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How to Read Cat Food Labels

Eight Tips for Deciphering Cat Food Names and Claims
(continued)

Tip No 5: Focus on Nutrients, Not Ingredients continued...

This is where the label's “Guaranteed Analysis” comes into play. It lists nutrients found in cat food.

In general, cats need a variety of nutrients to survive, including protein, water, carbohydrates (fiber), vitamins, and minerals.

The specific nutrients depend on your cat’s life stage, among other things. But the way nutritional information is presented has often sparked debate. Some say current pet food labels, in general, are confusing and misleading, and one consumer advocacy group has called for a total overhaul of the labeling rules.

Why the controversy? Cat food manufactures are only required to list the minimum and maximum amounts of four nutrients: protein, fat, fiber, and moisture.

  • They must list the minimum amount of crude protein and crude fat.
  • They must list the maximum amount of crude fiber and moisture.

For example, a box of cat food may read: “Crude protein (max) -- 32%”. That means it contains at least that much protein. It could have more, but no less.

On the other hand, a box of cat food that reads: “Crude fiber (min) -- 20%” means it is guaranteed to have that much fiber but no more. Keep in mind that the amounts are given as a percentage, and not in grams (weight).

Manufacturers may voluntarily include information about other nutrients, such as ash, magnesium, and taurine, which is a must for cats.

Tip No. 6: Preservatives Are Important

Preservatives in pet foods get a bad name, but they actually serve a very important function in dry pet foods, Sanderson says. Preservatives are antioxidants that prevent the fat in foods from spoiling. Once a fat spoils, it loses its nutritional value, not to mention it can become dangerous to eat.

Preservatives may be natural or man-made. Natural preservatives commonly found in cat food include vitamin E (tocopherol) or vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Man-made ones include butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA); both are synthetic forms of vitamin E.

Some web sites claim BHT and BHA can lead to cancer in pets. But our experts say they're unaware of any peer-reviewed studies that have ever substantiated the risks of preservatives at the level found in pet foods. They say you should never choose a dry cat food that doesn't contain preservatives, because the risk of feeding a potentially rancid diet far outweighs any perceived risks associated with preservatives.

If you prefer to feed your cat a diet without preservatives, the experts interviewed for this story recommend preservative-free canned food only.

Tip No. 7: Natural Doesn't Mean Organic

When it comes to pet foods, there are no official definitions for the terms "natural" and "organic." But the two are not the same. "Organic" is about how a food source is grown and processed. Work is now under way to develop guidelines for the use of the word "organic" on cat food labels.

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