Like many pet owners, you may have spent hours researching the best food for your pets, as well as the variety of brands available. You may have discovered that pet food manufacturers have become experts at marketing — they have to, in order to stand out in a packed market. Sometimes, those marketing efforts become confusing to the consumer.
Today, we’re going to wade into the deep waters of pet nutrition and discuss grains and grain-free pet food.
Fact: Whole grains are a healthy source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, and protein.
Fact: Grains help keep calories and fat at lower levels in pets foods, according to the Pet Nutrition Alliance (PNA).
Fact: According to the PNA, “Grains provide a good source of fiber, which promotes normal bowel function, maintains the health of the [gastrointestinal] tract, and helps in the management of certain diseases [such as diabetes mellitus and colitis.]
Let’s review your pet’s basic nutritional needs. Dogs and cats need the following six nutrients in some form:
Notice that carbohydrates are on the list of basic nutritional needs. Since “carbs” are a necessary part of your pet’s diet (they provide energy), pet food must contain an ingredient which provides this important nutrient. When a pet food manufacturer removes grains as the source of carbohydrates, it must be replaced with something else. Sometimes, the substitution is potatoes, sweet potatoes, or cassava. Other substitutions are beans, peas, or lentils. None of the substitutions are substantially better for your pet than grains, and some may provide less fiber, fewer nutrients, or even cause gastrointestinal problems (vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence.)
Definition: Gluten is a mixture of proteins found in wheat, barley, brewer’s yeast, and rye. (Source)
So how did the grain-free / gluten-free idea show up in pet food? As with other trends in animal health (antioxidants, glucosamine supplements, probiotics), grain-free diets are a carry-over from human health needs. The grain-free diet follows on the heels of an effective celiac disease / gluten intolerance awareness campaign. Relatively few people actually have celiac disease, requiring them to abstain from grains, yet many people (who are unaffected) have applied this diet restriction to themselves. Since pet owners are more conscientious than ever about what they feed their pets, the grain-free trend has shown up in pet food.
Pet food manufacturers are constantly monitoring trends to give the consumer what he or she wants. Does this mean the pet is getting something it needs? Not necessarily. The pet food companies are in the business of selling food. These days, that means hopping on hot topics in order to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. And although pets have been shown to benefit from antioxidants, glucosamine, and probiotics, there is “no credible evidence…showing grain-free diets are better for pets, nor do any nutritional foundations support this claim,” according to veterinary nutrition expert Kara M. Burns.
[End of part 1]
Coming up next: Part 2 – Is there a grain of truth behind the health claims of grain-free pet foods? And should you change your pet’s diet?
This article is based on the peer-reviewed article researched and written by Kara M. Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, VTS — “Grain-Free Pet Foods: Fact vs. Fiction” published in Veterinary Team Brief, Vol. 5, No. 2.