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What Makes A Dog Food Grain Free

↯ Key takeaway points

  • Grain-free dog food does not contain any grains in its formula, unlike regular dog food.
  • Grains are a good source of carbohydrates and fiber for dogs, but some pet owners started avoiding dog food with grains after a 2007 pet-food accident.
  • Grain-free dog food substitutes grains with ingredients like potatoes, lentils, sweet potatoes, peas, and quinoa.
  • Benefits of a grain-free diet include avoiding allergies, reducing the chances of obesity and diabetes, improving digestion, and avoiding fillers.
  • The FDA has investigated a potential link between grain-free diets and heart diseases, but a grain-free diet is not the sole reason behind the increase in cases. Consult with a veterinarian to determine the best diet for your dog's individual needs.
A pet lover passionate about educating readers about animal health and care. Love reading studies and recent research.
Zoo and wildlife doctor in veterinary medicine passionate about animal welfare and preventive medicine.
Published on
Wednesday 7 December 2022
Last updated on
Monday 31 July 2023
What Makes A Dog Food Grain Free
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In recent years, there has been a gradual increase in the popularity of grain-free diets. With that, most dog food manufacturers advertise their products as grain-free. However, the actual question is, what is grain-free dog food? What are the benefits of a grain-free diet for dogs? And is grain-free the best choice for your dog? 

Let’s answer those questions in this article as we discuss what does grain-free dog food mean, the difference between grain-free and regular food, and other frequently asked questions about grain-free diet. 

What Does Grain-Free Dog Food Mean?

People often mix up gluten-free and grain-free, thinking they are the same thing. However, there is a significant distinction between the two. Gluten-free dog food does not contain any ingredients that are a source of gluten, such as wheat, barley, or malt. On the other hand, grain-free dog food doesn’t include any grains in its recipe.

  • Wheat (semolina, wheat berries, emmer, durum, spelt, farina, einkorn wheat, farro, and graham)
  • Malt
  • Brewer’s Yeast
  • Barley
  • Rye

Meanwhile, grain-free dog food doesn’t have any grains in its formula. According to the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council, here are the different types of grains: 

  • True Cereal Grains: This type of grain includes the common ones such as oat, rice, wheat, and corn. It also includes barley, teff, sorghum, rye, millet, and triticale. 
  • Pseudo-Cereal Grains: This type of grain belongs to the non-grass family but still has the same purpose as grains. Hence the term pseudo-cereal. The major examples of pseudo-cereal grains are buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa. They are used for snack bars, pasta, and bread. 

The main difference between the two is that not all grains have gluten. Thus, when a product says gluten-free, it might not have gluten-containing grains like barley and rye but still can contain other types of grains. 

Dog Food With Grains

Dog food with grains is also known as regular dog food. This dog food contains wheat, corn, rice, and other grains in its formula. Grains are a good source of carbohydrates and fiber for dogs. 

However, in 2007, there was a huge pet-food accident where tons of wheat gluten ingredients from China had been contaminated with various chemicals. Thus, resulting in illnesses and diseases among dogs. Even though grains are not the main culprit, many pet owners started drifting away from dog food with grains. Now, grain-free dog food has become more popular. 

Grain-Free Dog Foods 

On the other hand, grain-free dog food doesn’t have any type of grains in its ingredients. And since grains are a good source of carbohydrates needed by dogs, manufacturers often use other ingredients as a substitute for the absence of grains. For example, manufacturers use potatoes, lentils, sweet potatoes, peas, and quinoa. 

Aside from providing carbohydrates, having grain-substitute ingredients are essential because, without them, your dog can lack crucial nutrients like protein, fiber, and fatty acids

Benefits of Grain-Free Diet

So, are grain-free products worth the hype? Let’s find out as we enumerate the benefits of having a free from grains diet

  • Avoiding allergies: Of course, if your dog is allergic or sensitive to grains, having a grain-free diet avoids harmful food reactions that can cause critical health problems. 
  • Lesser chances of obesity and diabetes: Since some grains found in commercial products are high in Glycemic Index (GI), it can cause a rapid increase in your dog’s blood sugar level. Higher sugar levels can lead to health problems like obesity, diabetes, and even heart diseases.
  • Easier Digestion: Carbohydrates from grains are not the easiest component to digest – and it can take a while to be fully digested. With that, dogs with digestion problems can benefit from a grain-free diet. 
  • Avoiding fillers: Some manufacturers use grains to bulk up their ingredients without contributing to the product’s nutritional content. With that, grain-free products don’t depend on fillers and have ingredients that contribute to your pet’s nutrition. 

Downsides of Grain-Free Diet

After enumerating their benefits, let’s now talk about the downsides of giving your dog a grain-free diet. 

  • FDA announced a potential link with heart diseases: Last July 2018, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) announced that they started investigating the link between the increasing cases of Dilated cardiomyopathy and consumption of grain-free dog food
  • Can still cause allergies: Since grain-free products rely more on meat products, it can still cause an allergic reaction in your dog because meat products, like grains, are also one of the most common causes of dog allergies. According to The Kennel Club, common allergens among dogs are chicken, beef, and dairy. 
  • Affordability: Despite the popularity of grain-free products, they are still considered “specialized” dog food. With that, their prices can be more expensive than a regular diet. 

Can Grain-Free Dog Foods Cause Heart Diseases?

As mentioned earlier, in 2018, the FDA initiated an investigation into the potential connection between Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free diets. This investigation was prompted by a study involving 1,100 dogs diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy. According to the study, approximately 90% of the dogs with DCM had been consuming grain-free products.

Here’s the graph from the FDA’s official website:

Source from: FDA Investigation into Potential Link between Certain Diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy

However, despite this potential link, the FDA’s Director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), Dr. Steven Solomon, clarified that a grain-free diet is not the sole reason behind the increase in DCM cases. Thus, product recall or withdrawal is not necessary. 

Moreover, parallel with Solomon’s statement, Freid et al. (2020) stated that a grain-free diet is not the only thing that puts a dog’s DCM at risk. Specialty and boutique products are also equally linked with DCM, the same as grain-free products. 

To summarize, grain-free products are linked with increasing Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) incidents. But, it is not the main reason behind the spike in DCM cases. In addition, the sole connection between diet practices and DCM is not yet fully established, and further studies are still being conducted. 

Nevertheless, experts from the FDA advised pet owners to consult their veterinarian about their dog’s special dietary needs (if there are any) based on their medical history and condition.  

Is Grain-Free Diet Better Than Regular Diet?

With a grain-free diet’s pros and cons, deciding whether you’ll settle your dog with a grain-free or regular diet is hard. With that, here’s a guide on when is grain free better than regular dog food and what diet suits your dog the best. 

First, there are no official recommendations from the FDA regarding the type of diet your dog should have because their study is still ongoing. 

Secondly, you should consider all medical records and preferences of your dog in the deciding process. Do they ignore their food if it’s grain-free? Do they have trouble digesting their food if it has grains? Things like those are just two examples of why you should explore all aspects, from their health to personal taste. 

Thirdly, whether grain-free or not, the first thing you should look for when buying dog food is if it has a complete and balanced diet. Plus, it should contain the needed amount of protein, vitamins, and nutrients your dog requires.

And lastly, consulting your veterinarian is crucial in deciding whether a grain-free diet is better than a regular diet for your dog. 

Grain-Free Dog Food: FAQs

Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about grain-free dog food! 

Is grain-free dog food better for dogs?

As previously mentioned, it depends upon your dog’s condition. For example, dogs who are allergic or sensitive to grains and those with digestive issues are better fed with grain-free food. Also, the most important factor you should consider is whether the dog food offers complete and balanced nutrition – whether grain-exclusive or not. 

Why do vets not recommend grain free?

The main reason would be the potential connection of a grain-free diet with the increasing cases of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) among dogs. Moreover, veterinarians only recommend grain-free products if your dog has a special condition like grain allergies and other health issues. 

Do dogs need to eat grains?

Since grains are a great source of fiber, carbohydrates, fatty acids, and other nutrients, it will be good for dogs to eat grains! However, if your dog is allergic to grains, there are other substitutes like lentils, sweet potatoes, and peas. 

How do I know if my dog needs grain-free food?

If you give your dog a grain-inclusive diet and notice symptoms of food allergic reactions or unusual health changes, then it can be one of the signs that your dog is not fond of grains. Nonetheless, to avoid misdiagnosing, we recommend visiting your local veterinarian to ensure that your dog is really allergic to grains. 

What grains should dogs avoid?

There is no specific type of grain that is generally bad for dogs. However, pet owners should steer away from highly-processed grains. Highly-processed grains, after going through several milling processes, lack the essential nutrients, vitamins, and fiber your dog needs.

With that, it transforms into a filler ingredient. If you’d like to give your dog grain-inclusive food, choose those with wholesome grains instead. 

To wrap it all up, since all dogs have different conditions and preferences, the answer to whether a grain-free diet is better than a regular diet varies from one dog to another. However, one thing that’s concrete is for you to be mindful that before deciding to switch your dog to either grain-exclusive or inclusive diets, knowing what grain-free dog food is, its benefits, downsides, as well as consulting your veterinarian are a must. 

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