At the grocery store. On a menu. In a cookbook. We rely on ingredient lists all the time when making choices about what we eat. It’s no wonder that we do the same thing when choosing food for our cats. In fact, 60.3% of pet owners consider the ingredient list to be the number one most important factor in selecting pet food.

So you may be surprised when I tell you that the ingredient list is one of the LEAST useful parts of a pet food label.

But don’t just take my word for it. The WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee, which includes some of the world’s foremost pet nutrition experts, has created a set of Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods. Nowhere in the document do they suggest that consumers evaluate the ingredient list in making food decisions.

And yet, most websites and publications that rate pet foods base their recommendations heavily on ingredients.

Here’s why you should ignore the ingredient list:

1. The ingredient list has absolutely NOTHING to do with the nutritional value or overall quality of the food.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has very specific definitions for ingredient names. For example, the definition of chicken includes the “combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone.”

But the ingredient’s name tells us nothing about its:

  • Nutritional value: the amount of protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals, or water supplied by the ingredient
  • Digestibility: how well the nutrients can be absorbed into the digestive tract
  • Bioavailability: how much of the absorbed nutrients are available for use by the body

Let’s consider two imaginary cat foods: “Value Chicken Chow” and “All Natural Holistic Super Premium Chicken Formula,” both containing chicken.

Which product’s chicken is “higher quality?” There’s no way to tell from the food label.

2. The first ingredient on the ingredient list is NOT necessarily the primary source of nutrients in the food.

The common advice of choosing a pet food with specific fresh meat as the first ingredient sounds legit, right? Doesn’t that mean that the majority of the diet’s nutrients will come from that ingredient? Not necessarily.

AAFCO requires that ingredients be listed on the pet food label in decreasing order by weight. But here’s the rub -that weight includes water. So, ingredients like fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables, which have high water content, will appear higher on the ingredient list than similar amounts of ingredients with low water content.

For example, chicken meal, which is essentially dehydrated chicken, contains < 10% water. It is a much more concentrated source of nutrients than chicken, which is about 70% water. So a diet with chicken as the first ingredient could have less “actual chicken” in it than one with chicken meal lower down the list.

Again, the ingredient list is no help here.

3. Ingredient lists are heavily influenced by marketing.

Pet food is a huge business in the US, with over 42 billion dollars in sales in 2020. So it’s no wonder that there’s fierce competition for a piece of the pie (or bowl as it is).

Manufacturers include specific ingredients in their diets to make them sound more appealing to pet owners. After all, who wouldn’t want to feed their pet a diet containing blueberries and sweet potatoes? Sounds much more appetizing than one containing poultry by-product or meat meal. To us, at least. Our cats might disagree.

The problem is that ingredients added to appeal to us may have no proven health benefits for our pets. They are often present in such small quantities that they add little nutritional value to the food. What they do add to is the price.

What it comes down to is this – animals need nutrients, NOT ingredients.

So if we can’t rely on the ingredient list to tell us about the quality of cat food, how do we choose? Find out here.