements. Since she cannot eat within the feeding guidelines, we would assume this is low in some nutrients.

Even though all nutrients are listed and we don’t need to estimate any values, I am still going to enter this into the AAFCO Converter. This makes unit conversions easier. We will be using the “As Fed” column, but you can also use the “Dry Matter” column and selecting the dry matter analysis format in the AAFCO Converter.

Because all nutrients are provided and we do not need to estimate anything, the feeding chart information (cat weight and minimum calories) is not necessary. Even if filled in, it would not change any of the values.

For an example of where we can use the feeding chart section in the AAFCO Convert, see part 1 of this series (Chicken Kibble for Dogs).

The feeding chart information should ONLY be used if you are absolutely certain the food is formulated properly to AAFCO standards. This should not be used for foods where the AAFCO statement does not line up with the ingredient list, the AAFCO statement is incorrect, or otherwise incorrectly or falsely applied. See this guide for more information on  how to discern if an AAFCO statement is not appropriate.

Now that we have the full profile for the Turkey Canned Food entered into the RFN Sheet, let’s compare it against Lily’s actual nutrient requirements. First we’ll look at the requirements compared to AAFCO requirements.

Even though we are feeding below the feeding guidelines for Lily (only 200 kcal vs 245 kcal), it looks like the food is still complete for Lily. The only nutrient that is shown as incomplete is Vitamin E, which is due to the RFN Sheet’s recommendations for additional vitamin E, in addition to the AAFCO requirements.

Although some of the nutrient values are high, and some of the minerals are shown in red text (with a green background), none of the values exceed AAFCO maximums.

Next, let’s compare this food against Lily’s NRC nutrient requirements. AAFCO is based on NRC, so there should not be any major difference.

The main difference is fatty acids. This is because NRC has more requirements for fatty acids than AAFCO does, so EPA/DHA are not considered in AAFCO for adult cats. The Turkey Canned Food company did not provide a EPA/DHA value, and because AAFCO requirements do not have a EPA/DHA requirement for adults, it cannot be estimated. In cases like this, you can check the ingredients list to see if there are any ingredients that may contribute EPA/DHA (fish or fish oils) to get a rough estimation of their actual content in the food.

Another difference is that because there are some differences in mineral requirements, the percentages of minerals have changed. Particularly sodium, which now shows as over 1000%. While high, this is not a problem for healthy adult cats.

tl;dr

Overall, this canned food is complete and balanced for Lily, even though she eats below the given energy range in the feeding chart. 

This conclusion is only possible because the company provided a full and complete nutritional analysis for the food. If such an analysis is provided, you can check if it’s complete and balanced for your pet and their daily caloric intake using a diet audit tool, like the RFN Sheet. Otherwise, you should never assume a food is complete and balanced if feeding under the feeding guidelines. Even if a full nutritional analysis is provided, unless you have specifically compared it against your pet’s nutrient requirements, with their specific calorie needs, you should assume the food is only complete and balanced if following feeding guidelines.

Chicken Raw Food for Dogs

Next, we will be looking at a popular commercial raw food. This will be referred to as “Chicken Raw Food” for anonymity. Our example dog Teddy, is 75lbs and currently eats 1200 kcal per day. He is at a good body weight and condition.

The Chicken Raw Food comes with the AAFCO label: “[Chicken Raw Food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for All Life Stages, including growth of large size dogs (70lbs or more as an adult).” This is a valid AAFCO statement and we would assume the food has been formulated to AAFCO guidelines for all life stages for dogs.

Looking at the feeding chart, a 75lb dog would need to eat anywhere from 14 – 22 oz of the food. The food is 51 kcal/oz, so this would be 714 – 1122 kcal per day. Since Teddy needs 1200 kcal, which is higher than this range, we would assume the food is complete and balanced for Teddy.

To double check, let’s look at the nutritional profile of the food against Teddy’s requirements.

The Chicken Raw Food does not have a detailed, full nutrition profile of the food available online, but there is an expanded guaranteed analysis (GA) available. It does list almost all essential minerals, so it’s a bit more detailed. However, it still is not very helpful on its own as vitamins, fatty acids and amino acids are still missing.

Let’s take this information and put it into the AAFCO Converter in the RFN Sheet.

The AAFCO Converter will take the percentages and other essential nutrient information we’ve input and convert it to the RFN Sheet format. It will also estimate any missing essential nutrients based on AAFCO minimum values. This allows us to review a full, estimated nutrient profile of the kibble against Teddy’s requirements, not just the handful of nutrients that are directly listed on the GA.

Unlike our previous kibble and canned food examples, we are not going to enter in the feeding chart information (dog’s weight and minimum calories). Raw foods are newer in the pet food industry and some of them are not formulated for scaled AAFCO requirements. This means that the food is formulated only for AAFCO’s base energy level, which is MW x 132. (MW = dog’s weight in kilograms ^ 0.75). This is fairly high, and generally only applies to very active pet dogs, sport dogs, working dogs, etc. Teddy only eats at MW x 85, which is not uncommon even for lean, indoor dogs that go on daily walks. This means that a food formulated for MW x 132, would not be complete for Teddy.

To see if this assumption is correct, we can look at the Chicken Raw Food’s estimated profiles for a few known nutrients from the GA. We’ll look at the actual amount (from the GA), the amount assuming Teddy would eat 714 kcal (minimum listed in feeding chart), the amount assuming Teddy would eat 1200 kcal (Teddy’s current calorie intake), and the AAFCO minimum (not scaled). All numbers are for 1000 g of raw food:

Calcium

From GA: 5600 mg

Assuming 714 kcal: 13926 mg

Assuming 1200 kcal: 8286 mg

AAFCO minimum: 5430 mg

Iron

From GA: 40 mg

Assuming 714 kcal: 102 mg

Assuming 1200 kcal: 61 mg

AAFCO minimum: 40 mg

Magnesium

From GA: 300 mg

Assuming 714 kcal: 696 mg

Assuming 1200 kcal: 414 mg

AAFCO minimum: 272 mg

As you can see above, entering the feeding chart information results in a significant change in the estimated values, far higher than the actual amount listed on the GA. The amounts listed on the GA most closely match to the not scaled AAFCO minimum, so we can generally assume that the food has not actually been scaled correctly to meet lower energy levels. 

For the Chicken Raw Food, we can still use AAFCO Converter, but should not enter in any feeding chart information, as that would falsely inflate nutrient levels.

For an example of where we can use the feeding chart section in the AAFCO Convert, see part 1 of this series (Chicken Kibble for Dogs).

The feeding chart information should ONLY be used if you are absolutely certain the food is formulated properly to AAFCO standards. This should not be used for foods where the AAFCO statement does not line up with the ingredient list, the AAFCO statement is incorrect, or otherwise incorrectly or falsely applied. See this guide for more information on  how to discern if an AAFCO statement is not appropriate.

Now that we have an estimated profile for the Chicken Raw Food, let’s compare it against Teddy’s actual nutrient requirements. First we’ll look at the requirements compared to AAFCO requirements.

Unfortunately, it looks like this food falls short on many nutrients. This is because the food has only been formulated appropriately for very high energy levels (MW x 132). For Teddy, who is MW x 85, this food falls short and is not appropriate for long term feeding.

We won’t be looking at NRC requirements, as the AAFCO is based on NRC and Teddy’s NRC requirements also show many nutrients to be lacking.

If Teddy ate about 50% more calories than he does currently, he would eat at MW x 132 and this food would look much more complete and balanced. Below is a look at the mineral profile of the same Chicken Raw Food, if Teddy were eating 1200 kcal, or 1800 kcal. 

tl;dr

Overall, this raw food is not complete and balanced for Teddy’s energy range. Although the feeding chart shows that it is safe to feed at Teddy’s current calorie intake, a closer look at the analysis shows that many nutrients fall below Teddy’s nutrient requirements. 

Next Section Coming Feb 6