Is Grain-Free Dog Food Really Healthier?

Grain-free dog food has become increasing popular over the years. More and more dog owners are reaching for these diets because they are billed as more natural for dogs and less likely to cause health problems and allergies. It all sounds lovely to a dog parent… except that it’s not true.

Just because a food is labeled as grain-free does not mean it’s a healthy food. In fact many grain-free foods are high in carbohydrates, fat and calories. Many grain-free dog foods use legumes, potatoes, tapioca or sweet potatoes as a replacement for wheat or corn, so you’re not cutting carbs in the slightest buying grain-free. (In fact, you may be increasing carb intake!).

But Aren’t Dogs Allergic to Grains?

To the surprise of many dog owners, food allergies in dogs are uncommon, and allergies to grains are even rarer. Only 10% of dog allergies are food allergies, and most of these food allergies are related to beef, chicken, egg and dairy (1).

There is also no reliable evidence that suggests that it’s harmful to feed grains to dogs (2). Whole grains, rather than being “fillers”, can contribute valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals,  essential fatty acids, and fiber to diets. Some grain products even provide protein that is easier for your pup to digest than some protein from meat. The vast majority of dogs are very efficient (>90%) at digesting and utilizing nutrients from grains in amounts typically found in pet foods (3).

If Grain Free Isn’t Healthy, How Do I Choose a Food?

Not all grain-free foods are unhealthy. The point we want to make is don’t just choose a food because it’s grain-free. Instead, look for a moisture rich food that has a healthy amount of animal protein and a moderate amount of carbohydrates. Avoid foods that appear heavy in carbohydrates.

The tricky thing about determining a food’s carbohydrate level is that the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) does not require carbohydrate percentages to be listed on a pet food label. However, there is simple math you can do to determine how carb heavy a food is. 

Here is the equation you can use to determine the amount of carbs in a food.

100 – % protein – % fat – % moisture – % ash (if not listed, assume 6 percent)
= % carbs

Unfortunately, when you do the math you’ll find that many dry formulas are loaded with carbs. Many conventional dry foods can exceed 40 to 50 percent in total carbohydrate content. Such a high amount of carbs can lead to blood sugar fluctuations, insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes and other health problems in dogs. Aside from these health problems, studies have found that feeding dogs to maintain a lean body weight can increase life span by almost 2 years, that’s huge (4)!

The bottom line is that “grain-free” does not guarantee that a food is healthy. So next time you buy your dog’s food, do your homework to calculate the carb content before buying a bag simply because it says grain-free.


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