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Grains in Dog Food: What You Need to Know

In the human world, eliminating grains from the diet has been credited with everything from reducing belly fat, to improving skin tone, to alleviating the symptoms of depression.

But what about our pets? Could reducing grain intake also improve our dogs’ health and quality of life?

WHY ARE GRAINS USED IN DOG FOOD?

Grains are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and fiber, says Dr. Jennifer Adolphe, a PhD pet nutritionist for the pet food brand Petcurean. They provide carbohydrates, and help dry pet food maintain its shape and crunch.

“They aren’t just filler,” says Dr. Susan G. Wynn, veterinary nutritionist at BluePearl Georgia Veterinary Specialists.

Traditionally, wheat and corn have been the go-to grains for commercial dog food manufacturers. But in recent years, there’s been an increase in what Adolphe calls “novel grains.” These include barley, oats and rye.

Other brands are dropping grains entirely and manufacturing grain-free dog food—opting instead for ingredients like sweet potatoes, peas and beans.

IS ONE GRAIN BETTER THAN ANOTHER?

Each grain has its own unique nutritional profile, says Adolphe, and it’s important to work with your veterinarian to find the food ingredients that work best for your dog.

“No one diet works for every single pet,” she explains. “It’s great to have lots of different options.”

No matter which grain you choose, both doctors agreed that whole grains, which contain all parts of the plant, are best.

“I like the complexity of whole grains,” says Wynn. “They’re as unprocessed as you can get.”

Scan your dog food’s ingredient list for items like “whole oats” or “whole wheat.” If you see “soy mill run,” “wheat middlings,” and/or “wheat mill run,” you’re dealing with a brand that uses grain fractions.

These contain only part of the plant. They’re not necessarily bad, Wynn says, they’re just incomplete.

“Many conventional nutritionists will tell you there’s no advantage to whole grains compared to grain fractions, as long as you understand what the ingredients are,” she says. “But I prefer whole grains; that’s a bias.”

WHAT ABOUT GRAIN-FREE DOG FOOD?

As grain and gluten-free diets gain popularity among humans, dog food manufacturers are keeping up with the trend, churning out brands that use items like potatoes, peas, and lentils in lieu of wheat, oats, and barley.

Like grains, these ingredients also have unique nutritional benefits. Sweet potatoes are a rich source of beta carotene. Adolphe says she noticed some weight management benefits to peas in her PhD research.

But the trends promoting the popularity of grain-free diets among humans—namely the continued discovery of food sensitivities and intolerances, and the benefits perceived from eating only the unprocessed foods available to our ancestors—don’t necessarily hold up for our pets.

While up to 18 million Americans are sensitive to gluten, an ingredient found in many grain-based products, the condition is extremely rare among our pets.

Protein allergies are more common in dogs and cats, says Wynn.

And applying the principles of the Paleo Diet to your pets may not be the best option, according to Wynne. Since dogs today don’t have the same habits and lifestyles as their wolf ancestors, high-fat and high-meat diets aren’t as necessary as they would have been in the wild. “Today, most of our pets are not working hard enough to tolerate that energy density,” says Wynn.

SHOULD YOU FEED YOUR DOG A GRAIN-FREE DIET?

If you think your dog would fare better on a grain free or “novel grain” diet, talk to your vet. He or she might take the same stance as the doctors we spoke to, who agreed: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“If your dog’s doing really well on his current diet, I wouldn’t change it,” says Dr. Adolphe. “My motto is all foods fit, it’s just figuring out which works best for your individual pet.”

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