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Is Grain-Free Pet Food A Myth?

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

The pet food industry is changing and pet food makers have realized that pet owners are more and more selective about what they feed their beloved animals. Feeding a natural, species-appropriate diet is probably what every pet owner desires but unfortunately only very few commercial pet foods can fulfil this requirement.

During recent years, pet food makers have realized that grains are perceived as “unhealthy” for carnivorous animals, hence the production and promotion of “grain-free” foods have evolved and business is going really well with these products. But what does grain-free actually mean and is it really better for our dogs and cats?

Grain-free is NOT Starch-free

First of all, it is important to understand that grain-free does not mean carb-free! Grain-free simply means that the food does not contain any grains like wheat, corn, barley, rice, oats, and others. Besides, grain-free also means gluten-free, which is important for pets that are sensitive to gluten.

There is a major misconception about grain-free that should be clarified: Grain-free does not mean that the food does not contain starches, thus carbohydrates (short: carbs)!

Grain-free kibble formulas usually just replace the grains with other starches derived from mainly potatoes and peas; some manufacturers use better alternatives such as sweet potato and fruits. Yes, fruits and vegetables contain starches as well because they contain carbohydrates.

Is Grain-free always better?

To evaluate whether a grain-free formula is really better than one that contains grains it is important to check what other carb-source is replacing those grains. In general, it is technically just not possible to produce dry food without any starches; so the usual grains like wheat and corn are replaced by potatoes or legumes, which are not a better option though.

The concern should not be whether the food is grain-free or not but what kind of carbohydrates are used and how much!

For example, sweet potato is better than normal yellow potato because sweet potato is not just a cheap filler but actually has health benefitting properties. Fruits and vegetables are a better option than wheat or corn because they are rich in fibre, vitamins and natural antioxidants.

So does my pet need carbs?

In nutrition, there are three major nutrients, which are proteins, fats and carbs. During digestion, all carbs break down into starch and ultimately sugar (glucose). Sugar is the smallest carbohydrate molecule and provides energy to the body cells. Every species is following a different metabolism, which is determined by the biology of each species. Dogs and cats have very different metabolic systems, which makes it unjustified to evaluate whether grain-free or carb-free is good or bad for both species equally.

While cats are obligate Carnivores and have really big trouble with digesting starches, dogs are so-called Omni-Carnivores that have adapted to human society and their feeding habits through thousands of years of domestication.

Dogs can source energy from carbohydrates directly while cats need animal proteins to get energy for their body functions. Dogs still have a higher demand for animal protein compared to humans though and they should not consume excessive amounts of starches.

In conclusion, it is important to watch out for the overall starch/carbohydrate content of each food and not solely whether it contains grains or not.

Which grains can I feed to my dog?

Dogs can eat grains in limited portions, but keep in mind that grains or carbs, in general, should never be the main source of your dog’s diet. Dogs need animal protein, fat and fibre as well to thrive. Dogs don’t have a specific nutrition demand for carbs, but several carbs are full of health-promoting vitamins, minerals and other valuable nutrients.

Commercial pet foods

If you feed a commercial pet food, for example, kibble, we recommend choosing a wheat-free and corn-free option. As most kibbles are wheat or corn-based, many pets have developed intolerances to these grains due to overfeeding. In the case of kibble diets, grain-free seems like the better option, with sweet potato, fruits and vegetables not yellow potatoes or legumes.

How about my cat?

Cats have a limited tolerance of just 5 grams starch per kilo body weight, which in consequence makes most carbs and hence any kibble diet inappropriate for them. Cats thrive on diets high in animal protein and their natural metabolism is very sensitive to carbs. An optimal diet for cats should not contain more than 10-15% of carbs.

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