Natural Doesn’t Always Mean Healthy When it Comes to Cat Food

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Recently, a major pet food company announced a complete reformulation of one of its core product lines. The new formulas are to contain more natural ingredients, no by-products and no artificial colors or flavors. After looking at the list of ingredients, the new formulas don’t look much better to me than the old ones did, and still contain fillers such as wheat gluten, corn meal and powdered cellulose. While they may not contain by-products anymore, the non-specific proteins listed, such as “ocean fish” or “poultry” or “meat,” don’t provide enough information as to what the source of the protein is.

The intent of this article is not to point fingers at any one cat food manufacturer. Selling cat food is a business, and you can’t blame manufacturers for trying to position their products in the best possible light. This is why it’s up to each cat guardian to look past the marketing hype and educate themselves about what is really in their cat’s food. And that means understanding how to read the label.

One of the most misleading words on cat food labels (or any food label, for that matter) is probably the world “natural.” Just because the label has the word “natural” and pictures of wholesome vegetables and grains on it does  not necessarily make it so.  The only way you can be sure to understand what’s in a food is by reading the label.  Here are some things to look for:

Ingredients

Pet food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order, in other words, the most predominant ingredient has to be listed first. Look for meat based proteins as the main ingredient.  Avoid anything that lists corn or soy and their by-products – these two ingredients are some of the prime culprits for causing allergies in pets.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that a food is good for your cat because it lists ingredients such as peas, carrots, cranberries, blueberries and the like.  Cats are obligate carnivores, and they don’t need these ingredients to thrive, but they make for good marketing to the cat’s human. They can be a source of antioxidants and vitamins, and very small amounts may be acceptable. Ideally, a cat’s food should be at least 95% protein (meat) based.

Guaranteed Analysis

Manufacturers are required to list basic nutrient percentages on the label. Typically, this portion of the label will list crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, moisture, and ash content. Note that there is no listing for carbohydrates on food labels, which is a very important consideration when it comes to feeding cats, who are obligate carnivores.  However, it is not difficult to calculate approximate carbohydrate contents. Simply add all of the listed nutrients and subtract the total from 100% – this will give you a fairly accurate number.

AAFCO Statement

This is probably the most misunderstood item on pet food labels. AAFCO, the American Association of Feed Control Officials, is the organization which is charged with establishing and enforcing animal feed requirements across all fifty state governments. Its primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of feed for human food producing livestock. The AAFCO statement on most pet food labels indicates that the food has been tested and approved as “complete and balanced for the life of a pet.”  This is sadly misleading. The tests are conducted on very small groups of animals and for very short periods of time. The only real long-term tests of pet food happen when pet guardians feed these diets to their own pets.

Beyond the label

Don’t stop your research with reading the label. Where do the food’s ingredients come from? Where is it manufactured? Visit the brand’s website. If the source of their ingredients is not listed, contact them. With all the problems with ingredients sourced in China, I would steer clear of brands that still source any of their ingrediens from there.

If you feed canned foods, check to see if the cans are BPA free. BPA (bisphenol A) has been linked to increased incidences of feline hyperthyroidism.

Don’t fall for the marketing hype – do your homework. Your cat will thank you for it.

Related reading:

The best food for your cat: my recommendations

The truth about dry cat food

Photo by Tom Thai, Flickr Creative Commons

8 Comments on Natural Doesn’t Always Mean Healthy When it Comes to Cat Food

  1. Maxwell, Faraday & Allie
    February 25, 2013 at 5:26 pm (6 years ago)

    We absolutely HATE it when we see the word “natural” – it’s simply code for “we’re too cheap to do it right” in our book.

    This is a wonderful article, thank you for posting it. This happens to be a pet peeve of ours, especially considering all the “bad press” raw diets are getting, compared to the number of traditional kibble foods in the past year that have been recalled due to salmonella contamination.

    We wholeheartedly endorse the advice to do your homework, read and study and learn. Our food is human grade, and the reason we went this direction (besides not having the time to make our own) is because of the lack of oversight, the permissiveness in regulations and the tell-tale amount of radiation (to kill harmful bacteria) allowed for pet food, as compared to human food.

    Sorry, will step off the soapbox now! 🙂

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 25, 2013 at 5:34 pm (6 years ago)

      We’re right there with you on your soapbox! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Connie
    February 25, 2013 at 3:56 pm (6 years ago)

    I tend to run away from any pronouncement of ‘natural’. it is simply a marketing buzz word that has no real meaning while deceiving you into believing it is better for you. I started this when 7-up went ‘all natural’ but still had high fructose corn syrup in the formula. if HFCS is ‘natural’ than what would need to be included to make it non-natural (unnatural?)

    AAFCO doesn’t necessarily need to have food trials. If the food in question meets the nutritional requirements than they do not need to do a single day of food testing before they put it on the market. They can dummy up a recipe on a computer program that hits the headliner requirements for certain nutrients and poof, they have AAFCO approved food.

    and frankly I would rather feed meat by-products to my cats than a plant any day.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 25, 2013 at 5:33 pm (6 years ago)

      Unfortunately, far too many people still get reeled in with the term “natural” when it comes to food, Connie – both human and pet food.

      Reply
  3. Bernadette
    February 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm (6 years ago)

    There is no legal standard for “natural”, so its use should be completely ignored, in cat food and all foods. Reading labels, and researching manufacturers, is the only real way to find out what’s in the food and how it’s been produced. Thanks for instructing how to do so!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 25, 2013 at 1:27 pm (6 years ago)

      You’re absolutely right, Bernadette. “Natural” does not provide any information whatsoever in human food labeling, either.

      Reply
  4. Lauren
    February 25, 2013 at 10:48 am (6 years ago)

    So that major pet food company would be Hill’s, correct? I can say it, even if you can’t! Scoundrels…

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 25, 2013 at 1:24 pm (6 years ago)

      This type of marketing language is not unique to any one petfood company, Lauren.

      Reply

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