cat food ingredients

The Real Ingredients in Kibble: What Scientific Studies Say…

Dry cat food isn’t natural. In the wild, cats eat regular raw meat. When you look at a dried up, cooked cat biscuit it’s impossible to tell what’s in it without looking at an ingredients list.

What’s really in kibble? It’s mostly made of meat, grains, vegetables and bulking materials. The exact ingredients differ between kibble manufacturers. There are usually additives too which provide vital nutrition in the form of vitamins and minerals. The resulting ‘dough’ goes through a process almost like making a breakfast cereal.

Dry food isn’t ideal for cats. Wet food is better, although dry food isn’t necessarily bad for them. You just have to make sure your cat gets enough water in its diet, too. Check the label to see what ingredients are in your cat’s kibble before you feed them next!

What’s Really in Kibble?

There’s an eternal debate between cat owners regarding whether wet cat food is better for our pets than dry cat food. We’ve written about the pros and cons of both types of food in detail – hence the links we just offered you – and we still believe that the best diet you can provide for a cat is a balanced one. What we’d now like to shed some more light on is cat food ingredients; and specifically what goes into cat kibble.

You might think that’s a simple case of looking at cat food labels and finding out for yourself. You could do that, but it might not tell you much. Many cat food ingredients are listed by their scientific names, and will contain elements you’re not familiar with. If you’re curious – like your cat is – you’ve probably wondered what you’re really feeding your cat, and whether it’s good for them. To that end, we’ve spent long nights reading the most recent scientific research, and now we’re ready to explain it to you in language that won’t leave you reaching for a dictionary.

Cat Food Ingredients Are A Man Made Mixture

cat food ingredients
Your cat is unconcerned about what its kibble is made from. It just wants to eat it. Image from Pixabay

Some of the distrust around dry cat food is down to it not being as ‘natural’ as wet cat food. When you look at wet cat food, you can easily see the meat content of whatever you’re feeding your pet. You can see chicken if you’re feeding your cat chicken. You can see tuna if you’re feeding your cat tuna. Everything about the look, the smell and the consistency is organic. That isn’t the case with dry cat food. It’s been dried out, hardened and then cut into little chunks. That requires a degree of engineering, and so we can be suspicious of it in the same way some people are suspicious of genetically modified food.

We don’t need to think that way about cat food ingredients. It is true that the mixture comes from a scientific formula, but it’s a formula that’s engineered to give your cat’s body what it needs. The minerals you’ll find inside good quality dry cat food are designed to support and enhance your cat’s health. To help you understand how natural the bulk of ingredients in dry cat food are, it would be helpful for you to know more about how it’s made.

How Dry Cat Food Is Made

This varies a little from manufacturer to manufacturer. By and large, though, the methodology used today is the same as it was when it was introduced in the 1950’s. You can thank the creation of breakfast cereals for the existence of cat biscuits and cat kibble. The same technology that makes starch or corn-based cereal is used to make dry cat food. Obviously, though, cat food ingredients are very different to breakfast cereal ingredients.

1. Mixing

All the raw cat food ingredients are brought together and placed in a mixer. The ingredients that are already dry before production starts are often ground down to make the process easier. The wet cat food ingredients are added, and then the mixing process starts. The resultant product is doughy and moist.

What are these ingredients? Meat, grains, vegetables and bulking materials are the main four ingredients. Then there are additives which provide vitamins and minerals.

2. Heating and Extrusion

This moist, doughy product is put into a pre-conditioner to heat it up, and then placed into an extruder. If you’ve never encountered an extruder before, think about a meat grinder, and then imagine a much larger version. This is where most of the cooking process happens. The extruder places high pressure on the mixture and heats it up to an extreme temperature as it moves along the grinder. When it reaches the end, it’s pushed through a shaping knife and cut into tiny pieces. When these pieces are exposed to the air, they expand into recognizable kibble shapes.

3. Drying and Cooling

cat food ingredients
Dry cat food is flavorless. Spraying it with a coating gives it the taste that this cat clearly approves of. Image from Flickr

The cat food ingredients are still somewhat moist when they come out of the extruder. The next step is to dry them. This can be done in a normal oven. Drying continues until the food is dry to the touch, with a consistency like a cookie. It will then be left to cool for a while. Most manufacturers will also spray a flavor-enhancing coating onto the food pieces when they’re cool enough. The coating does more than just enhance flavor – it will also include some vitamin content, which would otherwise have been lost during the heating process.

4. Packaging and Shipping

That’s the end of the process! The coated kibble is poured into a box, shipped to stores and is ready for you to buy. As you can see, a lot has been done to the food to make it look the way it does, but it doesn’t necessarily have the chemical content you thought it might.

What Cat Food Labels Mean

We now know how cat kibble is made, but we’re no closer to identifying what’s actually in the food. That’s where looking at cat food labels gets confusing. Often, all you’ll see is a list of chemical compounds, and so you’ll naturally assume that there are undesirable elements in there. That’s not necessarily the case. There’s good reason for a lot of the chemicals – and for the scientific names.

One of the main reasons is that the metabolism of a cat doesn’t always produce everything your cat needs. It’s necessary to include arachidonic acid and synthetic taurine into a cat’s diet through dry food, for example, because they play a vital role in guarding against heart and vision issues in your cats, and they can’t take these ingredients on any other way. Arachidonic acid is also needed to maintain a cat’s reproductive system. Just because something is an acid doesn’t mean that it’s harmful.

Here are some of the typical ingredients you might read on cat food labels, and what they actually contain – and of course, why they’re important.

Sodium Selenite

Sodium selenite is actually selenium. This combines with vitamin E in your cat’s body, and works as an antioxidant. Its role is to deal with free radicals, and prevent them from damaging the body or skin. As well as that, it also strengthens and maintains cell membranes within the body. Cats with skin disease often have low levels of selenium. It’s not uncommon for a diet lacking in dry food to be the cause of the skin disease. This ingredient occurs naturally in several other foods your cat may already eat, including tuna.

Pyridoxine Hydrochloride

This long name would earn you a winning score in Scrabble. It’s also a complicated way of saying ‘vitamin B6’, which is all pyridoxine hydrochloride really is. Vitamin B6 works for cats in the same way it does for humans – it supports the enzymes which release and process glucose from glycogen. It also aids the metabolic process, and promotes the healthy function of amino acids within the body.


Here’s another ingredient which helps your cat maintain healthy skin and a glossy coat. You may know it better as vitamin B7. The Association of American Feed Control Officials, who operate on a science-based approach to feline nutrition, suggest that biotin is included in the feline diet at a ratio of around 0.07mg per kg at every stage of a cat’s life. That means it’s not an ingredient you need to be wary of. In fact, you should be double checking cat food labels to make sure it’s there.

Menadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex

Only a trained chemist would know what the real substance hiding behind this complex name is. It’s good-old harmless vitamin K. You may also know it by another name – potassium. This ingredient plays a critical role in keeping your cat from harm – it activates blood clotting if an injury should occur. It’s also heavily loaded with protein, which is good for your cat’s bones.

Manganous Oxide

This one is a little more abstract – it’s a source of manganese, but we don’t expect the non-scientists out there to know what that is at first glance either. All you need to understand about it is that as an ingredient it assists with enzyme functions, enhances bone repair (or bone development in kittens), and aids with neurological functions. Those are all positives, and therefore manganous oxide is a desirable ingredient.


This is a little different. We all know what copper is, we’re just less sure of what it’s doing in our food. That’s because we think of it only as a type of metal. In low doses, copper helps the body to create connective tissues, and also melanin pigmentation. A cat who isn’t getting sufficient copper will suffer from alopecia and collagen abnormalities. That’s why you won’t only find copper as cat food ingredients, you’ll also find it listed on the label of many cat health supplements.

What To Look For On Cat Food Labels

cat food ingredients
Despite their best attempts to convince us otherwise, cats can’t read. They need you to check labels for them. Image from Wikimedia

According to a number of scientific sources, including nutrition professor Dr. Marion Nestle at New York University, there are only two words you need to look for on the packaging when you want to find the best dry cat food: “Complete and balanced”. The label will appear on any food which has been approved as such by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, and is a mark of quality.

The role of the Association of American Feed Controls Officials cannot be overstated when it comes to ensuring that the cat food you choose is of good nutritional value. They work closely with the Food and Drug Administration to create regulation for pet foods, but those regulations are largely voluntary. That means cat food brands can make any claim they wish to on their packaging without the need for proper scientific testing and research. The ‘complete and balanced’ logo that comes from AAFCO approval means that someone within an approved body has assessed what your cat is about to eat, and is happy that it meets their needs.

Are All Dry Cat Food Ingredients Good For Your Cat?

Not in the case of every single brand of cat food, but they are in the case of cat food brands which have acquired the label described above. Beware of any labels which claim that dry cat food contains any ‘whole’ foods. There are no dry cat foods currently on the market which contain, for example, the same chicken breast which you’ve just served at your own dining table. All cat food – and all pet food in general – is made from by-products of meat that’s already been prepared for humans. In short, your cat is getting the cut offs. There’s nothing wrong with that – that’s how things have worked for over a century. Any packaging that gives any other impression is being misleading.

You should also be aware of undesirable ingredients. Specifically, anything with an abundance of potatoes, peas, rice, corn or beans is likely to have a high carbohydrate content. Excess carbohydrates can lead to obesity. Stick to cat food brands which contain the things we’ve established your cat needs, and keep the vegetable and rice products down to a minimum.

Use Common Sense…

We suspect that when you opened this page, you wanted to know whether scientists have an issue with feeding dry cat food to cats. The answer is no, they don’t. What they do tell us is that it should form part of a balanced diet, and that cats need to take on moisture from elsewhere. That’s why we repeat – and will repeat again – that cats should be fed a mixture of wet and dry cat food.

We hope that we’ve managed to dispel some of the myths that surround dry cat food for you. The chemical-sounding ingredients on the cat food labels are there for a reason, but now you know what they really mean. We hope you now know more about how the food is made, too. So long as your cat is getting a balanced nutritional diet, feel free to feed them however you wish. Just look out for those labels, and pay attention to the content.

Thanks for stopping by and reading our cat food ingredients page today. If you have cat-loving friends who might be interested in reading this page, please consider sharing it with them. To find out more about the best dry cat food, click this link!