Grain Free Dog Food: Help or Hype?
Are grain-free diets better for your dog? Or are grains a natural part of your dog’s diet?
Will grain free diets get rid of your dog’s allergies?
Or is grain-free just a marketing hype?
Why Do Pet Owners Choose Grain Free Pet Food?
Because more pet owners are becoming educated about canine nutrition and health and are trying to find their dog the most natural diet.
Maybe you’re the pet owner desperately trying to heal your dog’s allergies by avoiding common allergens in his food.
Maybe you’re looking for a more natural diet including more meat for your dog and grain-free sounds like just the thing.
Whatever the details, pet owners choose grain free diets because they are looking for the best food possible for their canine companions.
So, are they getting it right?
Does Your Vet Say “Grain-free Diets Aren’t Natural for Dogs?”
This is a topic many pet owners and veterinarians no longer see eye-to-eye on. Why is this?
Dr. Lea Stogdale, DVM board-certified in Internal Medicine and Diplomate of ACVIM, said in an interview: “In vet school, I learned no nutrition.”
This statement is being echoed by many holistic vets now. Dr. Goldstein explained vet classes about animal food in his book “The Nature of Animal Healing” in Chapter Three: It All Starts with Food, pg. 57.
“When I was in veterinary school, the whole issue of animal food was addressed only as one of percentages: what percentage of a pet’s (unvarying) meal should be protein, carbohydrates, fats, and so forth. Quantity was stressed; quality was all but ignored.”
Further, the veterinary classes are funded and taught by the pet food companies – who of course won’t teach your vet that their #1 ingredient isn’t a natural part of your dog’s diet.
Your vet simply will not be taught to bypass the major pet food brands in favor of grain-free formulas. It’s possible that if you choose a grain-free food for your dog your vet won’t agree.
Are Grain-Free Diets More Natural for Dogs? Or Not?
Ever heard of a dog raiding corn or wheat fields? Does your dog constantly steal bags of flour from your pantry? Of course not!
Dog’s just don’t naturally eat large amounts of grains. It isn’t part of their natural diet. In the wild, their only sources of carbohydrates would include the stomach contents of their prey (predigested), some grasses and maybe wild fruits.
They certainly wouldn’t choose to eat highly-processed powdered grains that are cooked 4 times!
(Check out our article How Kibble Is Made)
This point is often argued by saying that since dogs eat grass voluntarily, they eat grains. Well, this isn’t true because the grass isn’t a grain – it’s a green. And there’s a very important difference.
Grains are seeds, all locked up tight to preserve their nutrients until germination. Germination (sprouting) uses up the starches and very important chemicals in the seed called anti-nutrients, which are bad for your dog. We’ll talk more about these in a minute.
Warning: Obesity, Diabetes, and Cancer Risks
Dogs have only one hormone for lowering blood sugar, but several hormones to raise it, making them best equipped for low-carb foods.
The high glycemic loads in grains dramatically raise the blood sugar levels and cause diabetes, obesity and insulin resistance, which can lead to thyroid disease and some types of cancer.
“Cancer cells contain ten times the amount of insulin receptors as normal cells. This allows them to gobble up glucose and other nutrients from the blood stream at an accelerated rate. As long as an individual continues to provide this form of fuel the cancer will continue to grow. Those cancer patients who have the highest blood sugar readings after eating have the lowest survival rates.” – Dr. Jockers1
With a 50% cancer risk rate and over 60% of dogs overweight, these carbohydrates appear to be the most dangerous, yet unvarying, part of our dog’s diets.
Kibble cannot be made to hold its shape without 40% starchy flour, the extruder machine simply doesn’t work without it. Many formulas contain as much as 70% carbohydrates.
Compared to the diet of a wild dog, which would include 4-7% non-starchy carbohydrates, our dogs are eating 30-60% more carbohydrates than they need.
The dog’s digestive system is poorly equipped for starchy diets. From their long canine teeth to their short digestive tract and lack of the carb-digesting enzyme ‘amylase’ in their saliva dogs are simply not made to digest starch.
Dogs don’t have any nutritional requirement for large amounts of carbohydrates and they lead to disastrous consequences.
Grain-Free Diets Sounding Healthier Now?
Well, not necessarily. See, grain free does not equal lower carbohydrates.
Here’s a simple method for finding the average percentage of carbohydrate content in dry dog foods.
So how do grain-free diets compare to diets with grains?
Take a look at this video by pet nutrition blogger Rodney Habib and Dr. Karen Becker where they talk about the sugar content of several popular brands of dog food including some grain free and veterinary diets.
Grain-free diets do not mean fewer carbs and sometimes they have more carbohydrates than pet foods with grains!
How does this happen?
As Rodney showed in the video above, lentils, peas, and potatoes are starch replacements for grain-free diets. They make up the starchy flours that make the kibble stick together.
In addition, you might find ingredients like tapioca flour, potato starch, sweet potatoes, and garbanzo beans in your grain-free dog food. These are also common starch replacements in grain-free formulas.
Pet food manufacturers have this “neat” trick for including more carbs than meat and making it look the other way around.
Your dog food bag may say “1st ingredient Chicken” on the front and when you flip the bag over to look at the ingredient list “chicken” or “chicken meal” is probably the first thing you see.
Now if you’ve picked a grain-free formula it probably contains peas or potatoes or both. Reading your ingredient list will probably turn up two or three listings for peas. These may include any combination of dried peas, pea protein, pea fiber, pea flour.
When the pet food manufacturers split the pea ingredients into these parts then each “ingredient” weighs less than the meat ingredient(s) and they can place the carbs further down the ingredient list, leaving the meat higher up.
This little trick makes it look like there will be more meat in your grain-free dog food, when just the opposite may be true.
Watch out for this pet food manufacturer strategy when choosing a grain-free formula for your dog.
Dana Scott, founder, and editor of Dogs Naturally Magazine gives this suggestion for when you are feeding kibble:
“If kibble is all you can afford, then try to add some protein or healthy fat (like hemp oil, eggs or whole fish) to your dog’s diet … at the minimum it will lower the glycemic load and replace some of the missing vitamins and minerals.”2
The Thieves in Your Dog’s Food
Both grain-free and grain-inclusive diets share the risk of anti-nutrients in ingredients like peas, wheat, corn, barley, soy, and rice.
Anti-nutrients are little thieves that interfere with absorption of vitamins, minerals, other nutrients and the work of digestive enzymes – in effect stealing nutrition from your dog!
Common anti-nutrients include Phytic acid, lectins and the high glycemic loads we talked about earlier.
Phytic acid binds to important minerals and makes them indigestible. This leaves room for mineral deficiencies in the diet.
Lectins can damage the cells that line your dog’s intestines, the source of 70% of your dog’s immunity and health. Yikes!
Other anti-nutrients found in grains include gluten, tannins, and oxalates. Respectively, these anti-nutrients can cause leaky gut syndrome and autoimmune disease (allergies), gastrointestinal upset, and kidney stones.
Shared Cancer Risks
Because of their high starch content, both grain-free diets and grain-inclusive diets also have the risk of containing cancer-causing agents called Mycotoxins and Aflatoxins.
Mycotoxins are by-products of mold (fungus) and are one of the most carcinogeniccancer-causing substances we know of. Aflatoxins are a type of mycotoxin.
Unfortunately, these toxins are very heat stable and simply cooking them doesn’t destroy or render them inactive.
Testing of low price and premium dog foods shows high mycotoxin contamination despite the supposed quality of the product.
“Even grain-free pet foods still contain a high carbohydrate content, so there is the potential for mold spores to contaminate the kibble during storage, especially if it is exposed to a moist environment. This can also happen in your home if your kibble is stored in a moist basement or an open container.”3
There is also the risk of the GMOs that are expanding to include the majority of crop production. In addition…
“The entire planet’s use of agricultural pesticides has gone from around 50 million kg per year in 1945 to today’s application rates of approximately 2.5 billion kg per year! And compared to back then, the pesticides are 10 times stronger (aka more toxic)!”
“…the conventional potato tests positive for 35 different pesticides — more pesticides by weight than any other vegetable…”4
Even grain free formulas are not free of worries for pet owners.
What If My Dog Has a Grain Allergy?
Grain allergies may not be overly common but they are real, and they cause aggressive reactions that may make life miserable for your dog. For dogs with grain allergies, a grain-free diet is a must.
A helpful tool for finding grain allergies (or any food allergy) in dogs is a saliva testing kit. You can use a saliva test kit at home and it’s very simple.
Dogs with food allergies will benefit from having a homemade diet (whether raw or cooked) that can be tailored to help them heal using Healthy Additions. You can learn more in our Understanding Canine Allergies Series.
Picking a healthy diet for your dog isn’t all about grains or no grains. It’s about the quality of the ingredients and what kind of diet best fits your dog’s personal needs. It’s about how well your dog digests his food.
Every dog is an individual and has a unique set of needs for energy and health. For this reason, we must leave it to you to decide what diet will be best for your furry friend.
It’s worth the effort to make an educated decision because finding the best diet will lengthen the life of your loyal companion.
– Cassy Kay & Ivy Alexis
1Habib, Rodney. “Why No Dog With Cancer Should Eat Kibble” dogsnaturallymagazine.com Web. Accessed Jan. 19, 2018. http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/no-dog-cancer-eat-kibble/
2Scott, Dana. “Are Potatoes Good For Dogs? (And Other Questions About Starch)” dogsnaturallymagazine.com. Web. Accessed Ja. 19, 2018. http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/are-potatoes-good-for-dogs-and-other-questions-about-starch/
3Scott, Dana. “Cancer-Causing Aflatoxins Found In Dog Foods” dogsnaturallymagazine.com Web. Accessed Jan. 19, 2018. http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/cancer-causing-aflatoxins-found-in-dog-foods/
4Habib, Rodney. “Potatoes in your dog’s food” dogsnaturallymagazine.com. Web. Accessed Jan. 19, 2018. http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/potatoes-in-your-dogs-food/
Habib, Rodney. “Ingredient Splitting Is One of The Pet Food Industry’s Scandalous Practices” Web. Accessed Jan. 22, 2018. https://www.planetpaws.ca/2015/07/31/ingredients-pet-food/
Habib, Rodney. “Corn and Dog Food: Aflatoxins and Mycotoxins” dogsnaturallymagazine.com Web. Accessed Jan. 22, 2018. http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/corn-and-your-dog-secrets-food-companies-dont-want-you-to-know-about/
Habib, Rodney. “The Grain-Free Gimmick” planet paws.ca. Web. Accessed Feb. 12, 2018. https://www.planetpaws.ca/2015/09/17/grain-free-pet-food/
Habib, Rodney. Video: THE UNKNOWN SUGAR IN PET FOOD – YouTube
Kidd, Randy DVM Ph.D. “No Guts, No Glory! Why A Healthy Gut Matters To Your Dog” dogsnaturallymagazine.com Web. Accessed Feb. 6, 2018. http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/healthy-gut-dog/