The biggest buzzword in pet nutrition for the past several years has been dog and cat manufacturers proclaiming their foods are “grain free.” As a result of all of this advertising, many pet owners have come to believe that grain free diets are healthier. So, what’s so bad about grains? In a word, nothing.
There is absolutely nothing inherently bad about dogs and cats eating cereal grains. Grains such as corn, wheat and barley have been studied and proven a valuable source of nutrients for decades. You may have heard some advertisements referring to grains such as corn as “fillers,” but a filler is an ingredient that has no nutritional value. Whole gains are excellent sources of many essential nutrients including protein, amino acids (the building blocks of protein), B vitamins, and minerals like magnesium and selenium.
So where did the idea that grains are bad originate? The roots trace back to smaller pet food companies trying to make a name for themselves in a very competitive market by distinguishing themselves from the established competition. All pet food companies like to highlight the differences between their products and the competition. Most major pet food companies are made in the midwestern US, where grains like corn and wheat are grown in abundance. Smaller companies began using less common and more costly ingredients like peas and potatoes. The concern is that since these ingredients are relatively new arrivals to the pet food marketplace, they have not been subjected to the numerous feeding trials that other ingredients have to demonstrate that they are safe for long-term feeding. A very recent example is the recent reports of a possible link between a disease called dilated cardiomyopathy and grain free dog foods. One theory to explain this link is that the fiber found in legume ingredients like peas may interfere with the absorption of some amino acids.
Pet owners sometimes raise concerns about gluten in pet foods because they or someone they know have celiac disease. Gluten is the generic term for the protein found in plants. People with celiac disease are sensitive to the specific glutens found in wheat, rye and barley (called gliadin and glutenin), but not with the gluten found in rice or corn. There has been documented occurrence of celiac disease in specific lines of Irish Setters and soft coated wheaten terriers, but otherwise this condition has not been diagnosed in dogs or cats.