7 Ingredients to Avoid in Cat Food

ingredients to avoid in cat food

Do you ever wonder what’s really in your cat’s food? Finding out what ingredients to avoid in cat food is super important for your cat’s health.

We’ve looked into lots of research and listened to what animal experts say to make a list of the bad stuff that shouldn’t be in your cat’s meals.

Some ingredients might sound fancy or complicated, but they might not be good for your furry friend.

This guide is like a treasure map, helping you choose the best and healthiest food for your cat, making sure they are happy and full of energy.

7 Ingredients to Avoid in Cat Food

Artificial Colors

artificial colors

Picture your cat’s food bowl filled with colorful kibbles. Looks pretty, right? But did you know those colors could be hiding a not-so-pretty secret?

Artificial colors are added to cat food to make it look more appealing to us humans, not our furry friends. But cats don’t care about the color of their food. They care about how it smells and tastes.

What’s worse? Well, some studies suggest that certain artificial colors can be harmful. For example, artificial dyes are linked to some health issues in both humans and rodent animals.

Common Artificial Colors:

  • Red 40”, “Blue 2”, “Yellow 5 and 6”, and “iron oxide” on the label.
  • Some manufacturers also use vague terms like “Color Added” or “Added Color”

Your cat’s health will thank you for it. Look for natural or organic cat food that doesn’t need artificial colors to look good.

Artificial Flavors

artificial flavors

Cats have a keen sense of taste, and manufacturers know this all too well. To make plant-based foods taste more like meat, manufacturers use artificial flavors. But these flavors are more about tricking the taste buds than offering real nutrition.

While these flavors make food irresistible to cats, they don’t add any real value to their diet. Worse, they can even be harmful.

Common Artificial Flavors:

  • Chicken Liver Flavor: Sounds natural, but it’s often synthetic.
  • Sodium Nitrate: Used for taste, but it’s not as innocent as it seems. In some cases, it can transform into harmful compounds.
  • Animal Digest: A vague term that often hides the real source of the flavor.

To ensure your cat’s diet is both delicious and nutritious, it’s crucial to carefully read the labels on cat food packages. Words like “flavor” can be deceiving, masking the artificial nature of the ingredient.

Artificial Preservatives

artificial preservatives

When you’re scanning the cat food aisle, you might notice products boasting long shelf lives. This durability often comes from artificial preservatives, but at what cost?

These chemicals, like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and Ethoxyquin, are added to cat food to keep it fresh for longer. However, the story doesn’t end there.

Common Artificial Preservatives:

  • BHA and BHT: They are effective at preserving dry food, but they can cause allergy and even kidney and liver damage when consumed in large quantities.
  • Ethoxyquin: Known for its preservative properties, it’s also used as a pesticide. And even still being approved for use in the USA, Europe, and Australia have banned it.

You’d better choose those foods that use natural alternatives, like Vitamin E (often listed as “mixed tocopherols”) and Vitamin C.

Meat By-products

meat by-product

When feeding your cat, you might assume that all meat in their food benefits them. However, meat by-products tell a different story.

The AAFCO defines meat by-products as secondary products produced in addition to the principal product. While this can include wholesome organs that are rich in nutrients, the reality isn’t always so straightforward.

The Murky Waters of Meat By-Products:

  • Undefined Sources: Meat by-products can come from any slaughtered mammal without specifying the animal. This means you don’t know what you’re feeding your cat.
  • Inconsistent Quality: While by-products can include nutritious organs, they also encompass less desirable parts. Everything from sick animals to expired junk food can end up in this category.
  • Rendering Process Concerns: Many meat by-products undergo a process called rendering, which some cat enthusiasts view skeptically. This process can alter or destroy natural proteins and enzymes, diminishing the nutritional value of the meal.
  • The 4D Meats Dilemma: A concerning aspect of meat by-products is the inclusion of 4D meats – those sourced from animals that are dead, diseased, dying, or disabled. This raises questions about the quality and safety of the ingredients.

It’s advisable to choose cat foods with clearly named protein sources, like chicken or salmon, especially those found in high-quality canned foods. If the label lists “meat by-products” or “bone meal” without specifying the source, consider it a red flag.

Corn, Wheat, and Soy

corn, wheat and soy

Grain-free and gluten-free cat food—now, that’s a topic that has sparked some heated debates among experts. Opinions are divided, with arguments for and against these dietary choices.

Many of us cat owners lean toward the idea that our feline friends should stick to a diet that resembles what they’d eat in the wild, often avoiding cat food with grains.

At the very least, we can agree on steering clear of cat food loaded with cheap processed grains like corn, wheat, and soy. Not only are these grains tough for cats to digest, but they also offer limited nutritional value.

Why These Fillers Are Used:

  • Cost-Effective: Corn, wheat, and soy are often used because they’re cheaper than meat-based proteins.
  • Texture and Bulk: They help in giving dry cat food its shape and texture.
  • Cheap Protein Sources: some cat food uses wheat gluten and corn gluten meal to increase protein content percentage.

Potential Health Issues:

  • Allergies and Sensitivities: Some cats develop allergies or sensitivities to these grains and legumes, leading to digestive and skin issues.
  • Nutritional Imbalance: Cats need a diet high in animal protein. Fillers can dilute the nutritional value of cat food, making it harder for cats to get the nutrients they need.
  • Weight and Health Concerns: High carbohydrate content in these fillers can contribute to weight gain and related issues like diabetes.

So, if these ingredients appear before animal-based protein on a cat food label, you could just skip the food.

Sugar and Sweeteners


It’s intriguing to note that while we often find sweetness irresistible, our feline friends are indifferent to it. Cats have fewer than 500 taste buds compared to humans’ 9,000, and importantly, they lack the receptors to taste sweetness.

So, sweeteners in cat food are more about appealing to the owner’s senses than meeting any nutritional needs of the cat.

While not directly linked to diabetes, sweeteners are calorie-dense and nutrient-poor. Overindulging in sweetened cat food can lead to unhealthy weight gain, hyperactivity, and obesity in cats, which are associated with various health issues and a shortened lifespan.

Common Sweeteners:

  • Cane sugar: Sugar extracted from sugarcane plants, often refined and bleached.
  • Molasses: Thick, dark syrup made from boiling sugarcane or sugar beet juice.
  • Glucose: Simple sugar that provides energy for cells, also called blood sugar.
  • Caramel: Sugar that is heated until it turns brown and develops a rich flavor.
  • Dextrose: Another name for glucose, often derived from corn or other starches.



Carrageenan is derived from seaweed and is often used in wet cat food to create a smoother texture.

Recognized as safe by the FDA, carrageenan’s story isn’t straightforward, with ongoing discussions about its effects on animal health.

Degraded carrageenan, one of the two types of carrageenan, is associated with inflammatory responses and gastrointestinal issues in animals.

Studies indicate that even food-grade carrageenan, normally used in pet food, can cause inflammation when in direct contact with liver and colon cells. As it’s not absorbed by the intestines but might reach the colon, questions remain about its potential impact, mirroring concerns associated with degraded carrageenan.

That’s said, we’d better choose cat food without carrageenan.

What Cats Need in Their Food

After going through cat food ingredients to avoid, let’s now focus on what our feline friends need in their diet.

High-Quality Animal Protein:

  • Carnivorous Needs: Cats thrive on a diet rich in animal protein. This is essential for their muscle maintenance, immune system, and overall bodily functions.
  • Ideal Sources: Look for cat foods with named meat sources like chicken, beef, or fish as the primary ingredient, ensuring the protein is of high quality.
  • Minimum Protein level: 26%, on a dry matter basis (30% for growth and reproduction)

Healthy Fats:

  • Omega Fatty Acids: These are crucial for your cat’s skin and coat health and support their cardiovascular and joint health.
  • Ideal Sources: Fats should come from natural animal sources. Look for ingredients like fish oil, salmon oil, or chicken fat.
  • Minimum Fat level: 9%, on a dry matter basis

Low Carbohydrates:

  • Limited Requirement: Cats have a limited ability to process carbohydrates. A diet too high in carbs can lead to obesity and diabetes.
  • Grain-Free Options: While not necessary for all cats, grain-free diets can be beneficial for those with specific health needs or sensitivities. Wet cat food can also help reduce carb intake.
  • Maximum Carb level: 10%, on a dry matter basis


  • Digestive Health: Fiber helps in digestion and maintaining bowel health.
  • Ideal Sources: These should be included in moderate amounts. Look for ingredients like pumpkin or sweet potato.
  • Maximum Fiber level: 3-5%, on a dry matter basis


  • Hydration Through Food: Like humans, water makes up most of a cat’s body and is necessary for almost all metabolic functions.
  • Daily water intake: 3.5–4.5 ounces of water per 5 pounds of body weight per day

Vitamins and Minerals:

  • Balanced Nutrients: Essential vitamins and minerals should be present in balanced amounts to support overall health.
  • Natural vs. Synthetic: Natural sources are preferred over synthetic supplements.


  • An Essential Amino Acid: Taurine is an amino acid that cats cannot synthesize and have to get from their diet directly. It’s vital for heart health, vision, and reproduction.
  • Ideal Sources: Taurine can be found in organ meats like the heart and liver.

How to Choose Cat Food: Deciphering the Label

Choosing the right cat food is more than avoiding bad ingredients in cat food. It can be daunting in part thanks to pet food company’s marketing terms. Here are some practical tips we came up with to help you select a cat food that meets your cat’s needs.

AAFCO Statement: The FDA has a clear stance when it comes to pet food. Any pet food that makes false claims about being complete, balanced, or suitable for nourishment is considered unsafe. That’s why the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement, found on cat food labels, serves as an assurance that the food meets certain nutritional standards.

Ingredient List Order: Cat food ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The first few ingredients are the most significant. Look for high-quality, named animal proteins like “chicken,” “beef,” or “salmon” as the primary ingredients.

Guaranteed Analysis: Pet food labels are required to include a Guaranteed Analysis section, which is essential for us to know what nutrients are in the food and how much of each nutrient it contains. When it comes to wet cat food, it’s important to consider the moisture content and determine the nutrient levels on a dry matter basis.

Life Stage Suitability: It’s important to make sure the cat food matches your cat’s age and activity level (outdoor or indoor). The AAFCO statement often mentions different life stages, including Maintenance (for cats aged 1 year or older), All Life Stages, Growth (for kittens up to 1 year old), and Gestation/Lactation (for pregnant or nursing cats).


Now, we’ve reached the end of our journey to uncover the ingredients to avoid in cat food.

Selecting the right cat food can be a daunting task but armed with the knowledge of cat food ingredients to avoid and a clear understanding of your cat’s nutritional needs, you’ll be well-equipped to make the best choice.

We hope this guide has empowered you to become a pro at selecting the purr-fect food for your furry friend!



As an English major graduate, Rainie seamlessly merges her love for writing with her passion for cats. As the proud owner of two cats, Ham and Tata, she delights in everything feline. She skillfully combines her academic background and personal interests, crafting engaging content that resonates with all cat lovers. Follow her on Facebook.
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