Are Grain-Free Foods Taking Over the Premium Dry Dog Food Market?

Are Grain-Free Foods Taking Over the Premium Dry Dog Food Market? is an article that is on the Whole Dog Journal website (USA). The author is writing about the growth of grain free extruded products and near the end of the piece, states that she wouldn’t recommend grain free for all dogs. In the UK we are seeing the same growth of grain free dog food and I am wondering if this is seen as superior to any other kind. In some cases this may be the case, but not all.

When I first had one of my dogs she was on a very well known hypoallergenic dog food of which a good 50% was cereal - white rice, oats, barley (IIRC). Her skin and coat were absolutely awful so changed her on to grain free (potato and pea flour as carb source). There was some improvement but the skin condition never really went away. Luckily, she is now much better but is not on grain free - she has food with brown rice in it.

Just wondering what other people feel about the growth in grain free food?

This is a very interesting topic, thanks Dottie for bringing it up!
Personally I have nothing against grains, and actually they are next on my “is my dog sensitive to?” list.
I think the issue is strictly related to the “ancestral diet” and the (in my opinion) false myth that the dog should eat what a wolf eats… no documentary shows a wolf chewing a spike of wheat so why should our dogs?
I have already expressed my reluctance in agreeing with this theory so I won’t repeat it here. I will only say that for many thousands of years dogs have been symbiont to humans (depending on each other to survive) and they have been feeding on human scraps. The human diet is heavily biased on cereals as main carbohydrate source so dogs must have evolved to cope with such diet.
The fact that the top scorers in the food directory are grain free is related to the fact that the algorithm recognises sweet potato as the top source of carbohydrates (and rightly so)… or at least this is what I think, I’m sure David will be able to shed more light on the subject :slight_smile:
Also the scoring system in the food directory rewards 80/20 foods, which we all know are not suitable to all dogs. Personally, I think that any food with a 4.4 score or above is worth a look at the ingredients list, as the rest will depend on our dog’s individual needs.

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Having not had an problem with food allergy, I have not really tried grain free. Even when my dog was mostly on raw food, I sometimes added brown rice or quinoa. Like my own diet, however, I have tried to keep the grains unrefined. I do feel that many ailments in modern life can be linked to the overuse of refined carbohydrates in one way or another. I know that I feel better when I avoid them. I worry about the extent to which the grains have been refined in most commercial foods unless the labelling is clear.

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There are some less than premium foods that are now grain free so maybe it is filtering down. The only one I can think of at the moment is Harrington’s grain free. I only remembered it because my friend buys it from Morrisons. It’s not in the Directory so don’t have the score. Maybe people are thinking that all grain is bad but that’s not always the case. Some, such as brown rice is useful to the dog. I also think it is about quantity - 50% of the recipe seems an awful lot.

Great thread and a complex subject so apologies if this turns into a lengthy post.

Personally I have no problem with grains per se and like many of you, I have always found certain forms (especially whole brown rice) to be very beneficial for a lot of dogs.

Other grains like wheat and, to a lesser extent, maize do cause problems for some dogs but from my experience, for dogs without intolerance to these specific grains, they can be fine and (particularly in their whole form) might actually be beneficial.

Regarding the rating algorithm, being grain free does not increase a food’s score. The fact that most of the ‘best’ foods out there are grain free is more to do with manufacturers driving and responding to consumer trends than any proven nutritional benefit. I’ll go more into this below but for now back to the algorithm:

Brown rice scores well; Oats, barley etc are more or less neutral; Maize is downgraded slightly; Wheat is downgraded more. This is because the scores are intended to indicate how healthy a food will be for the majority of dogs.

Scores for all ingredients (not just grains) also depend on the percentages present and high levels of any ingredient that could be regarded as a ‘filler’ reduces a food’s score. For example, 5% white rice will score a lot better than 50% white rice and despite brown rice being a ‘good’ ingredient, a very high percentage will cost points.

So why are all of the top rated foods grain free? Well, in order to be successful a manufacturer has to give its customers what they want and right now most of the people buying the very top end foods are looking specifically for grain free foods. Grain has developed such a bad reputation over the last few years that putting it into a food immediately eliminates a huge section of the market. Even if a high-end producer found that adding grain to their foods would be beneficial to dogs, they just couldn’t do it as it would mean virtual commercial suicide.

It is a positive feed back loop that probably started with some clever marketing by the early grain free manufacturers and has now resulted in grain being the bogey man of pet food.

I completely acknowledge that I too play my part in the loop. As you’ll all know, one of the five ‘at a glance’ symbols on the site is whether a food is grain free or not. This wasn’t originally the plan but with so many people specifically looking for grain free foods, I added the symbol to make their searches easier. This obviously creates the false impression that grain-free is an important characteristic to look for in a food on a par with natural or clearly labelled but this is not the case at all. Sadly, the balance between giving visitors what they want and what I think they should want is a difficult one.


I try to stay out of these types of thread as I am a Grain Free retailer, which makes me biased.

I am not going to try to convince those that remain unconvinced, but I am happy to share examples privately of my successes, at promoting the health of incurable dogs and saving the customer a load of cash at the vet.

I have examples of where vets were supplying miracle, grain filled, derma-nonsense foods, at full RRP and at the same time banging in a steroid to reduce the skin condition. If you were to speak to me privately you may even hear the word “corrupt” and a suggestion that manufacturers have been getting away with it for years. In my opinion, there is more rubbish than good on the market, it is a disgrace.

I will not dwell on the subject here, but I have no doubt, based on real results, that Grain Free is the way to feed a dog, be it raw or kibble. Feeding your dog brown high quality, human grade rice, that you throw into their food, is very different from the “feed grade” rice being fed to dogs in kibble. I have had numerous dogs come into my Unit, very poorly, fed on some of the higher end foods, that choose rice as their bulking agent. These dogs were eventually returned to normal health by feeding a great quality grain free kibble.

If this is purely coincidence, then long may it continue, as I get this kind of feedback daily.

All I would say to any dog owner, is research the product you want to feed your dog and push the manufacturer to answer your questions, should you have any.

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Is a grain-free diet healthier for my dogs and cats? is an article by a veterinary nutritionist (USA) about grain free/grain containing foods.

Interesting to read what she has to say and what she has had to say in the past.

I disagree with her suggestion that allergies in pets are rare. But there again, my perception of this may well be skewed. Many of my customers have visited, because their pets have either stomach or skin related conditions. All bar one, have seen significant improvement in their conditions in a very short time, with the “one” suffering with a condition that even the vet is lost for a solution to.

As I have said previously, human grade, good quality rice, I have no issue with. That’s where it ends for me.

Personally, I have yet to find somebody that has convinced me that grain in dog or cat food is there for anything other than bulking foods, to reduce costs. Like I have said many times, if cereal was expensive, it wouldn’t be in dog food and it is no surprise to note that all the cheap end nasty foods are packed with cereal.

I see your point but even some grain free foods have more than enough bulking ingredients, usually white potato and pea derivatives. I recently read that it is now thought that allergy to storage mites is probably more common than once thought. As they infest grain/cereal containing dog food, could this be the part of the reason why some dogs do better on grain free, wet or raw food? If so, it might not be the cereal itself that is the problem. Also, for the sake of economy, some people buy larger bags of food that last longer. In the aforementioned article, there is mention of higher infestation the longer the bag has been opened.

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Lower end grain free foods use white potato, in larger quantities, no question. To label white potato, a bulking agent, is probably fair, although it does contain vitamin C, B6 and lots of potassium. I stock, but not for much longer, foods that have a quarter white potato. I have never recommended it but it is there to satisfy demand. I would rather feed this than ANY cereal based food.

Whether it be a Storage Mite or a reaction to the grain itself is pretty much irrelevant to my customers, they just want the suffering to stop and the vet bills to desist. So far we have provided the fix by supplying high quality grain free foods. We are hoping in the near future to take that quality a step higher and the cost a step lower. The majority of my customer’s pets that are poorly, are suffering from bowel and stomach disorders, that they suspect is a result of the grain in the food. So far, no mite has been blamed for that.

I have been shocked to the core at the “conditions” I have seen, since we opened in January, fully attributed to food. From aggressive pups to dogs that bled through terrible skin conditions. All of these conditions were either changed overnight or improved steadily and were not successfully treated at the vet, despite lots of money changing hands.

I am always open to real debate on this subject and I very much appreciate your contribution Dottie.

Food allergies are quite rare in pets, true enough. Food intolerances on thr other hand are much more common.
Whether grains are good or bad for dogs is still debatable and I tend to agree that there is no scientific evidence; the main reason why so many dogs do better with grain free food may simply be that the whole set of ingredients used is high quality (most of the times, it’s already been mentioned that some grain free foods contains bulking ingredients).

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We are wise to try to work out the individual diet that works best for the individual dog, and yes (as Red_Akita mentions) there are intolerances and sensitivities shown by dogs and I can vouch for getting to the root of the causes is not an easy task!!! So may I praise you Pet_Direction_Andy for successfully helping the many dogs you mention, moreso those dogs who " …were not successfully treated at the vet," as those owners must have been particularly worried.

Yes a dog’s body may be overreacting to a particular grain, perhaps wheat, perhaps corn, or perhaps due to the use of pesticides on the grain. And may also (as Dottie mentions) be caused by the way that a pet food is stored, with infestation of mites as another trigger of intolerance in a dog.

Might I also mention an informative referenced article of 2014 (by Kristyn M. Souliere) entitled “A Study of the Nutritional Effect of Grains in the Diet of a Dog” ;-

Here is a quote from the article:
“There have been few experiments conducted to test the effects of grain on the overall health of a dog, but there have been some investigations of specific diseases and the effects of grain on them. A major concern is with the kidney, which can be affected by high protein with a low or a grain-free diet, which can cause azotemia or uremia in a dog.”

[The emphasis is placed on high protein, levels of which are from the guidelines set by the National Research Council, when fed with low grain or no grain]

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Pet Direction Andy - it sounds like you are doing a good job in helping people to improve their dog’s diet and health. However, by only stocking grain free products you are missing out on cold pressed foods which not only score well on here but which attract excellent user reviews, particularly for dogs with digestive problems. There are a few which are grain free but not many. Their sensible fat and protein levels make them suitable for the low activity pet dog.

Meg - an interesting article but I was surprised at the number of references to the problems associated with high protein when given over a long period of time, particularly the comments about renal disease. I thought that this had been debunked. I was interested in this quote:

The National Research Council states that an adult dog needs its protein levels between 15- 28% and a fat level between 5-20%. However, they do state that an owner needs to be careful, when feeding a dog with a low activity level, as having higher than 15% fat within the diet may lead to obesity (National Research Council, 1985).

Gluten intolerance seems to be topical right now but according to this article, it is thought to be not that common in dogs. Rice is gluten free and some dogs do better with this than potato. My friend has a Labrador who, when tested by the vet was found to be intolerant of white potato. She has a limited budget and changed food to Skinner’s Field and Trial with good effect.

There are many things to consider when choosing a dog food, grain being just one of them but it is the type of grain being used, and the amount that seems more pertinent.

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I apologise for not answering this sooner, as I was defeated by empty batteries (of device not self!)…The linked article regarding grains demonstrates the combination of a diet of excessive protein, together with kidneys working below par, creates issues of nitrogen based by-products. For example a build up of nitrogen in the blood, which damaged kidneys cannot filter.

To help the kidneys by supplementing the diet with fermentable fibre (grains), would allow good bacteria in the colon to multiply, using the nitrogen for growth, and this is then excreted via faeces.

As far as I’m aware if a dog has moderate to severe kidney failure then protein levels should be lowered.

The article dismisses foods of protein levels higher than recommended by the NRC and notably these are also dry kibble and typically high in carbohydrate which may also contribute to stressing kidneys.

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Dottie, we will remain grain free, simply because of what we believe. What we have discovered, in a short space of time, is how much misinformation is out there. I have been shocked to the core by the advice given to my customers by vets, many of whom seem to be only able to prescribe their stocked brand of dog food at full RRP. Some of the basic feeding advice we give, often produces a look of enlightenment and the question why they hadn’t been told this by their vet. I answer this by explaining that a friend of mine was told by his GP that his breathlessness and chest pains was indigestion. One heart attack and triple by-pass later, he is one very bemused man. To be human is to err.

We, as a new small company, are exploring the latest methods of producing outstanding dog foods ourselves; but the market is flooded with small dog food companies banging on about how their product is the best. During my research into which products to stock, I discussed a recipe with one owner/founder and discovered that he wasn’t aware of the quantity of a certain element in his recipe or of the health benefits of the same.
We have to think carefully about whether there is a need for another food, but whatever we produce and whatever method of manufacturing we go with, it will be grain free. I am yet to be convinced by anybody, that grain is anything more than a cheap substitute to what a dog, and more so a cat, should be eating.

Pet Direction Andy you sound wholly passionate about what you believe in and I admire the research you have done to decide what foods to stock, and it sounds like you very much care about improving the health of dogs.

Might I find out from you, moreso as grain appears in various forms - as you are undoubtedly aware - and it would be helpful to know, if you are able to supply “complete” foods for dogs which have absolutely no grain whatsoever in them.

[If this may be of interest, here is a link to April’s GrainFreeLiving’s list of grains and a brief summary of grains here ]