Is Grain Free the Way to Be?

Jun 21, 2016

Over the past few years I have had an increasing number of clients tell me that their pet is on a grain free diet. This became such a recurring topic of discussion that I started to ask myself where this trend came from.  In veterinary school we studied pet nutrition extensively, and it was never stressed that a grain free diet was advisable or recommended as opposed to an otherwise balanced diet containing grains. Nonetheless. grain free diets have become quite the trend due to advertising that suggests they are better for our pets. This is where the pet food marketing industry comes into play. It is easy to catch on to this growing trend, especially with the similar gluten free craze in people.  Have you ever chosen a food product for yourself at the grocery store over another because the package makes a claim that it is healthier? I am definitely guilty of this.  However, we as pet owners and as consumers must be cautious in allowing unsubstantiated claims to convince us that one product is superior to another. Let’s break down some of the information on these diets.

Let me start by saying that if your pet is on a grain free diet there isn’t anything wrong with that. The most important thing you can do for your pet is to make sure that their diet is balanced, meaning it has the correct nutritional content. If your pet is doing well on a balanced grain free diet that is great! However, the main thing we need to educate pet owners on is that there is little scientific research to support that grain free diets have health or nutritional benefits superior to a diet with grain.  Grains are broken down into carbohydrates once ingested.  Did you know that most grain free diets have other sources of carbohydrates added? Your pet’s body doesn’t care whether their carbohydrates come from corn vs other added carbohydrates like potatoes. Surprisingly, most grain free diets still have the same carbohydrate percentage content as most non grain free diets.

A common misconception is that grains are bad for our pets and are just “fillers.” Dogs are actually considered omnivores not carnivores, meaning that they are not strict meat eaters for their optimal nutrition. Many grains actually contain protein, fatty acids and other nutrients that are healthy for your pet. Like we talked about previously, other added carbohydrate sources are often put into these diets. Many of these added carbohydrate sources will often be lower in protein and higher in sugar than carbohydrates in the form of grain!

What about allergies to grains in pets? In talking to clients I find that many are surprised to find out that animals actually develop allergies to protein sources much more commonly than carbohydrate sources. The most common food allergy in dogs and cats is beef, and furthermore a true food allergy in general is rare. Multiple studies have been done isolating food allergens in animals. In a recent study with 278 dogs, only 7 were diagnosed with an allergy to corn, and protein sources were the majority of allergens. To diagnose a true food allergy we must perform a strict diet trial with either a hypoallergenic diet or a novel protein diet. Also. most grain free diets will still have cross contamination from other allergens in the manufacturing facility. If you have questions about food allergies in your pet talk to your veterinarian.

This article was not intended to criticize grain free foods, but rather to educate pet owners that grain free does not automatically equate to a healthier meal. There are plenty of balanced grain free diets on the market that are perfectly healthy for your pet.  However, it is important to realize that we need to do our research on whether the marketed benefits of these foods are substantiated. The most important thing is to make sure your pet’s diet is balanced. You should look for an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) label stating the diet is complete and balanced. We are happy to answer any questions you may have about nutrition at Hillcrest Animal Hospital.

Andrea Babischkin, DVM