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"Natural" Cat Food Explained

By Jennifer Viegas

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Did you know that the word “natural” on cat food labels is regulated? The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the major pet food regulatory body in the United States, has a very precise definition, which manufacturers using the term must follow. The definition is a technical mouthful, but understanding what it means can help you make more informed decisions about the cat food you buy.

In short, AAFCO defines “natural” as: “A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing ... not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

What Isn’t Natural?
A cynical approach to these technicalities is that all food is natural, so why label anything as such, especially if authorities permit the ingredients to be added to cat food? “Synthetic food preservatives, such as BHA and BHT, are approved for use in pet foods,” says Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian Amy Dicke, DVM, who has participated in teams of nutritionists, researchers and fellow veterinarians. “However, those pet owners looking for natural alternatives should look for products preserved with mixed tocopherols.”

Mixed tocopherols are fat-soluble antioxidants, sometimes referred to as vitamin E, since the compounds can derive from the vitamin. In cat food with a “natural” label, these compounds can take the place of chemicals like BHA and BHT, which some studies have linked to cancerous tumor formation. But preservatives are only one group of ingredients that the “natural” label controls.

A Natural Cat Food Recipe
Ingredients in natural cat foods can vary, depending on things like the food’s manufacturer and the product’s particular flavor. Dr. Dicke shares what’s found in one popular brand: “chicken and egg protein for maintenance of essential body function, five antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruit plus vitamin E and beta-carotene to help strengthen the immune system, a multigrain carbohydrate blend for balanced energy levels throughout the day, and omega-3 fatty acids -- found in flax and fish oil -- for healthy skin and coat condition.”

In short, natural pet food can provide your cat with a recipe for health success. Cats seem to gobble up the goodness too, as such recipes have been formulated with your feline’s palate in mind.

What’s in and What’s out
Given the AAFCO definition and current manufacturing processes, here’s what you can find in natural cat foods:

  • Natural proteins, vegetables, grains and fruits
  • Familiar ingredients, like Atlantic salmon, chicken, apple, carrots, peas, spinach, tomato, rosemary, rice, barley and egg
  • Natural preservatives, usually mixed tocopherols

What you won’t find? Added fillers and artificial colors, as well as artificial flavors and artificial preservatives.

Be an Informed Shopper
Dr. Dicke cautions that cat owners should temper their expectations when considering the benefits of natural pet food. “What owners shouldn’t necessarily expect from a natural product is better nutrition for their pet. There are no studies to substantiate that natural, organic or holistic foods are more nutritious than traditional diets,” she says.

You can, however, make better choices for your feline by knowing exactly what these terms mean. On the surface, “natural” may seem like a common and almost meaningless description for food, but the word actually holds a lot of power. A “natural” label on an AAFCO-approved cat food can offer you ample information about the product even before you flip the bag or can around to read the list of ingredients.

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.


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