Top 10 Cat Food Ingredients to Avoid

Finding the right food for cats should be a top priority. The commercial pet food industry has many options, yet some of these options tend to be questionable and often laced with unhealthy and deadly ingredients for cats.

Around 18 million cats die due to poor diets and other illnesses accompanying these diets; most of these are caused by preservatives and artificial ingredients. 

Diseases, premature death, and other problems can be avoided for cats if their owners know what to watch out for. If you want your cat to live a long, healthy, and happy life, you should avoid these 10 potentially harmful ingredients.

  •  Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), Butylated    Hydroxytoluene (BHT), Ethoxyquin, Glyceryl Monostearate

BTA is an artificial preservative, and BHT is a chemical added to oils or fats in pet foods and treats. They are labeled safe to ingest on low doses but can cause tumors; few doses of this are unlikely to harm cats. 

Ethoxyquin is a pesticide and a big no-no in human food, yet some states can still legally use this on pet foods. It is harmful when swallowed or when in contact with the skin. It may infiltrate pet food as a “fish meal” on the ingredients list. 


Glyceryl Monostearate is an emulsifier for cat food to prevent it from breaking down water and oil. It’s best to avoid this ingredient as it may cause cancer.

BHA, BHT, Ethoxyquin, and Glyceryl Monostearate are chemical preservatives that should be highly avoided due to their carcinogenic factors. Natural preservatives include Vitamin E (Tocopherol) or Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid). It’s better to choose cat food with these instead.

  •   Sugars (Glucose and Dextrose)

Sugars are typically found and used as sweeteners in cat food. It also acts as a browning agent to make cat food look appealing. Generally, sugar is not toxic for cats, but it’s best to avoid it.

Cats can’t properly digest sugar; they are obligate carnivores, and a sugar diet is unnatural. Ingesting sugar can cause various effects on a cat, such as: 

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Discomfort

These symptoms range from mild to severe and will depend on how much your cat ate and how sensitive they are to the ingredient. Long-term effects of sugar intake in cats can cause weight gain or obesity, hyperactivity (sugar rush), diabetes, and dental problems.

  •  4D Meat, Meat and Bone Meal, and Meat By-products

4D Meat, Meat and Bone Meal, and Meat By-products are common in pet food, but most meat derivatives come from any part of mammals and may come from dubious means. 

AAFCO describes meat and bone meal as meat products from animal tissues and bones. They are rendered from zoo animals, road kill, expired meat, and euthanized animals. Rendering changes and destroys natural enzymes and proteins, producing low meat quality.

Meat by-products are non-rendered and clean parts of animals other than meat, such as lungs, kidneys, spleen, brain, and other organs. They come from slaughtered animals and are whatever is left after butchers get human-grade meat cuts.

4D meat refers to meat products acquired from dead, diseased, dying, and disabled animals.

Essentially, meat ingredients in cat food that are not labeled (chicken, beef, fish) are red flags since they may contain what’s stated above. They are also usually low quality and lack the essential nutrients for cats’ diets. One way to be sure your cats are eating healthy meat is to read the label and see if it’s an ingredient we humans can eat.

  •  Iron Oxide

Iron oxide is used on cat food to give it a meaty red color. Despite having iron in its name, it’s usually a sign of cheaply manufactured cat food. They are safe in low and small doses, but it does little to no of the nutrient factor. They’re just making food appealing. 

Cat foods don’t need to be appealing in nature. But due to consumer nature, most cat owners prefer cat food that “looks” good to them rather than what’s natural and healthy.

  •  Artificial Food Dyes (Red, Yellow, Blue, Caramel, and Carageenan)

Artificial food dyes and coloring are used to make food appealing, but it’s generally not necessary. Cats are color-blind like dogs, so bright colors or specific food colors do not affect how cats see colors in food. 

Some food coloring, such as Red 40, Red 3, and Blue 1, can cause hyperactivity issues and may contain carcinogens. Yellow 5 and 6 may have benzidine and also contain carcinogens. Caramel contains 4-methylimidazole, a known animal carcinogen (brown coloring); carrageenan (red pigment) is also known to cause animal cancer.

No food coloring is proven safe for cats. So it’s better to avoid cat food with artificial coloring.

  • Sodium Nitrite 

Sodium nitrite is used as both a color and flavor enhancer for meat. It’s common to find this on commercial cat food and treats. Some companies in the United States use sodium nitrite as botulinum control against bacterial growth, but most countries do not use this due to its carcinogenic effects.

When cats ingest food with sodium nitrite, it may cause their bodies’ cells to produce carcinogens. It’s best to read labels and avoid sodium nitrites.

  • Sodium Tripolyphosphate (STPP)

STPP is used in pet food as a preservative to make food look smoother and give texture, make meat appear moist and fresher, and as a dental additive to reduce calcium build-up in pets. 

It is generally considered safe but has been listed as a possible neurotoxin and a mild skin irritant. Other uses of this preservative are insecticide, fungicide, and rat killer.

  • Cellulose

Cellulose contains a high amount of fiber – but the fiber it has is more of a filler ingredient in cat food. This increased amount of insoluble fiber can harshly affect your cat’s digestion and prohibit nutrient intake. Making cats poop more, but none of the nutrients are absorbed.

Having cellulose on the ingredients list may mean the cat food is of lower quality. Most cellulose ingredients are made of wood pulp (sawdust) from pine trees and sometimes include cardboard.

  • Titanium Dioxide (TiO2 or E171)

TiO2 is used on pet food as a food coloring or whitener. Its bright pigments give bone-shaped pet treats their white color. Its also used in human food like chewing gum and toothpaste for its color. 

Until recently, TiO2 and E171 weren’t banned for human use until they were linked to health problems such as inflammation and neurotoxicity. On November 25, 2021, EFSA announced its initiative to ban titanium oxide, its counterpart E171 due to its toxicity, DNA damage, lack of animal nutrition, genetic disorders, and potential carcinogenic factor.

  • Inorganic Phosphorus 

Organic phosphorus is known to be protein-rich and has minerals found in bone and teeth. It can also help with muscle formation, protein metabolism, energy production, and carbohydrates; its inorganic counterparts can cause severe renal damage to cats and harm cats with existing renal disease. 

It affects a cat’s kidneys physiologically and may lead to kidney failure. Their phosphate levels grow, and parathyroid hormones’ secretions increase, causing cats’ kidneys to do more work removing the extra phosphate levels in their bodies, thus reducing kidney functions.

Remember, phosphorus is healthy if you limit your cat’s calcium intake, and phosphate is good. You can ensure your cat is healthy by choosing low-phosphorus cat food and reading the labels correctly.

Bottom line: Read Labels and Consult Your Local Vet

You may have already fed your cat some of the ingredients on this list, but don’t fret. Little doses of these ingredients won’t have much effect if you stop and switch to a much healthier quality cat food. 

One way to ensure your cat is healthy and getting their appropriate nutrients is always to read the labels of cat foods and ask your local vet what dietary needs or specific ingredients your cat’s food should have. Always know that changing your cat’s food will never be too late.

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