The Top 15 Cat Food Ingredients to Stay Away From

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Cat food to avoid

Guest post: Emily Parker,

Saying goodbye to your pet is one of the hardest things pet parents have to go through. In some cases, you know it’s for the best, since your best friend has been suffering. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

Thankfully there are wonderful, caring services like CPC to help you through the hard time when it comes to taking the important first steps in bereavement.

But let’s be honest… even though it might be the best thing to stop suffering… and even though wonderful people exist to help you through the process…

You want your pet to live as long as possible!

Unfortunately, one of the top reasons we see pets dying at an early age is because of their nutrition…or lack thereof.

We all know how helpful it is to have commercial pet foods around. We don’t have to make food ourselves, or risk letting our cat outside to hunt mice.

But just like in any industry, there are a lot of options at the bottom of the barrel that are made on the cheap, and that may even contain ingredients that are harmful to your cat.

After literally hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of research, we’ve put together a massive database of 2000+ cat foods, and have gone through each recipe looking at the ingredients.

We wanted to provide food ratings for our readers, so that meant we had to know what each ingredient really was.

A lot of this info is hard to find! But through reading published studies and other medical information, we pieced together a list of 15 foods that we NEVER want to see in cat food.

I’m not saying these ingredients will kill your cat.

We’ve all heard of kitties who have lived long lives on the cheapest products.

But I will say that these ingredients almost assuredly increase the RISK of your kitty developing a painful, and potentially fatal illness…or just cause unnecessary pain.

I recommend reading the label of the food you feed your cat to be sure it doesn’t contain any of these ingredients. If it does, it might be time to find a better option.

After all, your cat is more than just a pet, right? I know mine is!

1. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)

This is typically used as an artificial preservative.

Even though it is labelled as safe in low dosages, it’s “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” according to The National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services (source).

Plus, it’s been shown to cause tumors in lab animals.

When there are so many other natural preservatives out there, I don’t think cat food companies have any excuse to put this in their food.

2. Caramel

Sounds good to us, but there’s no point to this ingredient in pet foods.

It’s only in there to give food a more appealing color.

But your cat doesn’t give a care about the color of her food. So it’s only added to pleae pet parents.

Totally unnecessary marketing gimmick, and usually included in cheaper cat food.

Some color options, caramel included, are potential carcinogens (source). Not worth it.

3. Carrageenan

People have been on either side of this debate for years.

Carrageenan is a thickening agent that is derived from a red seaweed.

It’s clear that “degraded” carrageenan is a potential carcinogen or cancer causer.

Obviously the degraded form isn’t used in pet foods, but there are some people who believe that a cat’s stomach acid could react with it and cause it to become degraded…thereby making it a cancer risk.

The verdict is still out, but even if there is a chance of this happening, we recommend sticking to safer alternatives, like agar-agar.

4. Cellulose

This filler ingredient is very high in insoluble fiber. That’s typically not too much of a problem, except for the fact that it can interfere with digestion and inhibit protein and nutrient uptake if too much is ingested by your kitty.

The bigger problem we have with this is where it comes from. It’s usually wood pulp (sawdust) from pine trees.

Pretty sure cats don’t go around eating trees in the wild.

Usually found in lower quality cat foods.

5. Glucose / Dextrose

Cats don’t need sugar! Glucose could cause obesity and potentially even diabetes.

Dextrose is the crystallized form of glucose. Sometimes used as a sweetener (cats don’t care for sweet things), it’s more often used to make the food look more brown and “meaty”.

Dextrose (like most sugars) is a nutritionally unnecessary addition to cat food, and is likely harmful over time.

6. Garlic

Some companies add this because in small doses, some people believe garlic has helpful properties.

But in high doses, it’s toxic.

Why take the risk? One slip up at the manufacturing plant and your cat is at risk.

Long term exposure may also increase your cat’s risk of being impacted by it.

7. Glyceryl Monostearate

This one is tricky, because there are a lot of minerals and vitamins that have “scientific” names that look like this.

It was one of the last ingredients we discovered as being potentially harmful.

Basically, it’s an emulsifier, and used in cheaper options.

It might actually contain BHA (we mentioned BHA above) and BHT among other glyceryls and chemicals.

You don’t really know what’s in it, because it could be made up of a number of things.

8. Iron Oxide

Another coloring agent! I don’t think I have to say it again, but there is no point to color a cat’s food, other than to please the human buyer of it.

Completely unnecessary and solely a marketing ploy.

Oh, and iron oxide can be cultivated from rust. Here’s what has to say on it: “Common rust is a form of iron oxide. Iron oxides are widely used as inexpensive, durable pigments in paints, coatings and colored concretes.”

While they are likely safe, not readily absorbed into the body, and likely non-toxic, any coloring additive is questionable, and iron oxide has not been studied as a food additive very thoroughly.

9. Meat & Bone Meal

Perhaps the worst and most disgusting “meat” product that could possibly be put in cat food.

AAFCO is sort of the regulatory group put together from animal feed and pet food companies. They give definitions of each ingredient that can be used in food. Here’s what they have to say.

Meat and bone meal is “rendered product from mammal tissues, including bone, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents.”

This is where things get gross. Because it’s rendered and low quality, it could be made of anything. The rendering industry can used pretty much anything that comes it’s way as long as the ingredients they produce have the appropriate nutrient profiles that feed companies are looking for.

That means it could be made up of anything from “4D” livestock (dead, diseased, disabled, and dying) to euthanized pets to zoo animals (in Baltimore, a baby circus elephant was sent to one of these rendering plants) to roadkill to the meat that expires at grocery stores and gets sent away.

It’s gross. But there’s a lot of info out there that can bring you down the rabbit hole if you have a strong enough stomach.

Some sources here, if you really want to dig in further: here, here, and here.

10. Meat By-Products

Some people think by-products are a good way to make sure none of the animal goes to waste. I get that.

By-products are what’s left over once the human-grade cuts are removed. I personally don’t think they’re the best, but I understand the argument.

Unfortunately if you find the actual ingredient “meat by-products” (rather than something like “chicken by-products”), it could be made of anything…just like in our example above.

Here’s AAFCO again.

Meat by-products are “non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. Includes, but not limited to lungs, spleen, kidneys, Brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth, and hoofs.”

That’s anything left over on the carcass after all the “supermarket” meat is cut off and taken away. The rest is thrown into a big tub with other stuff and processed a whole lot.

I never risk buying non-named animal products, since as mentioned above, it could be from pretty much anything. And I mean anything.

11. Red, Yellow, and Blue Food Coloring

Again with the colors! Come on, pet food companies.

Blue 1, Yellow 5…

A little bit is unlikely to be harmful, but some of these have been linked to issues like hyperactivity in kids to potentially even being a carcinogen.

Once again, there’s no reason to color a pet food, so if a company does it, something fishy is going on.

12. Sodium Nitrite

Some companies claim they add this as a “botulinum control” in the US. However, many countries outside the US do not use this ingredient for that reason. There are other methods of accomplishing this that are not so potentially harmful.

The more likely reason it’s added, is that it can enhance color and maybe flavor, to once again make things look (and taste) more like “real” meat.

And once again…it might even be a carcinogen (source).

13. Sodium Tripolyphosphate

We’ve come across some allegations that this is used as a rancid meat preservative.

It’s also specifically used “to help moist foods to retain moisture so that they appear fresher for longer” (source).

“Appear” fresher. Doesn’t sound particularly high quality.

Some also use it to reduce calcium build up as a dental additive.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (a division of the CDC), suspects it may be a neurotoxin. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes sodium tripolyphosphate as “an insecticide, fungicide and rodenticide.”

14. Titanium Dioxide

Another potential carcinogen coloring agent. This one turns things white.

Nanoparticles in titanium dioxide have been found to cause chromosomal breakdowns, cause damage to DNA, increase inflammation, and lead to cancer and genetic disorders.

It may accumulate in the brain and cause negative side effects.

15. Wheat Gluten

When you see weirdly uniform looking chunks of “meat” in your cat’s food, it is likely made from wheat gluten.

Wheat gluten is “made by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch granules have been removed, leaving the sticky insoluble gluten as an elastic mass which is then cooked before being eaten.”

It’s actually useful if you’re vegan, because you can make a loaf (seitan) that is almost like meat, that is full of protein.

For cats, though, it’s not so good.

Cat’s don’t do well on non-meat ingredients, and it’s basically just a way for manufacturers to increase the crude protein claims on the label…without actually putting in more healthy meats.

Meat is expensive, so to cut costs, they’ll just make “vegan meat” and make it look like real meat.

The Bottom Line

Again, your cat probably won’t keel over and die right away from any of these. In fact, she might live to be 25.

But like I said above…the RISK of your cat getting a disease or illness…or just generally being in pain…is much higher if you feed a food that contains these ingredients.

As stewards of our cat’s diet, it’s our responsibility to feed them foods that are natural and biologically appropriate, so that they can thrive and live a long, healthy life by our sides.

2 responses to “The Top 15 Cat Food Ingredients to Stay Away From”

  1. Patricia Mann says:

    I am so upset about the trisodium polytriphosphate
    My cats last year had a terrible time with fur balls so I purchased Advance furball cat biscuits it did the trick stopped the problem but my Black Russian has had diahrea ever since nearly 12 months , my blue Russian has been ok , I’ve been researching this chemical above and I now believe this is her reaction to that chemical ,she is under the vet on Prednisilone and probiotics and has slowly lost weight I am so distraught

    • Jon says:

      Hi Patricia, I feel for you. Chronic conditions are difficult to deal with and when there’s no clear answer they can be traumatic for the sufferer and those that love them. I hope you find a solution to your cat’s weight loss.

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