Dog holding a carrot in his mouth

Against the Grain: Consumer Perception and the Science of a Grain-Free Pet Diet

According to many pet owners, grain-free is the way to be. But what does the science say, and should retailers go all in on this growing trend?

In a country that’s heavily influenced by the latest weight loss tactics and alternative diet trends, products labeled as “low glycemic index,” “low carb” and “gluten-free” are finding their way into America’s pantries.

Now, a similar shift is happening in the pet food aisle.

Traditional kibble heavily laden with grainy starches is becoming a thing of the past as shoppers avoided first corn, then wheat, and now rice, oats and barley. Consequently, grain-free has become a value proposition for many retailers – and the go-to choice for many pet food owners.

But does the science back it up?

Are Grains Actually Harmful to Cats and Dogs?

There are a lot of reasons why consumers may reach for the grain-free option for Fido or Fluffy. But the following motivations, many of which are dependent upon the pet’s unique nutritional needs, are sometimes based on perceived value rather than scientific findings.

1. Allergy Concerns
Food allergies are rightfully on the radar of many pet owners. From GI issues to persistent itching, food allergies can be a daily difficulty for pets – and their owners. Pet owners who suspect a food allergy experiment with new foods to eliminate suspect ingredients, with grain often being near the top of their list. While some pets may be allergic to grain, it is not among the most common allergens found in pet foods. In fact, corn is actually one of the least likely sources of food allergy, according to some of the available research, with beef and dairy being among the top offenders for cats and dogs alike.

2. It’s Evolutionarily “Unnatural”
There is a widespread sentiment among the grain-free market that dogs should not eat grains because their evolutionary ancestors preferred eating meat to grazing wheat fields in order to meet their nutritional needs. While this is true, in many cases when grain is being removed from a given pet food formulation, it is being replaced with an alternative starch, namely potatoes – another unlikely favorite of ancestral wolves.

The good news is that research has confirmed that man’s best friend has in fact evolved to eat a more varied diet, inclusive of both rice and potatoes. In fact, recent test-tube studies indicate that dogs should be five times better than wolves at digesting starch.

3. Perceived Health Benefits
There are some misconceptions around the health benefits of feeding pets a grain-free diet. Many pet owners believe it is the best choice for cats dealing with diabetes who could benefit from a low-carb diet. There’s also a feeling that no-grain equates to high-protein, which would help animals achieve weight loss by preserving lean body mass.

The truth is that animals and humans experience disease differently and metabolize nutrients in distinct ways. What works for pet owners does not necessarily work for their pets. The jury is still out on whether dogs and cats can benefit from a high-protein diet, and while some grain-free pet foods may be low-carb, others that swap wheat for potatoes may offer more carbs than would be advised for a diabetic diet.

Investing in the Future

Regardless of the what science says, the verdict is in when it comes to what consumers say. From independent pet food boutiques to big box stores, today’s pet food companies are stocking the shelves with grain-free formulations – and being met with success. Both retailers and manufacturers see much higher margins on grain-free and many other specialized products as compared to your run-of-the-mill puppy chow.