How to Read Cat Food Labels (cont.)

Tip No. 6: Preservatives Are Important

Preservatives in pet foods get a bad name, but they actually serve a very important function in dry pet foods, Sanderson says. Preservatives are antioxidants that prevent the fat in foods from spoiling. Once a fat spoils, it loses its nutritional value, not to mention it can become dangerous to eat.

Preservatives may be natural or man-made. Natural preservatives commonly found in cat food include vitamin E (tocopherol) or vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Man-made ones include butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA); both are synthetic forms of vitamin E. Some web sites claim BHT and BHA can lead to cancer in pets. But our experts are "unaware of any peer-reviewed studies that have ever substantiated the risks of preservatives at the level found in pet foods." They say you should never choose a dry cat food that does not contain preservatives, because "the risk of feeding a potentially rancid diet far outweighs any perceived risks associated with preservatives.” If you prefer to feed your cat a diet without preservatives, they recommendpreservative-freecanned food only.

Tip No. 7: Natural Doesn't Mean Organic

When it comes to pet foods, there are no official definitions for the terms "natural" and "organic." But the two are not the same. Organic has to do with how a food source is grown and processed. Work is now under way to develop guidelines for the use of the word "organic" on cat food labels.

Natural may mean the product has no artificial flavors or colors. Few pet foods ever use artificial flavors. Artificial coloring isn't necessary other than to make the product look more appealing to the owners. Some manufacturers may use the term natural to indicate that there are no artificial or added preservatives, but, again, use caution here if you're buying dry cat food.

That brings up another flashy label to watch out for: "100% All Natural." That's rubbish, says the Pet Food Institute. Most complete and balanced cat foods have vitamins and minerals in them, and those additives are usually man-made. You can say "Natural with added Vitamins and Minerals," however.