Cat Food Ingredients 101 Reading Labels and Picking a Quality Cat Food

Cat Food Ingredients 101 Bilevich Olga /

Feeding your cat a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet is essential for its overall health. Many owners don’t spend too much time thinking about the diet of their cats, but diet is without a doubt one of the most important aspects of your cat’s quality of life. If you’re wondering how to provide your cat with a healthy, long life, diet management should be your main focus.

While cat food labels are great at telling us exactly which ingredients are used in that specific product, they aren’t so great at telling us why those ingredients are beneficial for our cats (or worse - not healthy for our little fur balls). This is why it’s important to keep yourself educated and informed regarding cat food ingredients. 

There are many different cat food manufacturers and brands, and nearly all of them use different sets of ingredients, blends, and recipes. How can you possibly decipher through all of these different nutritional profiles? Luckily, reading cat food labels isn’t too difficult, and once you have the basics down, you’ll be able to properly gauge the healthiness of any cat food product quickly and efficiently.

Below are some of the best strategies to employ while reading pet food labels, as well as an overview of some of the better ingredients to look for (and also which ingredients to avoid). Managing your cat’s diet doesn’t need to be complicated, but you should at least know the basics - which is why we developed this blog. 

An Overview of Ingredients and Their Benefits

There are three main macronutrients to look for when choosing a cat food; protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Cats are naturally hypercarnivores, which means that they get nearly all of their nutrients from animal sources. However, domesticated cats have been consuming carbohydrates for quite a while, so they’ve essentially become adapted to carbs. While carbs aren’t necessary for a cat’s diet, nearly all major manufacturers include them in their products. 

For example, Fancy Feast White Meat Chicken Primavera, which is a popular cat food product, includes wheat gluten and corn starch in its list of ingredients. While these specific ingredients aren’t exactly carb-heavy, they do contain carbs. Other brands might even include major carb sources such as potatoes, rice, or various grains. 

Vitamins and Minerals

Just because your cat is a carnivore doesn’t mean that they can only eat meat and meet all of their nutritional needs. While this might be true in the wild, it’s not necessarily true for your pet cat. This is why many brands often include vegetables, fruit, and other types of ingredients in their cat food products. These ingredients aren’t necessarily bad, and they provide your cat with lots of vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients that typically aren’t found in protein and fat sources. 

This brings us to the question of vitamins and minerals, specifically, which vitamins and minerals are essential for our cats? Like most other animals, including humans, cats need a wide range of vitamins and minerals in order to be as healthy as possible. Calcium, Vitamin A, sodium, magnesium, and other nutrients are all essential for your cat’s continued (and future) health. 

Wild cats are able to consume these essential nutrients entirely through animal sources. Remember, wild cats are 100% carnivores, meaning they eat the entire animal that they kill, which is how they get their nutrients. Domesticated cats aren’t usually consuming whole birds and rodents (okay, well, sometimes they might), so that means you need to look for cat food that has a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients included in its list of ingredients. 

Essential and Non-Essential Ingredients 

It’s generally recommended to purchase cat food rather than prepare it on your own. Making sure that your cat receives all of the necessary nutrients can be challenging, especially if you’re cooking all on your own. Even getting the ratio of fats:protein: carbs correct can be difficult, let alone adding all of the essential micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals).

You should look for ingredients that are naturally sourced, and you should also watch out for ingredients that could be considered as “fillers.” Additives, fillers, byproducts, and meals are all ingredients that aren’t as high-quality as naturally-sourced ones. We recommend choosing a brand that only uses naturally-sourced proteins and fats, and one that avoids including unnecessary filler products. Remember, your cat’s health is largely dependent on their diet, so making the right choice when it comes to food is incredibly important. 

Everything You Need to Know About Grain-Free Cat Food

While not all cats are allergic to grains, those that do have this allergy often develop very problematic symptoms such as dry/irritated skin, bouts of itching, gastrointestinal distress, vomiting, and diarrhea. It’s important to note that there is a major difference between allergies and sensitivities. Your cat can be sensitive to grains and not be allergic. The difference between the two is that allergies have the potential to develop into serious health issues (in direct opposition to sensitivities - which typically only cause mild symptoms). 

Grain-free cat food, such as Nature's Variety Instinct canned cat food, is one of the best ways to mitigate your cat’s grain-related issues (or remove them altogether). There are many different brands and products on the market touting themselves as “grain-free,” but how do you know which one to purchase? And what certain ingredients should be avoided (or included) in these products? Don’t worry, in the following sections we provide answers to both of these questions (and more).

The Details Behind Grain-Free Cat Food Products 

Many pet owners often wonder whether or not these grain-free products are actually healthier than other options. Like most things in life, the answer to this ultimately depends on numerous factors (e.g. your cat’s breed, medical history, age, current diet, etc.). The main variable in answering this question is the actual reasoning behind your decision to give your pet cat a grain-free diet. 

Grain-Free Does Not Mean Free From Carbohydrates 

This is one of the most common myths about grain-free cat food out there. People associate grains with carbs, and for some reason think that just because a product is labeled as “grain-free” that it must be low in carbs as well. 

The truth is that grain-free cat foods have just as many carbs as other product lines (sometimes they even have more carbs). There are many different carb-based ingredients that can be included in cat food (that don’t contain grains). For example, even though rice is a type of grain, pet food manufacturers will almost always replace this type of ingredient with something like potatoes (which means that no, your grain-free food is not “carb-free” too).

Is Grain-Free Food Good for All Types of Allergies?

Contrary to popular belief, most cats are actually allergic to ingredients other than grains. In fact, the most common types of food allergies found in cats are nearly always linked to protein sources (e.g. beef, lamb, certain fish, etc.). Of course, cats are carnivores, which means that they need most of their nutrients from animal sources. 

This raises the question of which ingredients to avoid, and which ones to include in your pet’s diet. Generally speaking, if your cat is allergic to grains, you should obviously stick to food that’s clearly labeled as “grain-free.” However, you shouldn’t simply stop at that. You also need to look for other additives, fillers, and by-products, all of which can trigger certain responses in your cat’s GI tract. 

Glycemic Index and Grain-Free Cat Food: Is There a Connection?

Many pet owners are worried about how the production of grains has changed over the past few decades, to the point where the glycemic index of these grain-based ingredients has been tied to changes in the GI system of pets, as well as the absorption of nutrients. However, it’s not just grains that have undergone this change, nearly all ingredients have changed (i.e. the effect they have on the glycemic index has changed). If your main concern is related to your cat’s nutrient absorption, it’s recommended to feed them a minimally processed diet of natural, fresh foods (e.g. animal-based proteins and fats). 

Alternatives and Other Important Questions

Just because grain-free diets are popular doesn’t mean that you should completely rule out grains. If your cat has an actual grain allergy, you, of course, should never feed them grains. Some great alternatives include potatoes, and in particular sweet potatoes (which are very nutrient-dense). 

Grain-free diets, because of their higher protein content, are actually pretty well-tolerated by most cats. Remember, cats are what’s known as hyper carnivores (i.e. they eat mostly protein and fats - almost always from animal sources). Feeding your cat a grain-free diet is an excellent choice for many reasons, which is why it’s become a popular dietary choice among pet owners. 

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