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In some ways, the labels on the food you eat and the food your dog eats aren't so different.

Some of the words on the packaging are intended to make the food sound appealing. Other information tells you how nutritious the food is. So how can you tell what is what and pick the right food for your pooch?

Look for the AAFCO information. "The fastest way to know whether foods meet the nutritional needs of whatever you want to feed it to -- a puppy or adult dog -- is to look at the AAFCO statement," says Rebecca Remillard, PhD, DVM, a pet nutritionist at North Carolina State University.

AAFCO stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

The AAFCO statement tells you whether the food is "complete and balanced." That means you can use it as your pet's main food supply day after day.

Another phrase you might see is that a food is for "supplemental and intermittent use." That means you should give it only as a treat. These foods should make up no more than about 10% of your dog's daily calories, Remillard says.

Check if the food is intended for puppies, adults, or all life stages. If you have a "10-year-old couch-potato dog," a food for puppies is going to provide too many calories, she says.

Buying Food for Your Dog

Follow these tips when you're looking for dog food:

Avoid shopping by your tastes. Thesedays, many people are turning away from starchy vegetables and avoiding wheat. Remillard sees plenty of pet owners who don't want ingredients like corn and wheat in their dog's food, either. "The word clients may use is 'I don't want a lot of fillers,'" she says.

But these grains aren't harmful in your dog's diet. And these ingredients may even be helpful in managing your dog's weight. Such grains are carbohydrates, and they can be a lower-calorie ingredient in food than fat.

Know the lingo. Certain words on a dog food label may not be as important to your dog's health as you might think:

  • Premium. This has no official definition, says Cailin Heinze, VMD, an assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. It means nothing in terms of quality or nutrition. The same goes for "super premium." Heinze has received consulting fees from several pet-food companies.
  • Byproducts. A byproduct is part of an animal or plant that wasn't a food maker's original focus, Remillard says. Animal byproducts might be organs like liver, lungs, heart, or kidneys. These parts are very nutritious, and in the wild, dogs eat them first, Remillard says.
  • Natural. This generally means no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.But the word "natural" doesn't say anything about a food's quality or nutritional value.