Are 'Natural' and 'Organic' Just Words on a Dog Food Label?

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Dec 19, 2014
   |   3 min read
Image: Photo Grapher / via Image Bank

Take a close look at the front of a few dog food labels the next time you are at the pet supply store. Do you know what’s behind the phraseology that you see there? In some cases, what is written is defined by a regulatory body, but other terms are essentially meaningless. Read on to learn which words and phrases you should look for and which are pure marketing hype.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established rules about how the front of a dog food label can reference ingredients. For example:

  • Chicken for Dogs — the product must contain at least 95% chicken, not including water used for processing.
  • Chicken Dinner for Dogs — the term “dinner,” or similar words like “entrée” or “formula,” can only be applied to products that contain 25% or more of the ingredient in question.
  • Dog Food with Chicken — the word “with” implies that at least 3% of the food is made from that ingredient.
  • Chicken Flavoring — “flavoring” indicates that specific tests were able to pick up the presence of the ingredient, but no particular percentage is mandated.

Other terms that have specific definitions include:


The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines “natural” as being derived “solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”


Agricultural products labeled as organic are produced in accordance with the provisions of the Organic Foods Production Act and the regulations of the National Organic Program as outlined by the USDA. The term indicates that an agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.1

Human Grade

Human food safety and sanitation standards are described in regulations adopted by the FDA. Description of a product as human-grade indicates compliance with these standards. For a manufactured pet food, both the ingredients and final product processing must comply with the standards. Thus, unless a pet food manufacturing facility complies with human food safety standards, once ingredients enter the facility they are no longer human-grade and it would not be appropriate to describe the finished pet food or ingredients as human-grade.1

Many of the other terms that you’ll find on dog food labels are really just hype. Simplify your dog food shopping experience and ignore any references to a food being holistic, ancestral, instinctual, premium, super-premium, or containing no fillers.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


1. Awareness and evaluation of natural pet food products in the United States. Carter RA, Bauer JE, Kersey JH, Buff PR. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2014 Dec 1;245(11):1241-8. 

Image: StepanPopov / Shutterstock

Related Posts