They’re both processed, flavored, wrapped in brightly colored packaging, and have shelf lives that seem pretty much infinite. So are there any similarities between the recipes used to make your go-to fast-food chicken sandwich, and your cat’s favorite bowl of chicken kibble or jelly?

Why the comparison?

Both fast food and pet food brands market their products as containing fresh, premium quality chicken, when most of the time, we know this just can’t be the case. Unless a restaurant is having its chicken delivered fresh on a regular basis (as some franchises do) these businesses require their meat to be processed in order to last through transport, cooking, packaging, and sales.

To make processed chicken products for both humans and animals, meat needs to go through several preservation processes that can include the addition of salts and the removal of moisture. As a method of keeping costs down, meat is often reconstituted from multiple sources and more than one animal, in what the fast food industry calls Restructured Products.

Restructured products are basically small pieces of meat that have been collected from multiple sources, ground down, then bound together with other ingredients to improve shelf life and taste—you’ll find them in some pet foods and some fast foods.

Uh oh!

(And just to be clear, there’s no reason why fresh, store-bought chicken should contain anything other than one single ingredient: chicken.)

Why do some cat foods and fast foods share ingredients?

A lot of what goes into chicken processing, whether it’s intended for humans or animals, is there to either (a) increase flavor and texture, or (b) lengthen expiry dates. Adding salts to fresh ingredients lets food be processed and stored for longer, while binding agents give reconstituted meats a more authentic feel:

  • Carrageenan is an additive derived from red seaweed that’s used to thicken and emulsify foods. It’s FDA approved and is widely used in processed humans and pet products. Despite this, there are recorded associations between carrageenan and an increased risk of inflammation, bloating, and irritable bowel disease (IBD).

  • Potassium chloride is a salt used to enhance flavor, consistency, and provide mineral supplements. It’s generally considered safe, and may even be a superior option to table salt. As with all salts, however, high consumption is linked to chronic health conditions.

  • Sodium phosphate is an umbrella term for a few different salts commonly used as a preservative and acidifying agents. Again, while not directly unsafe, studies have linked high phosphate levels in the body to the onset of heart disease, low bone density, kidney issues, and even early death.

  • Soy protein concentrate is a protein extracted from the soybean and exists in flour, concentrates, and isolate forms. Soy protein concentrate is able to hold water and fats together, which makes it useful for combining meat products and creating meatloaves, chunks, strips, and nuggets. Soy is also a relatively low-cost and high-quality protein, which allows brands to bump-up their nutrition claims and further advertise their meat products.

The Subway ‘chicken’ controversy

In 2017, the CBC ran a report on the secret ingredients hidden inside fast-food chicken menus. It found that, while some offerings from the likes of Wendy’s and A&W fared pretty well in terms of quality, Subway’s roast chicken may contain large amounts of soy protein and only 42.8 percent chicken DNA.

Subway vehemently denied CBC’s findings, issuing their own counter lab results and suing the broadcasting company for a whopping $210 million. However, the court case was dismissed, leaving the truth unclear.

The media investigation also found that fast-food chicken rarely held up to fresh produce in terms of nutrition. Most products had around a quarter less protein than their home-cooked equivalents, and salt concentrations were between seven and ten times those found in fresh unseasoned store-bought chicken.

If you’re wondering, here are the other DNA results according to CBC’s testing:

There’s a lot of variances, in both food types

Just as fast-food can range from 100 percent free-range chicken to questionable products filled with fillers and additives, the chicken in cat food can look very different depending upon the brand and specific product.

If a cat food is advertising itself as containing 100 percent fresh chicken, you can feel pretty confident that your feline friend is getting the real deal. (Though, you’ll need to look for further assurances and certifications if you’re interested in other markers of quality, such as antibiotic-free, organic, or free-range.)

However, in products that aren’t making overt claims about quality or nutrition, there’s a chance that recipes and ingredients will begin to fall well below anything you’d ever see in the worst human restaurant kitchens. Here are some of the meat types found in cat foods on the market today:

There are very real consequences to a ‘junk food’ diet

Like humans, a diet consisting wholly of restructured meat, phosphates, salts, and other additives is definitely not recommended for cats. A lifetime of eating sub-par ingredients can have a dramatic effect on the likelihood of cats developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, fatty liver disease, and cancer.

A junk food diet may also decrease a cat’s life expectancy, although evidence for this is mainly extrapolated from the study of family dogs. When a Belgian researcher studied the diets of 552 dogs, including evaluating them after they’d died, he found that dogs who had lived on a diet of processed foods could expect to die over three years earlier than those fed on raw foods or homemade meals. In the study, dogs on homemade diets lived to an average of 13.1 years, while those eating canned food passed away at an average of 10.4 years.

There are also more minor conditions in cats to consider. As more and more cats are kept inside to protect both them and the neighborhood wildlife, cases of allergies, skin dermatitis, gastrointestinal inflammation, and obesity are all increasing. Many believe that diet is a primary cause, due to the combination of decreased calorific needs and the extremely high energy content offered by processed cat foods.

So, how similar are cat food and fast-food chicken?

When it comes to the quality of their chicken, it looks like the best cat foods on the market today may actually offer better ingredients than the worst fast-food chains.

That sounds really bad! But the truth is, over the past few years, owners have woken up to the need to feed their animals real and nutritious meat. As a result, many premium pet food brands now use human-grade ingredients that you can safely eat (though, they’re still formulated for moggies, so we wouldn’t recommend it.)

On the other end of the spectrum, the worst cat food chicken products are definitely unlike anything you’d ever see in a fast-food restaurant. Not bothering to check the ingredient’s list on your cat’s dinner can mean they’re eating everything from soy and corn, to brains, feet, and mysterious meat meals.