Couple reading pet food ingredients in retail environment.

Pet Food Ingredients: 101 for Retailers

For retailers developing their first private label pet food, pet food ingredients are a whole new world. Here’s everything you need to know as you get started.

It’s important that retailers understand pet food ingredients and the nutritional value they provide. Because if pets won’t eat it, consumers won’t buy it. And as you introduce a pet food under your own name, a flop in this category can have negative repercussions across your entire store.

So, we put together this 101-guide to equip you with the important facts and give you the confidence you need to enter this new market.

Part I. Types of Pet Food Ingredients

Pet food ingredients typically fall into two categories: major and minor.

Major Ingredients

The major ingredients are typically the first few listed on a label, which are recognizable animal or plant names that provide proteins, carbohydrates and other important nutrients. You are more likely to already know what type of major ingredient you want in your pet food.

Here are some examples, including everything from standard to exotic:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Beef
  • Kangaroo
  • Lamb
  • Duck
  • Venison
  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes

Minor Ingredients

Minor ingredients are the ones that follow, which provide the minerals, vitamins and other nutrients that may not be as recognizable.

The minors are just as important as the majors, if not more, to get right in your pet food formula. This is because the wrong proportion of vitamins and minerals can become toxic to pets.

The ingredients are one thing. More often than not, you already have your differentiating protein picked out. But what other ingredients need to go with that ingredient to create a complete and balanced pet food? That’s where pet food nutrition comes in.

Part II. Pet Food Nutrition

Every pet food formula needs to meet the nutritional requirements of a dog or cat at the intended life stage. To do this, you need these essentials:

  1. Proteins: An essential molecule for life, proteins serve as fuel to sustain normal body function and aid growth, which can come from animal muscle, animal by-products and vegetable or grain proteins.
  2. Carbohydrates: Provide energy and dietary fiber to animals, from sources like rice and potatoes.
  3. Fats: Another good source of energy for animals that also add palatability and supply essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They also help to promote a healthy coat, digestion and temperature stabilization.
  4. Inclusions: Micro ingredients that provide minerals and vitamins. There are thousands of different functional inclusion ingredients, ranging from simple carrots to green-lipped mussel powder

The combination of these proteins, carbohydrates, fats and inclusions provides your pet food with the right ratio of essential nutrients. But that’s not all you have to think about when selecting and sourcing ingredients.

Quality & Palatability Matter

Pet food nutrition really comes down to quality and palatability. Because if the pets don’t eat the food, they can’t receive the nutritional value.

  • Quality Ingredients: Ones that come from trusted, vetted suppliers who have SQF Certified facilities, assurance from third-party audits and a robust food safety
  • Palatability: A measurement of how desirable pets find their food. The combination of smell, taste and texture impacts a pet’s interest in eating the food.

Palatable, high-quality foods tend to be more expensive—as all great products are. Previously, this was a problem for retailers with price-sensitive consumers and razor-thin margins. But the pet food market has changed. Consumers have more sophisticated tastes and bigger budgets than ever before. This means retailers like you now have the flexibility to create premium or super-premium pet foods, where price isn’t as much of a concern. So, you can enjoy higher quality, excellent palatability and better profit margins.

Here’s how to balance quality, palatability and everything else. Note: These steps require working with a pet food manufacturer (as does the entire private label pet food development process).

#1. Test & Measure for Palatability

To figure out what is palatable for pets, pet food manufacturers work with industry palatant producers that conduct palatability tests with real formulas and real animals.

The results are measured in three areas:

  1. First Choice (smell). What product the animals go to first based on scent or level of excitement as they approach the food.
  2. Intake Ratio (taste). How much of the pet food the animal consumes, divided by the total consumption amount.
  3. Consumption Ratio (smell, texture, taste). How much of a preference the animals showed for one formula over another.
#2. Manufacture for Palatability

After testing, your manufacturer must deliver on this palatability promise in the actual production process.

With research at hand, manufacturers know how to adjust the formulas to improve palatability. This can range from changing ingredient ratios, selecting a different kibble shape or adding/modifying sensory profiles with palatants.

#3. Package for Palatability

The wrong packaging can make pet food go stale too soon, impacting the appeal of the food to pets.

To save freshness, consider incorporating easy-to-use sliders, Velcro or press-to-close zippers on your bag. Your pet food manufacturer can also conduct production trials to ensure quality and freshness.

Now that you know the ins and outs of pet food ingredients and nutritional requirements—how do you actually get them for manufacturing?

Part III. How to Source Pet Food Ingredients

To source your ingredients, you’re going to want to work with a trusted pet food ingredient supplier. Simply put: You won’t be able to find ingredients at scale and at a decent price by yourself.

Ingredient suppliers use established processes to source and procure virtually any kind of ingredient for you – from standard to exotic – in a reliable and cost-effective way. This also frees you from the legwork that comes with ingredient sourcing.

With that in mind, here’s how to select a trusted supplier:

#1. Identify Ingredients

First, you need to know what ingredients you want to source. There are two things you need to consider when selecting ingredients:

  1. Time

Standard ingredients, like chicken and rice, may only take a couple of weeks to source. But some exotic ingredients may take up to 16 weeks.

  1. Manufacturing Capabilities

Make sure the manufacturer you plan to work with can handle your different ingredients and has a way to source and stock them. Plus: Most manufacturers have close relationships with trusted ingredient suppliers to help you source the right products that align with their production capabilities.

#2. Ask Supplier 3 Questions

Three questions need to be answered when you consider working with a pet food ingredient supplier:

  1. Is the supply chain sustainable (reliable/long-term)?
  2. Is the ingredient scalable (when volume increases)?
  3. Is the source high-quality?

#3. Look for These 3 Qualities

The answers to the three questions above are the bare necessities. But an exceptional supplier will also exhibit the following qualities:

  1. Communitive and open. They are willing to answer your questions and give you a facility tour.
  2. Coaches ingredient choices. They help you achieve your vision by walking you through options and helping you pick the right alternative ingredients that make commercial and manufacturing sense.
  3. Offers ingredient blends. A blend is a mix of ingredients that is designed to simplify the manufacturing process, streamline warehouse storage and eliminate concerns about expiration dates. A quality supplier will have a strict batching, mixing, milling and sifting process that ensures everything is blended consistently and uniformly to meet diet and customer specifications.

Part IV. How to Label Ingredients

Now you have everything you need to develop and manufacture your pet food. But how do you actually account for this on the label?

Pet parents and regulatory authorities require clarity on the pet food label. While the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has no statutory authority to regulate pet products, it does establish the standards for complete and balanced pet foods that most states follow (though the exact language and interpretation can vary).

Here important elements to write a clear and uniform label according to AAFCO standards—but be sure to dig into each category specifically and according to the requirements of the state you will be registering the bag in:

  1. Product name: A certain percentage of key ingredients must be included in the product name.
  2. Intended species: Indicate dogs vs. cats and stage of life.
  3. Guaranteed analysis: The basic requirement is to list the minimum claim of crude protein and crude fat and the maximum claim of crude fiber and moisture—ensuring that specific nutrition requirements are met.
  4. Ingredient list: Order ingredients by weight.
  5. Nutritional adequacy statement: One of the most important claims, indicate that the dog food is complete and balanced for a particular life stage (gestation/lactation, growth, maintenance or all life stages) or if the food is intended for supplemental feeding only.
  6. Net quantity statement: Clearly indicate how much is in the bag by weight and volume
  7. Calorie statement & feeding instructions: Include a calorie statement on a kilocalories per kilogram basis, and appropriate feeding instructions based on that calorie statement, the dog’s weight, and the recommended number of calories the dog should consume per day.
  8. Contact information for manufacturer and distributor

Understanding pet food ingredients and nutritional aspects of your formula will make writing the label that much easier.


There’s a lot that goes into creating a private label pet food—but it truly is a fruitful opportunity for retailers. Luckily, you’re not in it alone.

When you work with a pet food manufacturer, you receive critical product, packaging and compliance expertise. Not to mention, a good manufacturing partner who cares about quality and safety is the difference between success in the pet food aisle or product recalls. From planning to ingredient selection to commercialization, your manufacturer should be there every step of the way.

Need help identifying and sourcing better ingredients—and creating a standout private label brand? Alphia can help. Tell us more about your pet food needs today.