What's in your Cat? - Catfood labels explained
Pet food labeling is now compulsory for manufacturers and is regulated by law in most countries, being enforced in the USA for example, by the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). What that means is that pet food labels must now contain identification of the product, a net quantity statement, give the address of the manufacturer and list the ingredients. So a pet food label holds a wealth for the buyer who knows how to read it and interpret the information given.
Food manufactures always strive to attract more sales with ever more catchy names for their product. Many of the names and the implications associated with titles such as 'premium', 'super-premium' etc are basically meaningless because the use of these words is not regulated in any way. Premium or gourmet catfoods are not required to contain any higher quality ingredients to 'standard' catfoods, nor must they keep to any higher nutritional standard than any other complete and balanced product. So reading and understanding the label is the only way to make a informed choice of what to feed your cat.
Key words to look for
Although words like 'premium', 'natural' or 'gourmet' can be applied to any foods, some words regulated so that the use of these words has to comply with the product's content.
If a product states that is a particular meat , e.g. "lamb cat food" - then it has to be at least 95% the named product, in this case lamb. This is the so-called 95% rule.
A name such as a "Tuna dinner for cats" - means that tuna comprises at least 25% of the product but less than 95%. This is the 25% rule. Other names can be used instead of "dinner", for example, 'platter', 'nuggets' and so on. If two named products are listed in the name, eg "Tuna and Salmon dinner for Cats" this implies that Tuna plus Salmon will come to at least 25% of the product; not necessarily that the product contains 25% tuna and 25% salmon. There is however, one important rule in naming specific multiple products; namely that none of the named ingredients can constitute less than 3%. Ingredients have to be given in order of magnitude, so if tuna constitutes 20% of the product and salmon only 5%, the name must be "Tuna and Salmon" not "Salmon and Tuna".
A name containing the word "with", e.g. "Casserole with Tuna" - implies a "3%" or "with" rule, which means the casserole has to contain a minimum of 3% of the listed product.
Name containing the word "flavour" eg "Chicken-flavoured casserole" may not contain any chicken at all. Adding chicken stock or broth is enough to justify the name being used.
To summarize, it is important to realize that just by changing the order in the name on the pet food the manufacturer may alter the amount of particular ingredient by up to 92%. So whereas in "Chicken cat food" we would expect a minimum of 95% of chicken; "Cat food with Chicken" will probably only be about 3% chicken. Also worth remembering is that in the 25% rule the named product may not necessarily be the primary ingredient. The name only guarantees that at least 25% of the named ingredient will be in the food. It is therefore important to read the label to get the full picture.
The label must contain the net quantities of all ingredients starting with that which is present in the greatest quantity. However, the weight of ingredients is determined as they are added to the formulation, including their inherent water content. (The water content is an important consideration which we discuss in more detail below.)
Often the best way to explain is by example, so let's compare two dry foods looking at the name and the top ingredients listed on the label.
Dry food 1 - 'Turkey and Rice with vegetables complete cat food' - In the list of ingredients we will find: White rice (minimum 26%), Turkey meat meal (minimum 26%).
Dry food 2 - Adult complete with Rabbit, Turkey and Vegetables - In the list of ingredients cereals are listed first followed by meat and animal derivatives (min 4% Rabbit and min 4% Turkey).
Let's look at both of these products. Product 1 listed turkey and rice in the name but on the label rice was listed before turkey. Although the product contains more rice than turkey (and therefore name should properly be Rice and Turkey complete cat food) rice is listed second because under the 25% rule as long as an ingredient is more than 25%, it can be included as the top ingredient in the name.
In product 2, rabbit and turkey are mentioned in the name but in the product label the first ingredient is 'cereals' which probably the bulk of the product. Again under the 3% rule (the "with" rule), the main ingredient does not need to be stated in the name.
The other thing worth mentioning is the phrase "meat meal" which is mentioned in "Dry food 1". Meat meal is the meat content after water and fat have been removed. The moisture is only 10%, meaning that meat meal is mostly proteins and minerals. given that meat contains about 70% moisture, the nutritional value of meat meal is normally much higher than meat.
Meat meal however has still to be differentiated from meat since it can contain any part of the animal. The official definition of meat is: "clean flesh of slaughtered mammals, 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." Something labeled as "meat meal" is from animal tissue, exclusive of any added blood, hair, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents. So for example "meat meal" can not be defined as a "meat dinner".
Most cat foods include some vitamin supplements such as vitamin A and E supplements as well as some essential amino-acids like taurine. They can be found under "ingredients" or under "typical analysis" To better understand the importance of these supplements you need to know a bit about each of these products. We recommend that you look at our articles on nutrition.
"Typical analysis" is a compulsory part of the label and it gives the content of the product broken down to basic ingredients such as: proteins, carbohydrates and fat. These are listed as a percentage of the total. If any vitamins or minerals are included they may be listed in international units or mass per kg.
Let's look at proteins because they are very important to a cat's diet. In Dry food 1 - the protein content is 31% whereas in Dry food 2 - the protein content is 32%. On average they are very similar. However, meat proteins are more easily digested and broken down to amino-acids (the basic building blocks of proteins), than vegetable proteins. Since in "Dry food 1" more proteins come from meat than in "Dry food 2", the quality of proteins will be higher despite the compble quantities.
So far we have compared two different dry food products. So how does that compare to the moister wet food? In an average wet food serving the moisture content will be between 70-85%. In an average pouch (100g pouches are now very popular single meal portions) the amount of proteins is 8-9%. This seems much lower than in dry food. But since dry food only contains between 10-20% moisture, to compare like with like we need to compensate for the moisture.
% of protein in the pouch = (85%(moisture in the pouch)/20% (moisture in the dry food)) * 8.5% (an average protein content in the pouch) = 36.1%.
This formula shows us that in fact the protein content in the pouch when taken as dry weight is higher than in dry food. There is an additional advantage to using pouches or other wet food and that is the moisture content. Water is definitely the most important part of a cat's diet and high moisture added to the wet food assures that the cat gets sufficient quantities even if it does not drink much separately.
"Feeding guide" is a recommended daily intake of food per cat body weight, usually given for a number of weights. Personally I would be happier if the label also included the number of kilocalories per unit. Although some products do include this information, many do not. Incidentally, you can usually get that information from the manufactures web site or by sending them an inquiry. If a particular product is not nutritionally complete (see nutritional statement below), additional recommended foods will be included in the feeding guide. If the product is "nutritionally complete" the feeding guide will only include the recommended dose.
If the cat food states "complete" or "100%" nutrition that means that the product has everything the cat needs for a balanced diet. The manufacturers should also add for what cat group the product is suitable. So the product should also have a sentence such as "a complete cat food for adult cats". Ideally the label should also say how the food was prepared or tested to substantiate the claim of "complete nutrition". Most products I have looked at do not say what criteria they used or what recommendations they followed. But you can phone the help line and find out from the manufacturers. I have done just that when preparing this article. I phoned two manufacturers to find out what guidelines they used and in both cases I got an informative answer. Both of the manufacturers used the European and American pet food guidelines as well as employing their own vets who helped to create the own formula. I was also told that the products are tested on a regular basis to make ensure conformity with these standards.
Note: Due to different (and frequently changing) regulations in different countries, this information can only be considered as a guide. For exact information, you are advised to consult both a vetinary practitioner and the manufacturer of cat food in your particular country. Use this guide to prepare your questions!