Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Grain-Free Pet Food Trend: Are We Focusing on the Right Things?

Recently, Pet Business, a trade publication for the pet industry, published the article, TrendWatch 2011¹. In it they reported that the grain-free pet food trend will continue to create a big market for pet companies in 2011, citing digestibility, allergies, and obesity as reasons some seek grain-free foods for their dogs and cats. The article lacks some detail about pet food ingredients, leaving the impression that grain-free foods are needed to improve the health of pets. In reality, grain-free foods are just one of a larger group of pet diets formulated to be more carnivore-appropriate, and the grain-free label does not necessarily indicate overall quality nutrition.


Natural Diet for Carnivores

In the wild, dogs and cats are meat-eating predators. They get the majority of their nutrients from meat and poultry, including organ meat, bone, and animal fat. In addition, they obtain a small fraction of their nutrients from predigested fruits, vegetables and grains in the stomach of their prey, and from the little that they will
forage in the wild. So the most natural diet for dogs and cats is one high in animal protein and low in carbohydrates. This logical, high-protein/low-carbohydrate approach to pet nutrition was established long before grain-free pet foods became an industry trend.

Grain-free History

There were a few high-protein diets prior to the introduction of grain-free kibble, but most dry pet foods were formulated with 18% to 24% protein, with up to 75% starch and other trace ingredients. In many kibbles, much of this protein came from non-animal sources, like gluten or soybeans. While these diets may have met the minimal nutrient profiles required by AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials, the body regulating pet food), they were not optimal for the diet of natural carnivores, like dogs and cats.

When grain-free pet foods first appeared on the market, the ratio of protein to carbohydrate changed. Grain-free diets are typically formulated with 30% or more animal protein and much less starch. The characteristic that made grain-free kibble unique was this higher level of protein, derived from carnivore-appropriate animal ingredients. This high protein, low carbohydrate ratio should be the focus of attention when searching for a quality pet food.

Starches

While some in the pet community will advocate grain-free as better for pets, a starch is still a starch, whether it comes from rice, millet, potato, tapioca or chick peas. A starch is a complex carbohydrate found chiefly in seeds, fruits, tubers, roots and stem pith of plants, notably in corn, potatoes, wheat, and rice². Grain-free kibble still contains starch from one or more of these sources, not because of the nutritional value, but because it makes the kibble stick together and hold its shape.

There is a dizzying array of starches in various pet foods. Grain-free manufacturers are migrating from potato, to tapioca, to peas and chick peas for one reason: To differentiate their food by claiming it contains a better starch. From the beginning, Nature’s Logic did not choose a starch for marketing reasons, so we could call it grain-free. Instead, we selected a starch that is carnivore-appropriate: One that is low in sugar and carbohydrates, and that is gluten-free.

Millet is the starch in our kibble. This grain contains less natural sugar than other starches frequently used in pet foods. Further, a grass seed, like millet, is similar to one a carnivore in the wild might consume from eating the stomach of a bird or herbivore. It is much more likely to occur naturally in a wild dog or cat’s diet than chick peas or potato, so will be more familiar to their digestive systems. Also, millet contains NO gluten, a relatively common allergen for pets (more about gluten-free on our blog at http://natureslogic.blogspot.com/2010/10/why-pet-lovers-are-choosing-gluten-free.html). Our diets also have NO corn, wheat, or soy. It is by avoiding these ingredients, not by going grain-free, that pet owners prevent common allergies.

The claim made by some that grain-free diets keep pets lean deserves some further scrutiny. If a pet food contains ingredients like tapioca and sweet potato, it likely has higher sugar and calorie content. Further, typical weight reduction diets for dogs and cats are high in grain (“fiber”) in an attempt to fill up the pet’s gut while the animal’s intake of calories is less.

Key Things to Look For

When choosing your pet’s kibble, rather than focusing on grain, which small amounts can naturally be present in the diets of wild cats and dogs, pay attention to a few ingredients that will help you ensure overall good health for your pet.

1. Select foods with high levels of animal protein. Look for 30% or more protein guaranteed on the bag.
2. Check the source of that protein. Make sure it comes from meat, poultry or fish.
3. Look for food with a starch that is low in sugar and carbohydrates, and is gluten-free.
4. Avoid products with wheat, gluten or soy in the ingredient panel.

Remember, it is not the “grain-free” quality that makes a food good or bad. Some foods being marketed as grain-free to capitalize upon this industry trend may use other ingredients that are not optimal for a carnivore. If the pet food contains a grain, as long as it is gluten-free and the food is high in animal protein, it is just as good as one marketed as grain-free.

In addition to high levels of animal protein, Nature’s Logic formulas are made with solid, nutritious whole food. The 100% natural ingredients supply all essential nutrients, with NO added synthetic vitamins or minerals. For more information about our kibble, canned or raw diets, please visit http://www.natureslogic.com/.

Sources:

1. http://www.petbusiness.com/articles/2010-12-31/Trend-Watch-2011
2. http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=starch

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