Assessing a Koi and Pond Fish Food Ingredients Label

Assessing an ingredients label

Ingredients labels can be very exciting, or very misleading.

They can be exciting because they seem to report excellent ingredients and real care and attention in manufacture. Misleading labels use techniques like ingredient splitting and foreign law to dupe the consumer. Come with me to the store and we shall assess a label together in nine steps.

Assessing the Fish Food Label: Step-By-Step

Assessment 1: Protein source.

Look for fishmeal, squid meal, whitefish meal, anchovy meal, shrimp meal, blood meal, herring meal, etc as first ingredients. These are the best protein sources for fish and are the ones I recommend. Other proteins, for example if you found a bag of food that showed Lobster meal as the first ingredient, you understand that again, aquaculture protein is best for aquaculture.

Assessment 2: Purpose of plant material

If you find a food that has NO animal protein, therefore no fish protein, AND it also has TWO plant proteins, then the manufacturer is trying to get cheaper plant ingredients to do what fishmeal should be doing. And Koi feeding results will be mediocre at best. However, if you find a food with FISH MEAL as the first ingredient and THEN wheat germ meal or similar, they are using the plant ingredient for protein AND energy, letting the fishmeal carry the bulk of the protein requirement, which is as it should be. There will be some plant protein in most foods. It’s used as a helper, dual-purpose ingredient and it’s not to be eschewed.

Koi Food Label Assessment can reveal koi food as awesome or awe-ful.
Koi Food Label Assessment can reveal koi food as awesome or awe-ful.

Assessment 3: Ingredient Splitting

Look for any ingredient TWICE on the list.

If you were manufacturing a food and found wheat to be cheaper than fishmeal, you would want to use wheat to save money. But, you know the consumers want the fishmeal to be FIRST on the list. So you split the wheat!


Two pounds of fishmeal is less than three pounds of “Wheat”. Right?

So, honestly, that would read:

Ingredient one by weight: Wheat

Ingredient two by weight: Fishmeal

But what if you did your label based on:

2 pounds Fishmeal

1.5 pounds Wheat “germ”

1.5 pounds wheat “flour”

I’ve split my wheat into two “separate” parts and they’re taken separately into the label and my Fishmeal is boosted to the TOP of the list.

Assessment 4: Protein percent.

Let’s say a company who is tailoring a feed to the prevailing market-climate wants to use FOUR aquacultural proteins, and tosses in shrimp, kelp, spirulina, and squid meal. That would be AWESOME! But it could jack up the proteins to a level unsuitable for fish, or at least unnecessary (and expensive). The protein level in a decent diet should be about 32-36% …Partly because Koi can’t digest more than that in one pass. I don’t know that feeding MORE than that is a “Bad Thing” because fish will simply pass what they don’t digest. So, looking for minimums, and recognizing that an outrageously high protein percentage you might be paying for is unnecessary, are the two take-away tidbits on this assessment.

Assessment 5: Fat content

Find a food between 3-10% Crude fat. Go to the higher end of my range for smaller fish, and closer to 3% for adult fish.

Assessment 6: Ascorbic acid

Make sure “ascorbic acid”, or “L-Ascorbyl-2-Phosphate” or similar is on the label among the trailing ingredients. It will represent a very small part of the diet but it should be added to any milled food.

Assessment 7: Immune boosters

Some foods are made with immune boosters. These are certainly harmless and they may very well perform as promised depending on what we’re talking about. Look for any combination of following putative immune-boosting ingredients like: Optimun, Aquagen, Nucleotides, Torula Yeast, Brewer’s Yeast, Bee Propolis, Colostrum, Aspergillus niger, beta carotene, lactoferrin. Don’t hang your hat on any particular ingredient as a miracle supplement or life saver – okay? …but recognize that the addition of these items represents the manufacturer as a little more attentive and knowledgeable, and the food worth a little extra money.

Assessment 8: Color enhancers

Are there color enhancers in the diet? Look for terms like Spirulina, Bio-Red, BetaCarotene, Canthaxanthin, Marigold petals, Xanthins, Shrimp Oil, Synthetic and Non Synthetic Carotenoids, Color Enhancers…On the label. Generally, the shrimp oil is the most expensive. It performs as well or better than the synthetic carotenoids but either is acceptable. Spirulina cannot push color unless the fish are exposed to sunlight. None of these color enhancers are hazardous to fish but can make a fish with a yellow head YELLOWER and so they say: a fish with a tendency towards pink pinker. No color enhancer can replace the irrefutable contribution of genetics and sunlight to color.

Assessment 9: Ash content if stated.

Sometimes companies will level with you and tell you the “crap” content of their food. Ash is what’s left behind when you incinerate (or the fish digests) the food. It’s almost all carbon and mineral. So the higher the ash number, the less likely one is to appreciate it. Generally, when Ash is high, a smart label guy would just leave it off, and they are allowed to because it’s not required on fish food bags.

Dr Erik Johnson is a Marietta, Georgia Veterinarian with a practice in small animal medicine. He graduated from University of Georgia with his Doctorate in 1991. Dr Johnson is the author of several texts on Koi and Pond Fish Health and Disease as well as numerous articles on dog and cat health topics.