It almost seems like you need a biochemistry degree to buy pet food these days. You get bombarded by the sales associates pushing "grain-free" diets in the pet store, there are images of lions and wolves on Fifi and Cooper's food bags, and television advertisements claim their diet is the diet of your pets' "ancestors."
Everything you see and hear pushes the idea that grain-free is the best thing for your pet, but what does grain-free really mean, and is it truly the best food for you best friend?
The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) labeling guidelines for gluten-free foods state that for a food to be considered gluten-free, it must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. A grain is the seed of something in the grass family, it may or may not contain gluten. Rice, oats, millet and corn are considered gluten-free grains. Gluten is a protein found in rye, wheat, and barley and anything made with these grains. There are other seeds that are not considered grains, such as peas and quinoa.
The FDA does not have any guidelines for grain-free labels on pet foods. It is nothing more than a fancy buzz word used by marketing executives to sell their brand of pet food. The pet food industry is a whopping $29.5 billion dollar business.
Now that we have some basic knowledge about what grain-free means, let's talk about how it affects our pets. This may shock some of you, but there is no credible evidence showing grain-free diets are better for pets.
We all expect our pets' food to be a balanced diet with healthy ingredients. Grains are part of a balanced diet! They are a source of carbohydrates, which our bodies' cells break down to form glucose. Glucose is used as source of energy for all of our cells to function.
A common misconception is that grain-free means no carbohydrates, but usually these foods do have carbohydrates in them, such as sweet potatoes. Or they will have highly refined starches such as white potatoes, which have less nutrients and fiber than whole grains. Some diets will have beans or peas or lentils which can sometimes lead to gastrointestinal upset.
Some people think that grain causes food allergies. Food allergies are causes by an abnormal immune response to a normal food or ingredient. Only ten percent of all pets have some type of allergy, and less than one percent of those pets have a food allergy that cause skin disease.
Grain allergies are even rarer. Food allergies are almost always associated with protein, such as chicken, beef, or dairy. Gluten intolerance is rare in dogs and non-existent in cats. Celiac disease is a disease found in only humans. Only one inbred family of Irish Setters has ever been shown to have gastrointestinal disease from consuming gluten.
When purchasing your pets' food, you should be asking yourself the following important questions - is this diet approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)? Do they hire a veterinary nutritionist to oversee the diet's nutritional composition? Does this company have strict quality control guidelines? Does it say "manufactured by" vs "distributed by," so that you know where it is made, as opposed to who sends the bags to the pet stores?
We all want what is best for our pets, especially when it comes to their daily diet. But choosing grain-free does not always make it a better diet. We should be focusing on nutrition and good, quality ingredients, preferably locally sourced. That's what will really help our four legged friends live long and healthy lives.
Dr. Irene Lentis is a veterinarian at Somerset Veterinary Group. She has practiced in New Jersey ever since her graduation from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Tuskegee University, and has volunteered in many animal shelters in the area.