3 Steps to Decoding Cat Food Labels



To create CatFoodDB, I spent a lot of time trying to understand and decode cat food labels. I wanted to know how to tell the quality cat foods from the not-so-great, and to do so without a lot of effort. During this process, I've discovered there are three things to look at that together will give you a good indication of a food's quality.


Step 1: Read the product name. Apply the 3 rules.

When it comes to labeling cat (and dog) foods, there are some rules that manufacturers have to follow. These rules can be a very good starting place to help determine a cat food's quality. It's also helpful to simply be aware that these rules exist, as it's important to know that slight rearranging of the words can distinguish between a very high protein cat food vs one full of cheap fillers.

The 95% rule

A pet food labeled "Chicken for Cats" or "Beef Cat Food" must contain 95% or more of the named ingredient by total dry weight (or 70% with moisture added). Additionally, the rule can only be applied to ingredients of animal origin. Very few commercial cat foods fall into this category.

The 25% rule

Cat foods labeled with a qualifying word such as such as 'dinner', 'entrée', 'platter', 'formula' -- for example "Chicken Dinner" or "Beef Entrée" -- must contain at least 25% of the named ingredient (not including water). When more than one named ingredient is included, the ingredients together must total 25%, and each individual ingredient must make up at least 3% of the total weight.

Unlike the 95% rule, all named ingredients count here - so "Chicken & Rice Dinner" means there's at least 3% rice, chicken must be more plentiful than rice (as ingredients must be listed in order of decreasing amounts), and together chicken & rice must make up at least 25% of the product.

The 25% Rule

The 3% (with) rule

The 3% rule can also be known as the "with rule". If a product contains "with" in its name, it only needs to include 3% of that product. For example: "Cat Food with Tuna" means that the product only needs to consist of 3% tuna. Compared to the similar sounding "Tuna Cat Food" (which must be 95% tuna), it is very important to notice the language and words used in the cat food labeling.

The 3% (with) Rule

Other Label Claims

If a product is identified with "[Ingredient] Flavor", it contains less than 3% of that ingredient.

Recently, a lot of cat food products have been labelling themselves as "Grain-Free". Although it may be true that the food does not contain grains, it's important to note that this does not mean it's carb-free. Potatoes and other vegetables can add a significant amount of carbs to a product -- see the following sections for how to determine how much.

Labelling a cat food as "premium" or "gourmet" is just a marketing ploy. These words when used to describe cat food contain no special significance.


Step 2: Check the first 5 ingredients

Since ingredients in cat food are listed from most-plentiful to least plentiful, the first 5 will make up the majority of the product. A good cat food should contain quality protein sources within the top 5 ingredients as cats are carnivores; their ideal diet is protein-based. A high-quality protein source is a defined animal product - chicken, beef, etc. Seafood-based proteins are also fine if your cat tolerates them. Protein "meal" (ie chicken meal) is ok as well; it's merely protein product that has been dried. However, you should be wary of generic "meat" or "fish" ingredients; ask yourself why is the manufacturer not being specific about the exact type of meat/fish in the product?

Water and broth ingredients are also fine as most canned food consists of about 80% water.

When evaluating the ingredients, you want to be wary of (or avoid altogether) cheap fillers in your cat's food - these can be identified by looking for soy, corn, rice or flour based ingredients. You should also think twice about cat food containing by-products. By-products are the remaining parts of the animal carcass (is bones, organs, blood, beaks) that are left over after the meat has been removed.

There are also a few preservatives that have been shown to cause illness in cats you may also want to avoid. These will show up in the ingredient list as "BHA", "BHT", or "ethoxyquin".

You may also notice other vegetables and fruits in the ingredient lists. It isn't necessary to avoid these types of products (except for corn), but they're not needed in your cat's diet either. In fact, they're usually there to act as bulk fillers and to appeal to us human cat food buyers -- the cats really couldn't care less.

To summarize:

Good:

  • specifically named proteins and meal (chicken, turkey, beef, etc).
  • specifically named seafood-based proteins and meals (tuna, salmon, etc), if your cat tolerates them

Bad:

  • by-products
  • corn, soy, rice, and flour based products
  • BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin

Ok:

  • moisture-based products
  • vegetable and fruit-based ingredients (except corn)
  • generic "meat" or "fish" ingredients

Step 3: Use the Guaranteed Analysis to estimate protein and carbohydrate amounts

When choosing a cat food, you should be looking for products high in protein and low in carbohydrates.

Fair warning - this by far is the hardest step. And despite my best attempts to simplify things, determining the real amounts of protein and carbs in any one cat food will always involve a little bit of math.

Luckily, CatFoodDB has already done that math for you for over 2100 products, so you really shouldn't have to do this as long as you keep us nearby when you're doing your pet food shopping! (Don't forget that you can search for products too!)

The reason why math is required is because the published Guaranteed Analysis (GA) numbers don't tell what the protein and carbohydrate percentages are these values directly. Instead, they are required to report what's known as the "wet matter" values, which include moisture. However because different products contain different amounts of moisture, these published values are not directly comparable, especially when comparing wet foods to dry foods.

Calculating the Dry Matter Basis is how we solve this issue - you can read more about that here.

To calculate the percentage of carbohydrates in a product, you need to calculate the Dry Matter Basis (DMB) for the other nutrients -- protein, fat, fiber and if available, ash. Subtract these from 100, and the remaining value is the DMB value for the product's carbohydrates.

Instead, the following table can be used to roughly calculate protein and carbohydrate values for any wet or dry food:

Wet (Canned) Food Dry (Kibble) Food
% Protein (estimate) 5 x GA* Protein GA Protein + 10%
% Carbohydrates (estimate) 100 - (5 x GA Protein)
- (5 x GA Fat)
- (5 x GA Fiber)
- (5 x GA Ash)
100 - (GA Protein + 10%)
- (GA Fat + 10%)
- (GA Fiber + 10%)
- (GA Ash + 10%)

*GA: Guaranteed Analysis

An above average cat food should have more than 50% dry matter protein with less than 20% dry matter carbohydrates.

A Protein & Carb Calculation Example

Muse's Natural Mackerel Recipe In Broth is a wet food that has the following Guaranteed Analysis:

Protein: (min)
12.0%
Fat: (min)
2.5%
Fiber: (max)
0.5%
Carbs: (est)
3.0%
Ash: (est)
2.0%
Moisture: (max)
80.0%

Using the table above, this translates to:

  • Protein:12 x 5 = 60% dry matter protein
  • Carbohydrates:100 - (5 x 12) - (5 x 2.5) - (5 x 0.5) - (5 x 2.0) = 15% dry matter carbohydrates

Since this product has more that 50% protein and less that 20% carbs, the nutrition values of this food as calculated from the Guaranteed Analysis are pretty good!


Bonus Step: The AAFCO Label

In addition to the above steps, one other thing you should be verifying in all pet foods is the "AAFCO" label. AAFCO is the 'Association of American Feed Control Officials', which is the organization responsible for determining if pet food meets established nutritional guidelines. All pets foods bought in the United States should contain one of two similar statements:

"[Product Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO (dog/cat) food nutrient profiles."

"Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [Product Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition.”

Although the second statement is better because in this case the food has been proven nutritionally complete in strict feeding trials and meets the needs of the animals it is labeled for, the first is also sufficient telling you that at least theoretically, this food is nutritionally complete.

Overall, being able to decode cat food labels quickly and easily might take a little bit of practice, but once you know what to look for, a lot of the mystery can be removed. In the end, your cat will thank you (and let's face it, we all know he's the boss!).


Further Reading


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