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What's So Great About Grain Free Dog Food?

Why Some Pet Parents Are Opting for a Different Diet

By Meredith Alling. January 06, 2014 | See Comments

  • expert or vet photo
    vet verified

    Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM

    Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

    Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

A Bulldog Sitting Next To A Big Bowl Of Dog Food And Licking His Mouth

The differences between grain free dog food and the ones that contain grains are not as huge as some pet parents may think. Find out what the differences are, and if making a switch to a grain free formula would be beneficial to your dog.

Grain free dog food has become something of a fad, but is it right for your dog? Many commercial grain free foods are simply utilizing tubers (like potato or tapioca) or legumes (like peas, lentils, or beans) as the primary carbohydrate source. And guess what? These are not all that different from the grains they’ve replaced.

So what is the problem with grains that’s sparked a demand for grain free food? And how can a grain free diet benefit your dog? We’ll answer both of those questions here.

Grains Versus Other Sources of Carbohydrates

Some evolutionary experts believe that dogs weren’t designed to consume large amounts of grain. One of the arguments is that a dog’s saliva does not produce as much amylase as humans, which is found in the saliva of most herbivores and omnivores. Amylase works to break down carbohydrates into simple sugars before they enter the stomach, and since amylase only shows up in the lower digestive tract of dogs, it doesn’t serve that purpose. This makes digestion of all carbs difficult, and can lead to stomach upset as well as other problems.

Dogs can also develop sensitivities to ingredients like corn and wheat, and wheat definitely makes the “top ten” list of common food allergens in dogs. For these dogs, a grain free diet made with potato, tapioca, lentils, or beans may be just what the doctor ordered. But be aware — there is also the potential for these carb sources to incite an allergy.

The Right Amount of Carbs

This is not to say that carbohydrates do not have their benefits. Carbohydrates provide useful energy to your dog, but many experts think that less is more. Don’t be fooled that grain free means fewer carbohydrates. On the contrary, many of the grain free formulas have just as many carbs as the grain-containing foods.

Check the label of your dog’s food — if corn, wheat, rice, potato, sweet potato, lentils, or peas are among the first listed, they're making up a considerable amount of the recipe.

The Benefits of a Grain Free Diet

Since some dogs can develop allergies to the proteins in grains, a grain free diet can be used to eliminate these allergens.

If you pick the higher protein grain free foods, they will typically be higher in fat, too. This makes these foods an excellent choice for active or working dogs. However, be sure to feed your dog the appropriate portion, or they could put on weight.

Shopping for Grain Free Food

When shopping for grain free foods, don’t be fooled by flashy labels and promises of a healthier dog. Just because a food is grain free doesn’t mean it will meet all of your dog’s nutritional needs. Check the ingredients, the nutrient analysis, and talk to your veterinarian. The best food for your dog is one that is right for them — grain-free or not.

More on Dog Nutrition

Pet Nutrition Dos and Don'ts for a Healthy Pet
Your Dog Food Questions Answered
Find the Right Food for Your Dog

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.

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