Walk into any pet food aisle and you’re immediately visually overwhelmed with the plethora of options!! Do you pick the one with the neatest packaging, the most costly, the one with special claims – grain free, gluten free, low carb, organic…the list goes on and on?
So the “can of worms” is open, but there are too many “worms” to discuss all in this brief article! So let’s pick one “worm” to further discuss. We’ll discuss “grain-free” diets.
What is a “grain-free” diet?
A grain is the seed of grasses used in foods. A true “grain-free” diet does not source the carbohydrate component through the use of grains such as wheat, barley, millet, oats, corn, rice, or quinoa.
So are grain-free diets low carb then?
“Grain-free” does not equal low carb. Carbohydrates are needed in dry dog food to hold its form. Therefore, other carbohydrate sources are used to substitute grain such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, legumes, peas, and other carbohydrate sources.
Why are “grain-free” diets so popular?
There’s a laundry list of reasons that people gravitate to the “grain-free” options, including the following:
- Transference of people’s nutritional ailments on to their pets
- Grain allergy concerns
- Concerns about contaminated grain sources
- Thoughts that animals cannot digest grains
- They heard somewhere that “grain free” is the best
- Excellent marketing by the pet food companies – it’s a fad
- On and on
Everything that I see and hear in regards to “grains” is that they are bad for my pet, is this true?
No, as with most foods, there are better and there are worse sources, and not all grains are created equally. The TRUTH about grains:
- They are good source of carbohydrates, which provide energy for the body.
- Some grains are good sources of fiber, vitamin E, folic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, etc.
But my pet is allergic to grains and a “grain-free” diet is the only food he/she does well on!
Allergies in animals are caused by one or a combination of 3 board categories:
- Flea bite hypersensitivity
- Food allergies
- Environmental allergies (Atopy)
Aside from flea bite hypersensitivity allergy, a diagnosis of food allergies and Atopy in pets is a long process of trial and error, response to treatment, or changes in food or environment, as there is not one single test that will definitely diagnose a pet’s specific allergy.
Food allergies are especially challenging to diagnosis because initially an 8-12 week food trial with a novel or hydrolyzed protein source diet must be fed exclusively, then challenged by adding back in previously fed foods while monitoring for flare ups of clinical signs.
When it comes to causes of food allergies, grains are NOT a common cause of food allergies in animals. The protein source is the most common cause of a food allergy: a specific protein source such as beef, eggs, chicken, etc. With that being said, an individual animal could have a food allergy to a specific grain, but they would not be allergic to all grains.
I have a healthy allergy free pet. Is a “grain-free” diet the best to keep him/her healthy?
From the veterinary perspective, evidence based research is not available at this time to show if there are any health or nutritional benefits to a “grain free” diet. As “grain-free” diets have been popular for a long period of time now, there is currently evidence that “grain-free” diets may be linked to deficiencies in an important essential amino acid, taurine. Taurine deficiency has long been known to cause heart disease in cats, therefore is supplemented in feline diets. The latest anecdotal evidence of taurine deficiency causing heart disease is in Golden Retrievers; with the common thread being that all dogs were being fed a “grain-free” diet. More research is needed and is underway at UC Davis.
So how do I know what food is the best for my pet?
When deciding which diet is best for your pet’s health, please discuss your concerns and needs with a veterinarian. Pets at different stages of life and health have specific nutritional needs. If your pet is healthy, look for a diet that is been AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) tested and approved to be complete and balanced for your pet’s life stage.
In conclusion, when deciding what food to feed your pet, look to tangible scientific evidence, quality research, and qualified professionals to guide your decision. Don’t fall victim to meaningless marketing gimmicks that could inadvertently affect your pet’s health.
Stacy Melzer, DVM
Resources: Dr. Julie Churchill – Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist – University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine