Interpreting Cat Food Label

If you’ve tried to decipher your cat’s food label, you might think you need a degree in pet nutrition regulation to figure it out. It’s really not that difficult, but it certainly can be confusing if you don’t know the legal requirements, or lack there of, regarding food labeling. If you fancy yourself a prudent shopper, start taking a serious gander at pet food marketing claims and the labels. You could be quite surprised by what you find.

First, the actual ingredient label tells you: a) what’s in the product and b) the amount of the item in the product. For example, in comparing the labels below, the first one has turkey as the first ingredient and the second one has ground corn as the first ingredient.

Example 1: Turkey, chicken, chicken broth, whole eggs, chicken meal, herring, potatoes, carrots, brown rice, natural flavor, apples, alfalfa sprouts, guar gum, herring oil, milk, sodium phosphate, seaweed extract, vitamins/minerals, inulin, sunflower oil, taurine, choline chloride, sea salt

Example 2: Ground corn, poultry by-product meal, soybean meal, meat meal/meat bone meal, corn gluten meal, animal fat, animal digest, wheat, wheat gluten, salt, water, caramel color, wheat flour, natural flavor, artificial colors, taurine, turkey, BHA/BHT

But here’s the tricky part. Let’s say that the second label instead says: Turkey, ground corn, corn meal, poultry by-product meal, corn gluten meal, animal digest, wheat, wheat gluten…

Though turkey is listed first, grains make up five of the next seven items, which makes one wonder then if corn, or some variation of corn, is really the largest ingredient.

Another tricky item is the term “flavor.” Wouldn’t a rational person think that “beef-flavored” cat food would contain actual beef? Well, by law, it doesn’t have to. In fact, it can just taste like beef with beef flavoring (like beef broth) and never contain any real beef.

The “flavor” rule is just one of several interesting ingredient labeling rules governed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The others are the “95%” rule, the “25%” or “dinner” rule, the “3%” or “with” rule.

The 95% rule means that for food labeled “Chicken Cat Food,” at least 95% of the product must be chicken.

The 25% or “dinner,” “platter,” “formula” or “entrée” rule means that the named ingredients must make up at least 25% of the product. So the “Chicken Cat Food Formula” can contain beef.

The “with” or 3% rule means that cat food labeled “with” must have at least 3% of the “with” product. So “Chicken Cat Food with Cheese” must have at least 3% cheese.

Why is it important to know the rules behind the naming? Because if you assume that “chicken-flavored” cat food or the “chicken platter” exclusively contains chicken, you could be sadly mistaken. And if other protein sources like beef or fish don’t agree with your cat, you could be doing him harm by not understanding the labeling game.

Another surprising ingredient issue: according to the Food and Drug Administration, labels that tout “gourmet” or “premium” are not held to any greater standards. Neither is the term “natural.”

There are several common ingredients found in commercial pet foods including: a main protein source like chicken, beef or fish; by-products; brewer’s yeast or brewer’s rice; ground corn; corn gluten meal; animal fat; animal or fish meals; wheat flour; beet pulp; salt; ground wheat; guar gum (a stabilizer); potassium chloride (mineral); iron oxide (mineral); taurine (amino acid); carrageenin (seaweed for gel texture); choline chloride (a vitamin B); vitamins A, B12, D; DL-methionine (amino acid); yucca schidegera (supplement); zinc sulfate (mineral); manganese sulfate (mineral); niacin (B vitamin); calcium pantothenate (B vitamin); riboflavin (B vitamin); folic acid (B vitamin); potassium iodide (mineral); sucrose (sugar); BHA (chemical preservative); caramel color (artificial color).

Clearly, there are numerous items in this ingredient list that you should be concerned about including: animal fat or animal meals—what kind of animal? Why isn’t the source animal named? Salt and sugar are not healthy additives. BHA and caramel color are chemical additives and not healthy.

Most holistic and natural pet care professionals suggest selecting cat foods based on high-quality whole protein source (chicken). Some feel that by-products, like chicken by-products, are fine but not as the main source of protein. Others also feel that one should track the amount of grain products and carbohydrates on the ingredient label as they are not as digestible and are somewhat unnatural to a cat’s diet, certainly in large amounts.

If you ignore the front label and the product marketing and pay close attention to the back label list of ingredients, you’ll have a better idea, and greater control, over your pet’s diet.

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