“Grain free” is today’s big come-on in the pet food department. But the food has little to do with nutrition

Cats are carnivores and so, arguably, are dogs. So why do manufacturers still have us filling them up with vegetable products?

Bob Urano, animal lover and pet store operator
Bob Urano
Furry Friends

The latest marketing strategy of pet food manufacturers is to tout “grain free” formulas. For decades nutritionists have criticized dry pets foods for containing mostly grains, a food that is inappropriate for dogs and cats. However, grains are cheap ingredients that add volume and weight to the food. So to suddenly declare grain free as if it were a revelation or innovation is disingenuous. “Grain Free” is a marketing scheme designed to give the impression of incorporating the latest research and development.

A marketing push

They count on us humans to keep them healthy.
They count on us humans to keep them healthy.

Even Canada’s largest supermarket chain has jumped onto this bandwagon, airing commercials and placing newspaper ads that compare their grain free formulas to other more expensive brands. A look at the ingredient list for this chain’s private label dog food will inform shoppers that the main source of protein is fish (salmon meal and menhaden fish meal).

Since the label does not specify wild salmon it is safe to assume that it is the much cheaper farmed salmon, a product that has raised health concerns because of the questionable practices used in raising the salmon. The remaining dry ingredients are primarily fillers: potato meal, potato starch, dehydrated alfalfa and dried beet pulp. It’s a swapping of grains for other plants.

Canola oil provides the fat. While canola oil may sound good to the consumer, chicken fat is better for the animal. The supermarket’s grain-free cat formula is similar although since cats need more protein, there is more fish meal and the addition of potato protein. Still high on the list is potato meal, potato starch and dried beet pulp.

There is little dispute that cats are carnivores. They thrive best on a diet of animal protein. Some still argue that dogs are omnivores. While it is true that dogs eat almost anything, given their wolf heritage, their teeth, designed for tearing not chewing and a digestive tract that processes meat much better than plants, make a strong argument for categorizing them as carnivores. Thus, these dry foods should not contain such a large amount of carbohydrates from plants, whether they be grains, potatoes, corn, beet pulp or whatever.

Despite the supermarket’s claims of giving the best value, if you are going to feed your dog or cat dry food, there are better formulas to be had. Some, but not all, premium brands found in specialty stores have grain free products that contain better quality protein and fewer fillers. However, you have to read the ingredient list carefully.

By law ingredients are listed from greatest amount to least amount. Some manufacturers have found a way to deceive consumers. When they list the first ingredient as chicken, for example, they are using the weight and volume of the bird before it is processed. Since much of the weight is fluids, when the chicken is dehydrated into the powdery substance required, both the weight and volume will be considerably less. Thus, if chicken is listed first, by the time it is processed into meal, it would likely drop to fifth or sixth place on the list of ingredients.

Since good animal protein is the first priority in a pet food, the first two or three ingredients should be animal meals: chicken meal, turkey meal, salmon meal for example. Dried egg product, chicken liver, whey protein are also acceptable ways to increase the protein levels.

Plant proteins such as soy beans, corn gluten or potato protein are the cheaper and poorer protein sources. Nutritional fillers such as sweet potatoes, peas and flax seed are better than brewers rice, beet pulp and alfalfa.

Canned foods healthier

Dry pet foods continue to dominate the marketplace, largely because this is the category most promoted by and profitable for manufacturers. Many nutritionists, however, believe that canned food provides better nutrition. A good quality canned food has more meat and fewer fillers than kibble. Also, with wet food the animal ingests more fluids, helping to ensure adequate hydration. Pets on a canned food diet are less likely to become obese, thereby avoiding many weight-related health issues.

Perhaps pet owners should be more mindful of what their pets are eating and rather than focus on the best deal, focus on the best nutrition when it comes to their beloved pets.

Pet lover Robert Urano was longtime owner of a Winnipeg pet food store.

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