Worst Reasons to Choose a Dog Food: Grain Free

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Grain free pet food is one of the fasting growing segments in the pet food industry. GfK Research recently reported that sales of grain free pet food grew a whopping 28% from September 2012 to September 2013 in US retail stores. For comparison, the American Pet Products Association 2013 Survey and Forecast reported that overall sales of pet food will grow by 4.78 % in 2014.

The same GfK study also reported that grain-free product sales during that period were $1.7 billion and account for about one-third of all new pet items introduced each month. In the past year, the number of grain-free pet products has grown 33%, to over 3,500 on shelves today – about 2,300 for dogs, versus roughly 1,200 for cats.


Obviously, grain free products are “hot” and becoming more popular for pet owners. The question is, are they worth it or not?


What are Grains?

According to Wikipedia, grains are small, hard, dry seeds, with or without attached hulls or fruit layers. The two main types of commercial grain crops are cereals such as wheat and rye and legumes such as beans and soybeans. When referring to grains in pet food, most  are referring to the cereal group.


Grains are a source of fiber and they tend to be relatively high in protein.  Commonly used cereal grains in pet food include rice, oats, wheat, and sorghum. Corn is another common grain ingredient although it is also classified as both a vegetable and a fruit. (Note: we will discuss the merits and pitfalls of serving grains to your pets in a future post.)


Popularity of Grain Free Pet Food

So what is driving the rapid growth in grain free pet food? It seems that dog and cat owners are becoming more aware that their pet’s bodies were meant to digest foods high in protein and fat. Thus, pet owners are looking for foods that are not loaded with carbohydrates. The mistake they are making is equating grain free with low carb. We analyzed our dog food database and compared the average macronutrient profile (protein, fat, and carbs) of grain free foods to all foods. The results are shown in the graph below.


grain free dog food stats


It turns out that while grain free foods are slightly lower in carbs (and higher in protein and fat) than non-grain free foods, the difference is not very large. The average grain free dog food still contains a higher carb content than protein content. That seems counter intuitive.


How to Ensure your Pet’s Food is Low in Carbs

If you want to make sure that your dog is eating a lower carb food, choosing a ‘grain free’ food will not necessarily accomplish this. Instead, start with an inspection of the macronutrient profile (on a dry matter basis), which will show you approximate protein, fat, and carb percentages based on the label’s guaranteed analysis. You can calculate these values yourself or lookup your food in our food database. If you see a food that has more carbs than protein and fat combined, be wary! Dogs are descendants of the carnivore wolf and their bodies are meant to tolerate diets higher in protein and fat, assuming that there is no medical reason that requires a different mix.  Cats are obligate (or ‘true”) carnivores so it is even more essential that they be fed a high protein, high fat diet.


Do you feed your dog a grain free food? If so, is it really a low carb food?



We’re joining the Tasty Tuesday Blog Hop sponsored by Sugar, the Golden Retriever and Kolchak from Kol’s Notes:


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  1. Good point! I need to check out your database. It sounds super helpful.

    The popularity of grain-free foods has helped us immensely. Our Lab, R, gets really high urinary pH if he eats any grain at all. Then, he starts having accidents all over the house. It took a while to figure that grain was a big problem for him. Now, both dogs are grain-free just to make sure that R doesn’t get any by accident.

    But, as you point out, for most dogs, grain is not really a big deal.
    KB recently posted…A Special PlaceMy Profile

  2. oh I had no clue. I thought a grain free food is healthy and automatically low carb too ( like you wrote). I’m not sure what kind of food I should pick next time. Currently I found Finest Selection Seafood by euro-premium ( belgium), by now Easy loves it and I hope it’s healthy too. They say it’s hypoallergenic and veterinary approved ( whatever that means). Thanks for the information, it’s great that you wrote this post.
    easy rider recently posted…easyblog MISCHIEF MOANDAYMy Profile

  3. We feed grain free. Our dogs seem to be less gassy and digest it better than foods with grain. We have tried lots of foods over the years and always come back to grain free. Sometimes we have looked at a food and on paper it looks great, but the dogs don’t do well on it and we have to change.

  4. Very interesting, not much of a difference at all with the percentages so are they really doing any good is the question I agree with. We have a bunch of clients say they feed grain free because of allergies. Most of the time they may have slight improvement but it doesn’t truly take away their allergies as people forget that those regular foods are made in a plant that uses the same equipment to make different food so you are still getting particles from other foods in the grain free foods. To have a real hypo allergenic diet they need to get a food that is made in a plant where no other food is made.
    Sand Spring Chesapeakes recently posted…Give Cancer The Paw~ AKC Canine Health FoundationMy Profile

    • You have to read all the ingredients. Often I look at something that says ‘salmon’ and think it’s okay for Jack and then find chicken halfway down the ingredient list.
      mkob recently posted…Worst Reasons to Choose a Dog Food: Grain FreeMy Profile

  5. Hmm, interesting, I do feed a no grain food to my dogs, and I am not entirely sure about the carbs etc…thanks for bringing more great info to our attention!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!
    Jenna,Mark “HuskyCrazed” Drady recently posted…5 reasons to teach “leave it!”My Profile

  6. That’s really great information. Your app is really helpful as we try to figure out what food is best for our pets.

    –Wags (and purrs) from Life with Dogs and Cats
    Susan and the gang from LifeWithDogsAndCats.com recently posted…Haiku by Cat: AdviceMy Profile

  7. I don’t feed much kibble, but when I do, it is grain-free. Based on this, I guess it doesn’t matter….With anything I feed my dogs, my primary concern is that it is US sourced and I pick as many organic products as I can. I should eat as well as my dogs!
    Taryn recently posted…Black and White Sunday: Getting Into The WeedsMy Profile

  8. Back when I first learned that Shadow’s littermate, Emma, had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma — and that Beth had switched her to grain-free food — I “bought into” the grain-free craze and switched Shadow and Callie over as well, in an attempt to reduce their chances for getting cancer. But one day — after I had made the switch to the Wellness Core — I started reading ingredient lists on both the Core and their previous food and realized that NONE of the so-called grain-free foods sold at our local PetSmart were actually grain-free at all. They had simply switched out one grain (corn) in favor of another (rice). Make a long story short, I now just look for food with “contains no corn, soy, or wheat” on the label.

    With the above said, I am once again in the process of switching the dogs from one food to another. I hate to admit it, but I was not as careful with the last choice I made as I usually am; and Shadow paid the price last week with a case of gastroenteritis. Going back to all dry food, this time to Wellness Complete Health Senior for the big girls and Adult for the little demon dog. 🙂
    Callie, Shadow, and Ducky’s mom recently posted…Just Chilling OutMy Profile

    • You have to read those labels really carefully. Our food database can help you find foods that ‘do not contain’ certain ingredients if you are trying to eliminate things.
      mkob recently posted…Worst Reasons to Choose a Dog Food: Grain FreeMy Profile

  9. PS. Canned food appears to have an undesirable effect on Shadow’s system as well; so for now at least, I’m sticking to dry food only. Once they’ve been on the Wellness again for a while, I might start adding some canned stuff to it. I don’t trust the raw food suppliers down here at all.
    Callie, Shadow, and Ducky’s mom recently posted…Just Chilling OutMy Profile

  10. Huh, never would have thought about it that way. Thanks for the great info!

  11. This was very informative. I also feed my guy a grain free food. Now I think I need to do a bit more research.
    Buddy recently posted…Sunshine AwardMy Profile

  12. Bentley & Pierre are currently on Iams but we received a bag of grain free food to try. I will start them on it next week so I’l see how they like it.
    M. K. Clinton recently posted…Opt to Adopt a Shelter DogMy Profile

  13. Yes, I don’t feed grains. And I do feed very little carbs. Little bit of sweet potato, little bit of green peas. Other than that just low-carb veggies.
    Jana Rade recently posted…Bree Almost Suffocated In A Chip Bag. Prevent Pet SuffocationMy Profile

  14. Great post! With information overload and marketing ploys, it takes time and diligence to be a responsible pet owner! Especially hard when people are so busy they don’t pay attention to details (imho).
    Sue recently posted…Zen Dog | Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

    • That’s exactly true. I’ve been guilty myself of only reading the front and then finding out later it had something Jack can’t eat.
      mkob recently posted…SlimDoggy | Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

  15. Ninety-five percent of all grains used in pet foods are digestible and nutritious. Grain free diets use potato or tapioca as a substitute and these contribute fewer nutrients than grains. In fact, it is a rare case that dogs are allergic to grains unlike humans.
    Ninz recently posted…Apoquel: A new treatment option for your itchy dogMy Profile

  16. We aren’t necessarily grain free, but I’m cautious about what types of grains are in their cookies. I try to stay away from corn and wheat. Corn because it is so highly modified and wheat because of the so many intolerance issues that have cropped up. I look forward to your post on the merits and pitfalls.
    Jodi recently posted…I Always Feel Better After I Talk to MY VetMy Profile

    • Being aware of what you are giving them is the critical piece in all this. Do your homework.
      mkob recently posted…Foxtails: Blessing or Curse?My Profile

  17. This is great post! “Grain-free” has now been adopted by some of the bigger companies and is becoming such a popular buzzword. More people need to know the intent and reason behind grain free, and not just buy food based on the hype.
    Jen K recently posted…Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 1My Profile

  18. It’s just like human food, isn’t it? 😛 When they say its low fat, you usually find that there’s more carbs in it and vice versa… guess the pet food industry is not that much different from the human one. I switch around between grain-free and regular because I’ve reached the conclusion that variety is good ; )
    weliveinaflat recently posted…Top 10 Online Pet Shops in SingaporeMy Profile

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