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Cat Food Ingredients (EXPLAINING a Cat Food Label)

Posted in: Cat Health - Last Updated: June 18, 2023 - Author: Dexter Jones
Posted in Cat Health 
Last Updated: May 23, 2022  
Author:  Dexter Jones
Cat food ingredients

It is so important that owners get pet nutrition right. But at the same time, it’s very easy to mess up and not give your beloved furry friend a nutritional diet packed full of high-quality ingredients.

Cats are obligate carnivores so require a healthy and well-balanced diet to thrive. 

To make sure the commercial cat food provides it, you should learn to decipher the ingredients of cat food.

This will allow you to identify any harmful ingredients and help your cat live longer

That way you can select the best cat food for your mini-panther.

Let’s clear this up, what is in cat food and how do we kitty owners best understand a mind-boggling cat food label?

Deciphering Cat Food Ingredients

The ingredients in cat food must be listed in descending order by weight. 

And since proteins are the cat's primary food, they must be listed first on a bag of dry cat food. Next come secondary sources of protein, followed by carbs, fats, preservatives, vitamins, and minerals. 

There should be also a small amount of taurine, a vital amino acid that keeps the body's systems functional.

Unfortunately, some cat food manufacturers defy this ideal formula. 

They may place carbohydrates right after the primary source of protein, which means there is a higher quantity of carbs than secondary proteins, vitamins, and minerals. 

While carbohydrates have their benefits, consuming too much of them can cause diarrhea and increased blood sugar levels in your feline. 

The Association of American Feed Control Officials defines all ingredients that are acceptable in animal diets. 

An ingredient in cat food cannot be added to a commercial cat meal if AAFCO hasn't set a definition for it. 

Find below the most common cat food ingredients, what they mean and what's their role in your cat's diet.

What is in cat food

Meat Product Ingredients in Cat Food


The AAFCO definition of chicken includes three parts of the bird's carcass: flesh, skin, and bone (optional). 

This shouldn't contain, though, bone and flesh from feet, horns, hooves, head, and intestines. 

This product is present mostly in premium cat foods such as organic cat food

It's worth noting that a high ratio of skin and bones to clean flesh can affect the quality of the protein and reduce its nutritional role.

Fish meal

This product is obtained by drying and then grinding whole fish or fish by-products. If it's a fatty fish, before getting dried, it is pressed to force the fish oil out. It is accepted for the oil to have 10% or less moisture. 

Also, if the oil contains more than 3% of salt, the salt must be listed as an ingredient. Fish is a vital source of omega-3 fatty acids and, not forgetting, omega 6. 

Omega-6 fatty acids are important for healthy skin and a shiny coat.

Poultry by-product meal

This stands for grounded and rendered poultry parts, including neck, legs, entrails, and underdeveloped eggs, excluding feathers. Clean parts of the poultry only.

Cats do eat these chicken parts in their natural form. But, after processing, they lose most of their nutritional value.

So, to keep your kitty healthy, avoid food where poultry by-product meal is listed as the first ingredient.

Beef tallow

Tallow is the fat resulting from rendering the cattle tissue. 

Since it is a bad form of fat, tallow shouldn't be in high quantities in cat food. Pet food manufacturers add just a pinch of it to give the meal a pleasant meaty flavor. 

While you want your cat's food to be flavorful, make sure beef tallow is not in the leading position on the ingredient list. 

Like a saturated fat, it can cause some serious health issues if consumed in large amounts, including obesity and heart disease.

Ingredients in cat food

Egg product

Eggs may come in different forms including dehydrated, liquid, or frozen. 

They must be deprived of shells and comply with the USDA egg safety regulations. 

Eggs are a major source of protein and other nutrients. 

They contain 10 of 11 amino acids cats need to survive. In addition, eggs are rich in vitamin A, which maintains the skin and coat healthy, and vitamin D which promotes bone growth.

Carbohydrates in Cat Food

While they don't play a vital nutritional role, carbs are an important source of energy, supplying glucose to the cat's cells. 

They also contain fibers that are good for the digestive system. Some foods have carbohydrate fillers that have lost any nutritional value while being processed. 

They are added just to increase the weight of the food while keeping the manufacturing costs down. 

Since processing lowers the quality of the carbs, it's best to buy cat food that contains whole grains.

Brewers rice

Brewer's rice stands for the small and dried fragments of rice that remain from the manufacture of wort within the beer-making process. 

There might be traces of hops in the brewer's rice, but they shouldn't be more than 3% in the total amount of rice used in the cat's food. Provided the processes it goes through, it's clear as day that brewers' rice's carbs are lower quality than the carbs found in whole grain and whole-grain corn.

Corn gluten meal

This is what remains from the corn after removing most of the starch, the germ, and separating the bran. 

It's the by-product of the manufacture of corn-based foods like syrup, flakes, and starch. 

Cornmeal is a cheap filler used to thicken the cat meal while supplying some carbohydrates and vitamins. 

However, some cats may be allergic to corn. If you notice your kitty's skin getting itchy and flaky, you want to check the cat food label for a corn-based ingredient. 

If it turns out that the allergic reaction was triggered by corn, avoid buying cat food containing this filler next time. 

Contact your vet to help you treat the skin issues.

Wheat flour

According to AAFCO, this product should consist of wheat bran, wheat germ, and residue from the tail of the mill. 

It should be a result of usual commercial milling and contain a negligible amount of crude fiber that doesn't exceed 1 1/2 percent. 

Wheat flour is a source of carbs, providing the cat with energy during the day. Moreover, it has fibers that contribute to digestive health.

catfood ingredients

Preservatives and Supplements in Cat Food

Though their weight is lower than the weight of primary proteins, secondary proteins, and carbs, vitamins and minerals cover almost half of the ingredient list. 

That's because manufacturers add different kinds of vitamins and supplements to ensure a well-balanced and healthy meal for your cat. 

AAFCO defines 25 vitamins and minerals. 

Some of them perform preservative functions as well.

Natural Flavors

AAFCO defines it as an ingredient originating in a plant, animal, or mined source. It may either be in its natural form or have undergone a type of processing, such as heat, extraction, and fermentation among others. 

It may not be chemically synthesized or contain synthetic compounds. 

This product is quite vague as the label will not specify what kind of ingredient it is. The manufacturers will only write "natural flavors" and that's all. 

As long as AAFCO gives no specific name to it as well, they can do it. 

The fact that AAFCO allows this ingredient to be used in pet food gives you fewer reasons to worry about a potential negative impact it may have on your kitty's health.

Brewers Dried Yeast

This kind of yeast results from the brewing of beer. 

Having undergone sterilization, it turned into an inactive yeast made of a single microorganism - Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Brewers dried yeast provides the cat with protein, amino acids, and B-group vitamins. Amino acids help the feline to keep muscles in shape and make bones work at their full capacity. 

 Moreover, your cat will have to benefit from improved heart, blood, and other organs function and a stronger immune system. 

Amino acids have a decisive role in the synthesis of proteins. So without them, your cat will get in big trouble. 

B vitamins have a positive impact on brain activity and encourage the production of red blood cells. 

As a probiotic, brewers dried yeast relieves stress and reduces nausea.

Potassium Chloride

Potassium has a role in improving the activity of the cardiovascular and nervous systems. 

Potassium chloride is a salty component used to add flavor to pet food and make it last longer.

Phosphoric acid

It's a supplement with a phosphorus ratio of 32%. 

It is primarily used to increase the acidity of food and keep the cat's urine pH within normal limits. 

Acidifying cat food is important for the prevention of kidney stones and for maintaining oral health.

Cat food label

Mixed Tocopherols

Tocopherols are a major source of Vitamin E which makes them a popular ingredient in premium cat foods. 

Vitamin E is a strong antioxidant, preventing the cells from getting oxidated. It is extremely important for maintaining the cat's health in optimal condition knowing that oxidative stress can affect the heart's function, and neurological function as well as weaken the immune system and vision. 

A Vitamin E supplement is also essential for skin health. 

Tocopherols may contain preservatives that are less effective than BHA and BTA preservatives.

Sodium Caseinate

This ingredient is a derivate of casein, a compound found in the milk of mammals. It is added to cat food for several reasons. 

First of all, it acts as a protein supplement that helps cats to thrive. 

Given the sodium's saltiness, the ingredient is also used for flavoring. Besides, it is a great preservative, being able to increase the chemical stability of other ingredients.

Other Cat Food Ingredients Listed in Cat Food

At the end of the ingredient list, you will find a plethora of vitamins and minerals with complex names, such as calcium carbonate, choline chloride, L-Alanine, ferrous sulfate, and many more. 

While their names may seem confusing and scary, they are inoffensive in tiny amounts and help your feline's digestion, thrive and stay healthy.

About the author

Dexter Jones has been a solid member of the ‘Mad Cat Dad’ club since time began! Dexter has been a keen cat writer for many years and lives in Croatia. He lives with his two tabby cats, Milly & Marly, who also flew in from the UK to start their new Adriatic island life together.