Split Proteins, By-Products, Whole Foods… What Does It All Mean?

What does it all mean…indeed!

As a pet owner, one of your priorities will undoubtedly involve making the best possible health choices for your pet— and, one of the most significant health choices you will need to consider is the food your pet will consume during his/her lifetime.

However, finding healthy, nutritious food isn’t as easy as you might think—especially with a market inundated with a vast assortment of mass-produced pet food options to choose from.

It’s not necessarily that the pet industry wants to make selecting the ‘right’ food for your furry companion difficult, but for most, their bottom line always comes down to sales and profit margins.

Yet, for the average pet owner, trying to choose the best brand of pet food while attempting to decipher the ingredients listed on the label can not only become an overwhelming task, but a confusing and complicated one as well.

The Importance of Reading (and, understanding) Pet Food Labels

Although, we would all like to be able to afford and have the time to concoct an amazing fresh kibble with meat from the local butcher and organic vegetables from the market— the truth is…it’s not always feasible or realistic for a large percentage of the pet owner population to feed our beloved companions a ‘fresh’ food diet.

If you are like most pet owners who may not have the time or money to prepare fresh, ‘whole’ foods for your pup or kitty, you will still want to provide them a diet with ‘real’ food that meets their nutritional needs. If your only option is to purchase your pet’s food at a local store or online, you’ll want to have a clear understanding of what exactly is in that can of wet food or bag of kibble.

Not surprising, many people have a belief that if meat is the first ingredient listed on the label, it must be a high-quality food with a greater percentage of meat. Unfortunately, with many brands on the market today, this is not always the case.

More importantly, you should be aware that many pet food companies use a processing technique that can be used to keep meat at the top of the ingredient list- even if it’s not the main ingredient in that bag of food you just purchased.

Understanding how pet food labels work, along with the ingredients (and, the order they are listed) will be your best defense against getting duped by some pet food manufacturers who, let’s just say, use questionable practices and techniques that border on being deceptive.

What Exactly Are Split Proteins, By-Products, and Whole Foods?

Split Proteins- also referred to as ‘ingredient splitting’ is a deceptive practice by pet food manufacturers that involves subdividing a more abundant, yet inferior quality ingredient into smaller portions.

This ‘tactic’ is often used because it allows the manufacturer to list a meat item to a higher position on the ingredient list, while lowering the inferior one. The end result being… the consumer is tricked into believing there is more meat in the product than there actually is.

To help you better understand Split Proteins here is a great example:

You head to the store to pick up some dog food. You choose a random bag-complete with colorful, appealing photos of fresh chicken and vegetables plastered all over the bag. You notice the bold print that advertises the main two ingredients as being chicken and peas.

Of course, you would think this a terrific product because of the enticing photos and because you naturally conclude that the dominant ingredients are chicken and peas. You look at the label and since chicken is listed first, you assume that there is a greater quantity of chicken in the bag than anything else.

But, not so fast… the pea ingredient has actually been broken down into three categories: peas, pea flour, and pea protein.

What does this mean?

First off- this particular bag of food you picked originally had 9 lbs. of chicken and 21 lbs. of peas. So, peas because of the greater quantity/weight would have to be listed as the main (top) ingredient before it was broken down:

7 lbs. peas + 7 lbs. pea flour + 7 lbs. pea protein = 21lbs of peas

In this instance, the pea content outnumbers the meat (chicken) with a 3:1 ratio

Being able to divide a dominant ingredient (like peas) into smaller portions permits any pet food company to ‘trick’ you into believing there’s more meat in a product than there actually is. So rather than the bag advertising Peas and Chicken it can now label the bag Chicken and Peas because of this tactic.

Additionally, pet food labels are also ‘listed’ BEFORE the cooking process

Subsequently, even though a product/bag of food lists chicken as the first ingredient, the chicken meat consists of about 70-75% water. Once the moisture is removed during the cooking process the chicken will have shrunk to 25% of the original amount (less than 9 lbs.), while the dry pea ingredients (categories) don't really change at all.

Other examples where protein/ingredient splitting occurs:

  • Corn: Corn gluten meal, corn flour, and whole ground corn
  • Rice: whole rice, white rice, brown rice, rice flour, and rice bran
  • Potatoes: dried potatoes, potato starch, potato protein, and potato flour
By-Products- According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), By-products are defined as “secondary products produced in addition to the principal product.”


  • This means by-products can be secondary products from any primary food product source.
  • There may be more than one by-product from processing a single food product.

Using the example above, the pea flour and pea protein would be considered a by-product of the primary food source- which is peas.

Whole Foods- Whole foods are fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meats that offer pets a digestible, nutrient rich food devoid of any by-products, fillers, or additives.

A whole food diet is optimal for your pet because unlike other foods that are processed, these foods are typically served raw or slightly cooked. Therefore, the ingredients won’t be subjected to an extreme cooking process- which greatly diminishes the nutrients-vitamins, minerals and amino acids. A whole foods diet can be extremely beneficial for your pet because their body can easily absorb and use the rich nutrients from the food(s) they are consuming.

Here are some delicious and nutritious whole foods you can add to your pet’s diet:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Celery
  • Pumpkin
  • Green Beans
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Chicken
  • Pork
  • Turkey
  • Liver
  • Fish
  • Beef- ground or cubed


Why Does the Quality and Amount of Ingredients Matter?

If you are looking for nutritious food for your pet, both the quality and amount of ingredients will matter.

Unfortunately, for pet food manufacturers, their primary object is to have the brand appeal to consumers and make the product affordable while keeping their profits high.

Certainly, pet food manufacturers could add more meat to their product- but chicken, pork, beef, lamb, turkey etc. are expensive; and peas, corn, rice, and potatoes are cheap-—so most of them will use the questionable technique of ingredient splitting to keep their cost down and profits up.

How do they get away with it? The simple answer is… by splitting an ingredient like peas (pea flour and pea protein) each of these ‘splits’ technically becomes a ‘different’ ingredient and therefore, can be listed separately on the label.

Moreover, ingredient splitting can be difficult to prove- especially because many brands of pet food only have to list their ingredients in a descending order and they are not required to list the quantity of each ingredient. This can make it very difficult to determine if an ingredient has been significantly lowered in the ingredient list after it has been split.

The truth is that feeding your pet a balanced diet that consists of primarily unprocessed meats, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains can have a positive effect on his/her overall health and can be profoundly beneficial at helping them avoid many health issues that can eventually become chronic, severe, or fatal.

Final Thoughts…

As much as we would all like to feed our pet a nutritious diet consisting of only fresh whole foods, it can be expensive and time consuming to prepare.

Although there are many pet food advocates who continually pressure the pet food industry to do better— an educated and informed pet owner will not only be able to choose healthy and nutritious food for their pet, they won’t fall prey to the pet industry’s tricky practice of ingredient splitting.

Although these tactics are not illegal, many consider them to be deceptive, as well as unethical. And, yet, if a vast percentage of the pet owner population refuses to purchase brands that participate in these deceptive practices, they might just make a difference in the pet food industry’s ability to list these questionable ingredients on their labels. And, ultimately hold them accountable for their marketing strategies that dupe the consumer into thinking they are buying a wholesome, nutritious product when they clearly are not.

So, the next time you see the word ‘poultry’ instead of chicken or the word ‘meat’ or ‘meat by-product’ without specifying what type of meat it actually is- beef, chicken, turkey etc.— you might want to stay clear of that product.

Bottom line—Being able to recognize and understand the ingredients listed on a pet food label will not only make you a savvy consumer, it will be your greatest asset in your search for a brand that offers ‘real’ food and also meets all your pet’s nutritional needs.

The Spring Naturals Difference

  • Only all-natural proteins, no meat-meal.
  • Whole, grain-free, market-fresh vegetables and fruit, no starches.
  • Superfoods like blueberries, cranberries and spinach.

Because we love our pets
Only real meat. No meal
Grain Free
Always whole foods
Never any fillers, by-products, or split proteins. EVER

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