Questions and Answers on Grain-Free Foods
Grain-Free: What does it mean?
Quite simply, it means the food does not contain grain. This is the one unifying factor in this very diverse segment of pet foods. Different Grain-Free foods have different merits, and what is true about one Grain-Free brand is not automatically true of another brand.
There are differences in the nutritional make up, and understanding this can help you understand which foods might be a good option for your pets. Let’s begin by looking at a common philosophy of Grain-Free foods. Grain-Free foods are more like what dogs and cats used to eat in the wild, as close to a raw diet as possible. For this reason, it’s not surprising one characteristic of most Grain-Free foods is they contain more meat ingredients and less plant ingredients. This results in Grain-Free foods having higher protein and fat levels than a typical non-Grain-Free food.
Are Grain-Free foods high in protein?
No, not necessarily, but they are lower in carbohydrates. It is really the lower carbohydrate levels that make Grain-Free foods nutritionally different, not their higher protein levels. To understand their relationship we need to take a quick trip back to basic nutrition. There are six basic nutrient groups: protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and the often forgotten water.
Where am I going with all this? The label. The guaranteed analysis typically lists the amount of protein, fat, fiber, moisture, and, if you are lucky, ash in the food. If you do some comparisons you will quickly find that as the protein level goes up, the carbohydrate level comes down. Fat does vary but it varies along with protein. The net result is that more protein usually means less carbohydrate.
There is a wide range in the carbohydrate levels of pet foods. A 40-50% level is typical in most dry dog foods. Most Grain-Free foods are much lower in carbohydrate. It makes sense the wild dog eating a “natural” diet would have consumed a lot less carbohydrates than found in a typical dry dog food. Many of the lower-carbohydrate Grain-Free foods are more suitable for a diabetic dog, with the addition of some fiber. Unsweetened canned pumpkin is a great source of additional fiber.
There is some research that suggests that lower carbohydrate levels help decrease appetite, and also helps decrease the deposition of fat in the body. So even though Grain-Free foods are more nutrient dense, they don’t automatically result in the pet gaining excess weight.
Are Grain-Free foods hypoallergenic?
Some are really good hypoallergenic foods. A hypoallergenic food has two basic features: fewer ingredients that contain protein, because food allergies are almost exclusively associated with proteins, and unique proteins (proteins that are different from previously fed foods).
Grain-Free foods excel at having unique ingredients. First, they don’t have any of the common grains, and second, many contain unique meat sources. But just because a food has an unique meat source at the top of the ingredient list does not mean it is a true hypoallergenic food. Most Grain-Free foods have multiple meat sources - one meat may be near the top of the ingredient list, however if you read further down the list you will usually find other meat-containing ingredients. The Grain-Free foods with a single meat source make very good hypoallergenic foods, and even those with multiple meat sources are better than average.
Even if a Grain-Free food is not a true hypoallergenic, most do have that intangible benefit of being different, and different is always helpful when dealing with a pet that has problems from unknown causes. So if your pet shows more severe symptoms for what appears to be a food allergy, a true hypoallergenic food would be a better option, but with less severe cases Grain-Free foods offer an alternative.
Why are most Grain-Free foods for all life stages?
To be considered appropriate for all life stages, a dog or cat food needs to be suitable to support the growth of a puppy or kitten, meet the nutritional needs of a pregnant or nursing mother, and maintain an adult animal. One of the most distinguishing features of a Puppy or Kitten Food is its higher protein and fat content, making it a more nutrient-dense food to support a growing puppy or kitten. Grain-Free foods are already more nutrient-dense than most foods. For this reason, many Grain-Free foods make very good Puppy or Kitten Foods without any changes to the formula.
Editor's Note: There are many grain free foods to choose from. Visit your local Pet Valu to discuss what foods would be a good match for your pet.