Labrador puppy eating.

What Ingredients Should I Avoid in Dog Food?

Written By Vedrana Nikolic | Canine Coach, B.A Ethnology & Anthropology, M.A Semiotics.
Edited & Fact Checked By Renae Soppe | B.A Journalism & Science. 
Last Updated: 11th February 2024

“Avoid low-quality formulas full of fillers and synthetic additives”. Every dog food guide will tell you something along those lines. But what exactly does that mean?

The first step in decoding dog food is, of course, to look at the ingredient list. We’ve talked at length about the ingredients we want to see in dog food in our buying guides and dog food reviews, but today, let’s talk about the other side of the story.

Related: The Best Dog Food Options Australia.
Related: How To Choose The Right Dog Food?
Related: How Is Australia’s Dog Food Industry Regulated?
Related: What is AAFCO? The Association of American Feed Control Officials.
Related: What Is the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA)?
Related: AAFCO vs PFIAA: Dog Food Standards Comparison Australia.

Related: Understanding Guaranteed Analysis Levels in Dog Food.
Related: Real Meat vs Meat Meal.

Today, we’ll talk about the ingredients that should set off the alarm bells and make you stay away from the recipes that contain them.

The Top 6 Dog Food Ingredients To Avoid

#1 Unknown / Vague Ingredients

We’ve said this before in practically every article related to dog food and we’ll say it again.

The worst ingredients in dog food are the ones you don’t know about.

Listing ingredients in a very vague manner is a common feature of low-quality dog food brands. What we are referring to here are terms like “meat”, “poultry”, “meat by-products”, “cereal”, “animal fat” and the like. All of these examples are words that could mean many things. They are not necessarily bad, but they might be. And if the manufacturer is using quality ingredients, why not tell us exactly what they are? Vague ingredient naming is inherently suspicious.

#2 Artificial Colours

We think it’s very obvious why colourants in dog food should be avoided. Dogs don’t care about the colour of their food. In fact, they are fairly colour-blind and rely much more on their extra sharp sense of smell when perceiving the world - and their food (1). But you knew that already, didn’t you?

We don’t know about you, but we’d rather feed our dogs ingredients that actually make sense. It doesn’t matter if the colourants in dog food are harmful or not - they are unnecessary and should be avoided.

#3 (Some) Preservatives

There is nothing inherently bad about using preservatives. These substances are there to give food a longer shelf life, and that’s a good thing. However, when it comes to chemical preservatives, they are often not thoroughly tested for use in dog food. When research does exist, the conclusions are often controversial or unclear. So, if you want to be on the safe side, you might want to avoid artificial preservatives.

“Examples of preservatives that should be avoided include BHA, BHT, sodium nitrite, and nitrate. Pets are smaller than humans and many of their foods have the same amount of preservatives as ours -- studies are inadequate to understand the consequences of chronic intake of these preservatives -- but they are best avoided.” - Donna Spector, DVM - PetMD (2)

While preservative-free food does exist, it is not always a viable option. For example, canned food is easy to make without any preservatives, but with kibble that’s practically impossible. Natural preservative options represent a middle ground. These include vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and plant extract like rosemary, for example (3).

Related: Preservatives In Dog Food: Friend or Foe?

#4 Sweeteners

Sweeteners are unnecessary in dog food and can potentially lead to health issues. Dogs don't need their food to be sweetened, and the addition of sugars or artificial sweeteners can be harmful. Sweeteners like corn syrup, sucrose, and artificial sweeteners such as xylitol should be avoided. Xylitol, in particular, can be extremely toxic to dogs and can lead to symptoms such as hypoglycemia, seizures, and liver failure. Always check the ingredient list for any form of added sugar or sweeteners, and opt for dog food that doesn't contain them.

#5 By-Products

By-products are a controversial ingredient in dog food. While they are not necessarily harmful, they can be of lower quality and may not provide the same nutritional value as whole meat. By-products can include organs, such as liver and kidneys, which are a natural part of a dog's diet, but they can also include less desirable parts like beaks, feathers, and hooves. To ensure your dog gets the best nutrition, look for dog food that specifies the source of the by-products and avoid products that are vague about the type of by-products used.

#6 Wheat, Corn, and Soy

Ingredients like corn, wheat, and soy will certainly not kill your dog in small quantities (unless, of course, your pooch is allergic to one of those, which is a whole different story). However, they are not great either, especially not if they make up half of your dog's diet, which is often the case with the cheapest dry dog foods. These ingredients are used as fillers that bulk up the food, but they don’t contain the nutrients which your dog needs to thrive. So, it’s best to try and avoid them if you want your canine companion to have a healthy diet plan.

My Final Thoughts

Choosing the right dog food is crucial for your pet's health and wellbeing. It's important to read ingredient labels carefully and be aware of what you're feeding your furry friend. Avoiding unknown or vague ingredients, artificial colours, excessive preservatives, sweeteners, low-quality by-products, and potential allergens like wheat, corn, and soy, can help ensure that your dog receives a nutritious and safe diet.


  1. Rahalakshmi, N. October 4, 2023. “What Colors Do Dogs See?”. Scientific American. Retrieved November 7, 2023.
  2. Spector, D. November 17, 2009. “Pet Food (What You Need to Know) for Your Pet's Sake”. PetMD. Retrieved November 7, 2023.
  3. Coates, J. December 7, 2012. “The Pros and Cons of Preservatives in Dog Foods”. PetMD. Retrieved November 8, 2023.

Vedrana Nikolic

Vedrana Nikolić is Gentle Dog Trainers Canine Coach, Professional Writer, Anthropologist & dog lover.

With a Masters Degree in Semiotics & Bachelors Degree in Anthropology, studying the communication between animals and humans, Vedrana is able to use her expertise to analyse and review dog products and write informative posts on canine behaviour and training.

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