It turns out … not that bad at all
Without a doubt, the veterinary community has noticed a rapidly growing trend in owners rejecting reputable, grain-containing commercial diets for grain-free, gluten-free and often vegetarian varieties. The majority of the time, these changes are NOT at the recommendation of veterinarians but rather from breeders, pet food suppliers and pet food manufacturers. As veterinarians, we cannot help but ask, how did this happen? And question whether grains really are that bad.
Since there is a growing trend in singling out grains, let’s quickly look at what they actually are and point out a couple interesting findings from the published literature:
Grains provide carbohydrates. There are a number of varieties and forms of carbohydrates but the body treats carbohydrates the same - regardless of the source. Carbohydrates are necessary and essential for muscle and brain function and are important sources of fiber and essential fatty acids.
One thing that most people are not aware of is that grain-free does not mean carbohydrate or starch-free.
Manufacturers can add any carbohydrate source that is not the common or more frequently used ingredient in the majority of commercial diets and claim the diet is grain-free. While a diet claims to have removed the typical grains (corn, soy, sorghum, rice, barley, etc), they have substituted in ingredients such as potatoes, tapioca and pea which are still carbohydrates that have a high starch content.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no scientific studies that show that grain-free diets are more beneficial than or superior to grain-containing diets.
Nutritional profile studies have shown that some grain-free diets are actually higher in fat and calories than their grain-containing counterparts, making them less ideal of a choice for maintaining weight or achieving weight loss.
While we just don’t have enough evidence that grain-free diets are actually beneficial to the individual pet’s health, if your pet is eating, enjoying and doing well on a nutritionally balanced grain-free diet, then by all means continue to feed the diet! But just be aware that the majority of the health claims are coming from successful marketing campaigns rather than evidence-based research.