What's In a Label?

I am not going to lie to you, making decisions is hard. And I’m not very good at them.

One of the biggest complaints I had at the pet store was “She’s just so picky!” or “All these foods look the same!”

They DO all look the same. Pretty colors, matte bags, and cats looking like they are living their best 9 lives all over the place. How are you to know?

Unlike the decision between a Kit Kat and a Reeses (decision is irrelevant - always choose both), consumers feel like they need a literal doctorate degree to decipher the bag. When did it become so hard to understand? When did the intense marketing and flashy colors distract us from the ingredient list?

Most customers said the ingredient list was lower on their priorites. Price, price price.

Girl, I get it.

But that is exactly WHY I turn the bag around.

Like any good product, you want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. And more importantly, for your fur child, you want to make sure you’re spending your hard earned quarters on something that will keep them healthy and safe (we are talking long term, people!).

Let’s do an example…


Ok stop right here. Can someone please explain to me why this list needs to be 2 inches long? This is the first red flag in my book.

Here we have a big box commercial cat food, sold at most large pet food stores and veterinarians

Highlighted are synthetic vitamins added after the kibble is extruded.

Highlighted are synthetic vitamins added after the kibble is extruded.

A common practice in highly processed foods is the addition of synthetic vitamins and minerals as these are not present after the original meat, grain, and vegetable products have been cooked. Pet food manufacturers are aware that AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials - A topic for a different day) established minimum levels of vitamins and minerals which are needed in order for your animal to avoid disease. There are two ways to do this:

  1. Add large amounts of healthy fresh foods which would provide enough raw materials without compromising bioavailability but ensuing costly feeding trials

  2. A blend of premeasured synthetic vitamins made in China at half (neigh, ¼) the price

Nestle Purina has a $11.2 billion revenue. Which one do you think they chose?

Now that we got that inch out of the way, lets take a quick peak at some of these other ingredients *rubs hands together*

We all know that the first 5 ingredients of any label are listed in descending order by weight. Although, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Manufacturers are required to be very specific when it comes to labelling. Which is awesome! But also, low key, not awesome. Because this leads to ingredient splitting:

The first 5 of this food are:

  1. Chicken meal

  2. Corn

  3. Brewers rice

  4. Corn gluten meal

  5. Wheat

My blood pressure just skyrocketed writing that.

If we assume these 5 ingredients make up most mass of the food, only a mere 20% is animal product. Contrary to the image in your head, the term “chicken meal” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. AAFCO defines chicken meal as:

the rendered product from a combination of clean chicken and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from whole carcasses of chicken, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails.

Because ingredients on a label are listed by their pre-cooked weight, this is essentially a pre-cooked ground chicken powder that is mixed in with the other ingredients. Besides it being pre-processed before its imminent extrusion at 500 degrees, it isn’t necessarily horrible… except for one word - rendered.

I don’t want to get too much into rendering in this post as there is so much information and controversy surrounding it, but I think it is important for every pet owner to know about.

Rendered meats, also known as 4D meats, are meat products not fit for human consumption -  essentially the scraps from the human meat industry and agriculture industry. This can include a range of ‘meats’ including dead/diseased farm animals, scraps from human rendering plants, euthanized animals (farm and companion alike), and even roadkill. Although this may seem impossible, it happens. There are no rules to prevent such ingredients, and we as pet parents need to be aware of this. The FDA regulates animal feed ingredients, but its presence at rendering plants or mills that buy rendered ingredients, is NOT a legal requirement. More information to come on this topic - trust me, its a grody one.

I will treat the next 4 ingredients as one. One. Big. “Ughhh”

Ground corn is high in carbohydrates, allergenic, and difficult for cats to process.

Science break: Cats possess only a small capacity for starch digestion by endogenous intestinal enzymes. Unlike humans and dogs, their salivary amylase is very limited. Disaccharidases are present in the small intestinal mucosa, but intestinal brush border is low compared to other species. There is also little evidence of their adaptability surrounding starch enzyme production. Cats cannot convert sucrose, fructose or large quantities of glucose to energy due to their low-performing glucokinase enzyme. The upregulation of this enzyme puts stress on the liver and the excess sugars are deposited as fat increasing risk of diabetes, obesity, or hepatic lipidosis.



No starch, no problem, honey

The rest of this label includes more unnecessary (and cheap!) fillers including:

-Chicken fat (hello, rendered bb)

-More wheat (gag me)

-Natural flavors (MSG and glutamic acid - flavor enhancers to make kitty interested which breaks my heart into a thousand pieces)

-Rice (more starch, hello bad teeth)

-Pea fiber (pea husks - no thanks)

-Rice hulls (the empty calorie part of the rice like why even)

-Beet pulp (marketed as a prebiotic)

-Oil (K)

-Calcium sulfate (a drying agent), and the list goes on.

There are many things that go in to a label. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

We are bombarded with complex and confusing information all day, every day. Why does this have to be such an endeavor? Why do we get caught up in the long lists and AAFCO jargin? As a takeaway, I will list another commercial brand ingredient list. This is probably one you haven’t seen before. It isn’t plastered all over Facebook, TV ads, or Petco. It’s ingredients we can understand.


There is simplicity in biology. The list is short, but the benefits are life long.

Disclaimer: This post is not financially sponsored or supported by any company. These opinions are my own and the ingredient lists were chosen arbitraily to represent the spectrum of quality in the pet food industry.