Are Potentially Toxic Compounds in Cat Food Behind the Feline Diabetes Epidemic?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Welcome to day 4 of our Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute’s (CANWI) Annual Awareness Week
  • Today, CANWI co-founder Dr. Donna Raditic and I are bringing you up to date on advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in processed food and why they’re a concern
  • We’re also discussing a second research project we hope to launch very soon (with your help!) to evaluate AGEs in cat food, and whether there’s a link to feline diabetes

Nutrition superhero and CANWI co-founder Dr. Donna Raditic is joining me again today to discuss why having all of you help us fund the very first feline AGEs study is so very important. For those of you who may not have watched our interviews earlier in the week, I asked Dr. Raditic to explain what AGEs are, why they're important and why we should be paying attention to the level of AGEs in pet food.

"We all know we're supposed to eat fresh and wholesome foods," she explains. "We're supposed to eat lots of fresh vegetables, fruits and other fresh foods. Part of the reason for that is because something happens when we process foods. When food is heated, the proteins and carbohydrates come together and caramelize. That can be a good thing. Toast, for instance, has a yummy brown crusting. Crème brulee is another good example.

Caramelization is great for flavor, but if the process goes too far, unhealthy compounds are formed. The proteins and carbs in the food combine and form compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs are the enemy, and they're in our diets.

Studies show there are high levels of AGEs in processed human foods. When we ingest them, they can damage our tissues, and they could be driving some of the disease states that we commonly see in people today, for example, osteoarthritis, kidney disease, diabetes, and aging. There have even been studies that suggest AGEs play a role in cancer.

Is the High-Heat Processing Used to Produce Pet Food Creating High Levels of AGEs?

So given what we know about AGEs from studies of humans, Dr. Raditic and I began wondering what's happening to all the dogs and cats fed extruded, processed diets. For example, kibble is heated to over 400 degrees F. And the raw ingredients that go into processed pet food are sometimes heated up to four separate times. What levels of AGEs are being created in these diets?

"There have been pet food studies — and the pet food industry has actually done some of them — that show proteins and carbs do come together and form compounds," says Dr. Raditic. "They know it's happening. The temperatures may not be super high, but the food is being heated repeatedly, and the pressure during extrusion may be a factor as well.

They know some of the protein in pet diets gets damaged. They have to add back in some specific types of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to make the diet meet minimum nutrition standards, especially for growth formulas. So they know this process happens in pet diets."

A positive of processing is that it extends shelf life, but at what cost?

Cat Nutrition Studies Are Few and Far Between

At the present time, while there's a wealth of research on the effects of advanced glycation end products on human health, there are very few studies on AGEs and pet health. That's what our CANWI studies are designed to do.

"It's very exciting," adds Dr. Raditic. "Cat nutrition is an area that needs a lot more research. We've already done work with AGEs in dog diets and we're analyzing some of the data in dog blood and urine samples. And now we're saying, 'OK, what about our kitty cats?' They're consuming dry and canned foods as well."

Most cats eat dry and canned food their entire lives. So what are the AGEs levels going to look like in the canned, dry, processed cat food and what potentially could be the effect in cats?"

I honestly believe we'll need to be sitting down before we look at our study results, because I think we might be stunned at the level of toxins in processed cat food.

How Project Molly, Our CANWI Cat Food Study, Will Be Designed

I asked Dr. Raditic to explain how our research teams will design CANWI's cat study.

"We have a great group of researchers, [PhDs], and scientists," she explains. "We're thinking for our study that we'll need at least 20 healthy cats, and then the same number of cats with a particular disease state, in this case, diabetes, because there's a lot of research we can refer to involving links between dietary AGEs and human diabetes.

So we need 20 healthy cats to match up with 20 fairly stable diabetic cats, then we'll collect information on what they're currently eating and measure their levels of AGEs. That will be our starting point, after which we'll decrease their intake of AGEs and look for changes. We can look at diabetes markers such as fructosamines and blood glucose. We can even potentially look at A1Cs.

We can generate a lot of data on a range of different diets and the levels of AGEs in those diets, along with the levels in the healthy cats' blood and urine samples compared to the diabetic cats. We can also collect data on what happens when we offer food with lower AGEs levels. So that's what we're thinking about for this next study we're planning."

Project Molly: Costs and Benefits

We're very excited about Project Molly, because there's very little unbiased research available on feline nutrition. I asked Dr. Raditic what a study like ours will cost.

"We've put together some numbers and we think a project like this can be done for somewhere around $100,000 to $150,000, especially now that we have some of the basics down from our first study on dog food," she replied. "Now that we have relationships with the labs and can get tests standardized, subsequent studies will be easier."

Next, I asked Dr. Raditic how our study results might directly benefit cat parents, veterinarians and pet food manufacturers.

"We have diets for feline diabetes," says Dr. Raditic. "We have diets for feline kidney disease. But those diets are used only after they've acquired the disease. A study like ours can give us a better understanding of how these diseases actually develop.

In addition, there's the ongoing debate in the pet food industry and among veterinary nutritionists about the fact that cats are carnivores. They have a protein requirement. Processed cat food contains carbohydrates. How many carbs are we feeding cats? Should they even be eating carbohydrates?

I think our CANWI study will touch on that debate and help us better understand the role of proteins and carbohydrates and what affect processed cat food is having on our carnivorous cats.

And then there's the role of AGEs in cat food. AGEs have been definitively linked to human diabetes. Cats with Type 2 diabetes, the most common diabetes in people, are actually translational models for understanding human Type 2 diabetes. If we can understand how to better feed our diabetic cats or prevent diabetes in cats, it will translate to humans.

A study like this is really critical. We don't get opportunities like this very often. I know there are a lot of people watching or reading here right now who are cat lovers. I will tell you as a veterinarian, as a nutritionist and as a cat lover: There's not enough work being done in the area of feline nutrition and caring for cats in ways that will give them longer lives and a better quality of life.

This is an opportunity for all of us to come together and support a project like this as cat lovers. Many wonderful things can stem from a study like this. It's exciting."

Calling All Crazy Cat Ladies (and Guys)!

Dr. Raditic and I are hoping that everyone who wants to learn more about how food impacts feline health and well-being will become actively involved in our grassroots research project. When we know more, we can be better pet parents, better veterinarians and better nutritionists.

"I'm going to admit it, I'm a crazy cat lady right now," adds Dr. Raditic, "so we've got to make this happen!"