What Is Grain Free Dog Food?
Almost since the beginning of commercial dog food in the early late 19th-early 20th centuries, food for our dogs has been synonymous with kibble. And that kibble has been made with flour and other grains. There was a brief period when canned horse meat was a way to feed dogs, but, for the most part, commercial dog food has always used plenty of grains. The idea of grain free dog foods is a relatively recent concept – one that became popular because of dogs that were allergic to some of the grains in ordinary kibbles. Today this idea has caught on with huge numbers of dog owners and grain free dog food is very popular. So, what is grain free dog food?
Grain free dog food
As you might guess, grain free dog food is dog food that doesn’t contain grains. At least on the surface that’s what it is. Most people think of grains as corn and wheat* and it’s easy to find grain free dog food that doesn’t contain these grains. However, some grain free foods can have other, less common grains. If your dog happens to be allergic to a particular grain (cereal, seed, etc.), it’s important for you to carefully read the ingredient list to make sure it’s not included in the food. Just because a dog food claims to be “grain free” doesn’t mean it might not contain some rice, barley, oats, or another less common cereal/grain. You can sometimes find some surprising ingredients when you read the label.
Are grain free dog foods healthier for your dog?
Not necessarily. There are many good quality grain free dog foods with good ingredients. But there are also many good quality dog foods that contain some grains. Dog foods that contain some grains are not, by definition, inferior foods, despite what you may read on some Internet sites.
Dog foods tend to follow human health trends and grain free dog foods are being marketed as healthy foods for dogs. Smart dog owners will read the ingredient lists for the foods and do some research, as always. When you do your research, it’s also important to be aware of any biases the researchers or web sites may have.
If you have questions about an ingredient, you can always look it up yourself on the NutritionData site.
Is it true that dogs can’t digest grains?
No, it’s not true. In fact, the most recent research shows that, unlike wolves, dogs have evolved with genes that give them the digestive enzymes to be able to digest the starches in grains. This is probably because dogs have spent the last 30,000 years living with humans and eating a diet that included agricultural products, including grains. Dogs and humans have evolved together and can eat similar diets. This doesn’t mean you should feed your dog your leftover pizza! But it does mean that most dogs can eat ingredients that are similar to what humans eat, once they are properly formulated for a dog’s digestive system.
But aren’t dogs allergic to some grains?
The most common food allergen for dogs is beef, followed by dairy products. The most common food allergens for dogs, in order, are: beef, dairy products, chicken, lamb, fish, chicken eggs, corn, wheat, and soy. Dogs with food allergies tend to be allergic to a lot of common dog food ingredients other than the grains corn and wheat.
You should also know that only about 10 percent of all the dogs who have allergies have food allergies. Since most dogs don’t have any allergies at all, only a very small number of dogs actually have food allergies overall. (Most dogs with allergies are allergic to flea bites or have atopy/inhalant allergies.)
Obviously, most dogs can eat beef, some cheese, chicken, lamb, fish, and so on. Most dogs have no problems eating any of these foods. But it’s entirely possible that your dog could have an allergy to one of these ingredients, or a food intolerance that makes eating something an unpleasant experience for everyone with some diarrhea or noxious emanations throughout the night. Every dog is an individual. But feeding a grain free diet won’t necessarily be the cure for the problem.
Are grain free dog foods lower in carbs?
No, not necessarily. Many times dog food companies use potatoes, sweet potatoes, or other vegetables or cereals instead of common grains in their foods. Some of these ingredients, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, are very high in carbohydrates. Potatoes and sweet potatoes – while nutritious – are over 90 percent carbohydrates. Some grain free foods are low in carbs but many of them have just as many carbs are foods with grains do. Some grain free foods have lots of carbs. Don’t assume that just because a food is grain free that it has no or few carbs. Always check the label.
Do grain free dog foods have more meat and protein?
Again, not particularly. If you read the percentages of a lot of grain free dog foods, you’ll find that the protein percentages are similar to foods that do contain grains. As with other foods, there is a wide range. You can find grain free dog foods that have low percentages of protein and some that have very high percentages of protein. You can find grain free foods that have lots of meat and some that don’t. The quality of these foods varies just as it does with foods that aren’t grain free.
Does this mean you should not feed grain free dog food?
There are lots of excellent grain free dog foods. If you don’t want to feed your dog a food with corn or wheat, or you have another reason for avoiding grains, you can find some great grain free dog foods. But you should know what grain free dog foods are and what they aren’t. Some people have the wrong idea about them or think that foods that contain some grains are bad foods. That’s not the case.
The most important thing is to feed your dog a nutritious diet that will provide him with a long, healthy life. The other things – advertising, gimmicks about diets, food controversies – don’t really matter. Keeping your dog happy and healthy is what it’s all about.
*I’m intentionally leaving soy, soybeans, and the like out of this article because soy is not a grain. It’s a legume. However, many people will consider soy to be in the same category as corn and wheat. They do not want to find it in grain free dog foods and they consider it a likely cause of dog allergies. Soy would need to be discussed separately in another article. It has its own issues since, unlike corn and wheat, it can interfere with hormonal activity in dogs. While I think you can find good dog foods that contain some grains, I would avoid dog foods that contain soy products, in general, especially if you breed dogs.