Grains in Dog Food

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The humanization and overall consumer preference for premium pet food has led to the growth in grain free pet foods, which are marketed as being better and healthier than foods containing grains. Although dogs do not need grains for their bodies to function properly, grains are not necessarily bad ingredients and there are plenty of low quality, non-grain ingredients, like artificial colors and preservatives or added sugars, which can sabotage a dog’s health more directly than many grains.


In reality, grain free is no guarantee of quality or of being a better food; grain free is little more than a marketing slogan to catch the consumer’s eye. The key when evaluating a pet food is to look at the specific grains that are being used in a recipe and choose recipes that contain whole, unprocessed grains (barley, oats) over processed grains (e.g. glutens, meals). This week, I analyzed the ingredients in over 2,500 dog foods to find the most commonly used grains in commercially available dog food.


grains in dog food


By far the most commonly used grain is rice.  The chart has broken out 3 different types of rice, brown rice (the most common), plain rice, and brewers rice.  If these three are taken together, some form of rice is in over 30% of all the dog foods.  Surprisingly to me, corn and wheat are only the fourth and fifth most commonly used grains respectively.  Brown rice, oats, and barley, are all more common than these two supposedly pervasive grains.


When it comes to evaluating a grain free dog food versus a non-grain-free dog food, I recommend starting by comparing the macronutrients to make sure that the food is relatively high in protein and fat and low in carbs.  Shoot for a food that has around 1/3 of its calories from carbs and the rest from protein and fat.  Many consumers associate grain free with low carb, but this is not the case.


If choosing a food that contains grains, make sure that the grains in the ingredient list are whole and unprocessed.  Barley, oats, and quinoa are all healthy ingredients and superior to any meals or glutens (e.g. corn meal or wheat gluten).  Soy, corn, wheat and plain rice are also not optimal as they are either nutritionally low value and/or not recommended for dogs.

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  1. This is great info! I often get into debates with people over what exactly grain free means etc etc…. I do feed grain free, but I definitely agree that grain free does not automatically mean quality food.
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  2. We recently changed to grain free, but it is because of the raw infused along with it. Our vet said as long as it is a good food, there is no reason to go grain free, but grain free is not wrong to switch to either. No matter what, one has to make sure the food is a quality food and leave the name of the food out of the mix as it usually is more misleading than anything.
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  3. It’s fascinating how closely trends in pet industries mimic trends in human industries. Whether food, healthcare or fashion, our pets are right in the wake of what we do.

  4. Whole and unprocessed are good things to keep in mind. Food is so important as fuel for our pups!!
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  5. wow I was surprised brown rice was the leader and too thought corn would be higher.
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  6. I don’t feed grains unless for a specific reason under specific circumstances. I’d rather feed my dogs insects than grains. I don’t feed a whole lot of carbs either and only select vegetables
    Jana Rade recently posted…How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Dog in One Easy StepMy Profile

  7. We feed a raw diet, so no grains for us 😉 Back in our kibble feeding days, we did feed a grain-free kind, mainly in order to avoid potential allergies. It is surprising not to see corn as the leader in grains used in dog foods. That definitely would have been my first guess.
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    • A lot of folks thought corn – we were surprised too.
      mkob recently posted…Grains in Dog FoodMy Profile

  8. Great info about poor quality grains versus healthier grains. Haley’s always been on a grain-free diet and I think it makes a big difference in her overall health. I realize not everyone can afford expensive food, but there are so many options these days, it’s easier now to provide a healthier diet for our pups that’s still somewhat affordable.
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  9. We have an oddball in our house. Whenever R eats any grains, his urinary pH goes way up and he starts forming micro urinary crystals. Then, he starts have accidents all over the house.

    It took a while to figure the causality but my vet says it’s not unheard of (grains causing high urinary pH). However, R’s case is pretty extreme. So, we keep all grains out of our dog foods and treats. We recently found biscuits made with potato flour which R tolerates wonderfully!

    I totally agree with you that, for a normal dog, grains are not necessarily a terrible thing. I just wanted to share that there are weirdos for whom grains are very bad.
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  10. I started wondering about brown rice as an ingredient when I noticed my dogs didn’t digest it very well. Hamburger and rice is a common treatment for mild diarrhea. But none of my dogs have digested rice well.

    When I was making homemade food for my last dog, I started using whole oatmeal as a grain component. She digested it very well. And of course, it was only a small component of a meal.
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