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How to Read a Cat Food Label in 2021

In this article, I’m going to talk about how to read a cat food label. Cat food labels are often misleading about whether they are good for your cat.

Reading a cat food label takes care and patience. There are state and federal laws that dictate the listing, naming, and use of ingredients.

If a food lists a flavor on the title, the statement needs to follow the proper ratio of ingredients in the product per federal laws.

A cat food ingredient list goes from most to least amount of product by weight.

The nutritional panel states a guaranteed tested analysis of fat, protein, fiber, and moisture. Crude refers to the laboratory testing method (e.g. crude fat or crude fiber is a form of testing, not a lower quality fat).

The protein on a dry cat food product label is usually a higher percentage of the product, however, this is due to lower moisture compared to canned foods. A quick calculation converts the as-fed basis of macronutrients in pet foods.

Other basic requirements for packages include the net weight, claims for complete and balanced, feeding guidelines, and rules for nutritional adequacy.

My name is Derrick.  I write for Simply Cat Care, which is a site dedicated to helpful guides to understanding your cat.  I researched this topic to help you understand cat food labels. If you need more information on anything discussed in this article, seek the assistance of a veterinarian.

In this article, I’ll be going through the following topics:

Let’s get into the article.


The basics of reading a cat food label

Reading a cat food label is a difficult task. There are a lot of words, ingredients, and claims to sift through.

To read the labels of pet foods, you need to take your time with the individual product and work through each section.

Pet food manufacturers are bound by state and federal laws on the packaging. This stipulates what they can and can’t say on the package.

There are many ways to create statements that are legal but misleading or not in your best interest.

For your cat’s nutritional needs, you want to focus on selecting a high-quality product rich in essential nutrients that cats need for good health.

How to read a cat food label

What is a guaranteed analysis?

This is a required analysis of the protein, fat, fiber, and moisture in pet food.

If a product says it contains 30% protein, that is the guaranteed minimum amount of protein in the protein by weight.

When the label says ‘crude’ protein or any other nutrient, that refers to the method of testing.


How do you read cat food calories?

Cat food labels must list the total kilocalories per kilogram of product.

They also provide a number of calories per household measure (e.g. per cup).

I wrote a cool guide to work out how many calories you need to feed your cat.


How does the ingredients list work on pet food labels?

The weight of each ingredient determines its order on pet food labels. This goes from highest to least weight.

The weight includes the moisture content of the individual ingredient.

Animal-based foods contain more moisture than dried grains (e.g. corn). This affects the interpretation, so be mindful of this.


How do you interpret the feeding guidelines?

Some products will list feeding guidelines for their product.

This will happen when a product claims to be a balanced food source for all or any particular life stage (e.g. kitten, adult cat, senior) [2].

The label will provide an amount of food per weight of the cat in this case.

For example, they might say a 4-5kg cat needs 40g of the food a day or 1/2 a cup.

That is an example of a feeding guideline.

Check out my helpful feeding guide for more help.


How is cat food labeling regulated?

Regulation of pet food labeling happens at the federal level and the state level. That means the laws vary from state to state, and in different countries.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces guidelines for general labeling in the USA [1].

Some states use the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines for pet food labels [1].

The goal of the legislation is to give cat owners an informed choice about what they are feeding their cats. They are also there to protect them from harm.

Let’s review some terms used on cat food labels and what the laws state.


Product name

An ingredient used in a product name needs to comprise at least 95% of the total ingredients in the food (or 70% adjusting for water).

If there are two ingredients listed (e.g. lamb and mackerel) then the first listed name must have more of it in the food [1].

Descriptors get used if the ingredient listed on the product name is less than 95% of the food, but more than 25% (10% if including water).

A descriptor includes words such as ‘dinner’, ‘nuggets’, ‘platter’, ‘entree’, and ‘formula’. For example, if I made a cat food with 40% chicken, then I would have to call my food ‘chicken dinner’ or use another descriptor.

Similar to the 95% rules, if there are two ingredients with a descriptor the first ingredient must be higher in the product [1].

Another rule is the ‘with’ rule.

The with means the ingredient is 3% of the product weight. For example, a food that says Cat Food with Beef only needs 3% beef.

The word ‘flavor’ means only a trace amount of the ingredient needs detection [1].

Some examples of product names

Chicken Dinner (food must contain at least 25% chicken or 10% with moisture)

Mackerel Nuggets (food must contain at least 25% mackerel or 10% with moisture)

Lamb Cat Food (food must contain at least 95% lamb or 70% with moisture)

Cat Food with Salmon (food must contain at least 3% salmon)

Cat Food with Beef Flavor (only trace amount of beef needs detection)

Tuna and Chicken Cat Food (food must contain at least 95% tuna and chicken combined or 70% with moisture. The main ingredient must be tuna)


Ingredient Statement

Ingredients on pet foods get ordered from top to bottom in terms of weight.

The ingredients must be generally recognized to be safe (GRAS) [2]. This means they cannot lead to any disorders or illnesses, based on research.

AAFCO provides guidelines for the nomenclature and proper naming of ingredients [2].


What is the AAFCO?

AAFCO stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

This organization provides legislation recommendations for states. They do not directly control or endorse pet food labels [2].  

In other words, state legislation may use the guidelines provisioned by AAFCO or chose to use their own guidelines.


What is the FDA?

This stands for the United States Food and Drug Administration.

They stipulate guidelines for cat food labels in the USA.


What are some misleading terms on cat food labels?

Let’s look at a few terms that cat food manufacturers use to try to sell their products.

Premium

Premium is a term that can mean anything. There is no law stating that manufacturers must abide by when making this statement.

Premium is a word to make products sound fancier.

Natural

AAFCO defines the term natural for state legislation guidance.

If a cat food claims to be natural, it must not include artificial flavors, colors, or artificial preservatives in the product.

Most cat food manufacturers do not use many of these things, except for artificial preservatives [1].

Natural is not a major factor in deciding the quality of the product and can mislead consumers into thinking the ingredients must be high quality.

Meal

Sometimes you will see an ingredient listed as a ‘meal’. For example, you might see chicken meal or beef meal. This can sound like a good ingredient because it’s an animal-based food, however, let’s take a closer look.

What does ‘meal’ mean (e.g. chicken meal)?

Meal: ‘Rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach, and rumen contents.’ [1]

As you can guess by this short description, a meal product is of lower quality than actual meat and organs (e.g. lamb liver).

In contrast, this is the definition of meat:

Meat: ‘Clean flesh of slaughtered mammals and is limited to…the striate muscle…with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh.’ [1]

A meal is a lower-quality heat-treated product. It is better to focus on high-quality meat and organ-based foods.


How do you convert to a dry matter basis?

When looking at canned and dry cat food, you will notice there seems to be a higher percent quantity of protein and fat in dry food. This makes it seem like dry food is superior food.

The percentage of the total weight of the product includes moisture. The dry matter basis is the total percentage of the product minus the moisture.

For example, a product with 10% moisture has a 90% dry matter basis.

To make a fair comparison between canned and dry food, use an as-fed basis conversion.

How to calculate the as fed basis of cat food

Let’s look at a canned food and dry food example:

Dry food

30% crude protein

10% moisture (90% dry matter)

Canned food

7% crude protein

80% moisture (20% dry matter)

To find the actual as of the fed basis of protein, you need to use the following equation:

Protein/dry matter basis x 100

So for each example:

Dry food: 30/90 x 100 = 33%

Canned food: 7/20 x 100 = 35%

In this example, the canned food is higher in protein when accounting for moisture.

One thing to keep in mind is moisture is an advantage to cat nutrition.

Cat’s have a difficult time drinking enough water to hydrate themselves when fed a dry food diet. Canned food provides water with food that is good for cats. Check out more awesome tips for cat nutrition over here.


What is the best cat food for your cat?

Cat’s are obligate carnivores and thrive off high-quality animal-based foods.

Many pet food manufacturers are not interested in what is best for your cat, but what is best for profit. This means using cheap ingredients and low-quality meat (e.g. chicken meal).

This also means finding ways of manipulating the system to trick cat owners (e.g. splitting one ingredient into multiple different names to seem like it appears less in the product). Many products add additional vitamins and minerals to account for the lack of nutritional quality.

There are alternatives out there and better options. Check out my article on the best cat food for more information.


Conclusion: How to Read a Cat Food Label (Final Thoughts)

In this article, I’ve covered some basic tips to help with reading cat food labels.

There are a variety of state and federal laws that dictate what cat food manufacturers can put in their foods and on the label. The best thing to do is to carefully examine each word and statement when choosing a product.

Some of the things that I’ve covered in this article include the product name, ingredient list, guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy, and other claims (e.g. complete and balanced) made on packages.

I’ve also talked about how to convert the guaranteed analysis into the amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrate in the food.

The United States Department doesn’t specify that foods have to align with correct veterinary medicine principles. Speak with a vet for more advice on specific dietary requirements for your cat that packaged cat foods may not meet.

The advice in this article will help you read cat food labels and make informed decisions for your pet.

Want to learn more about anything cat-related?

Search our guides below for more about cats.

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