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How Free is Grain-Free?

How Free is Grain-Free?

The world of pet nutrition is a vast and often confusing universe. All of us want to provide our furry family members with the best nutrition possible, and you’d better believe that those companies marketing pet food understand this. Thus, in recent years commercials, magazine ads and pet food packages have been splashed with buzzy words like ‘all-natural,’ ‘holistic’ and ‘grain-free.’ Trying to make sense of it all can start heads spinning and grocery bills climbing. Today let’s look at the concept of ‘grain-free’ pet food.

Most grain-free foods are recommended based on one of the following theories:

1. Grain-free is healthier and more bioavailable for my pet. In reality grains, including corn, provide a carbohydrate source for energy, essential amino and fatty acids that help with the immune system and skin and a variety of other vitamins and minerals. Grain is also a source of fiber, which is important in digestive health.

2.Grains are just fillers used to bulk up pet food. While it’s true that you probably don’t want a grain as the primary ingredient in a food, their presence in a formula can be an essential component of a balanced diet. Corn gluten meal, for instance, contains several essential amino acids. Often when grains are removed from a diet simple starches are added increasing the diet’s fat, sugar and caloric content.

3. Grains cause food allergy in pets. This is probably the most common argument for grain-free. Simply put — although pets can develop an allergy to corn or wheat, these reactions are extremely rare. In general, food allergies are triggered more often as a response to animal based proteins with beef, dairy and lamb being the prime offenders. Gluten, which is a recognized source of human gastrointestinal problems, has only been similarly described in a line of Irish Setter dogs.

None of this is to say that a grain-free diet may not be appropriate for some dogs. Special medical needs may require different dietary changes. But if anyone hawks you a dog food and tells you that grain-free equals allergy free or that a balanced diet should not include grains, ask to see the research, not the flashy packaging.

Check out these interviews with two clinical veterinary nutritionists for more information: Dr. Weeth and Dr. Heinze.