Grains in pet food – they’re not all bad!

Despite the popularity of grain-free foods, there are many healthy grain options available for dogs! Here, we’ll look at some of the most common grains and some pros of each.

Are you an avid label reader? If so, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of pet food brands are starting to offer more grain-free options. But it’s important to remember that the jury is still out on the grains vs. grain-free debate. All dogs have different nutritional requirements, and there are a lot of different healthy grain options available for those that need them. So don’t write off grains quite yet! In this blog, we’ll look at the various types of grains commonly found in dog food and what they can offer your pup.

Grain-free isn’t always best

Lately, there’s a lot of mixed information circulating about the link between grains and canine heart disease. But the truth is, there are many factors that can contribute to heart disease in dogs. Although diet is one of them, the role of grains is not yet understood – so it’s important for pet parents to keep an open mind.

“While they all may share one common ancestor, today dogs have evolved into hundreds of breeds and mixes,” says Lindsay Tracy, Director of Product Development and New Business at Redbarn Pet Products. “This means one breed may thrive on a grain-free diet while another breed, who lives in the same household, may require grains for optimal health. And to go one step further, two dogs of the same litter could also have different nutritional needs.”

Rather than jumping blindly onto the grain-free train, pet parents should first ask themselves why they’re making this dietary choice for their canine companions. If your dog is overweight, for instance, you might be tempted to make the switch. But as Lindsay points out, grain-free and carb-free are two different things. Grain-free foods often contain complex carbohydrates in the form of sweet potatoes, quinoa, lentils and peas – and these ingredients pack as much of a caloric-punch as any healthy grain (if not more)!

“Your dog’s veterinarian is your dog’s personal health expert and the best person to give nutritional advice at the end of the day,” says Lindsay.

8 common grains

Regardless of what side of the grain-free debate you’re leaning toward, it can’t hurt to educate yourself on grains and what they can offer. Let’s take a look at some that are commonly found in dog food and treats.

Whole wheat flour – Whole wheat flour uses the whole grain, retaining all of the grain’s original nutrients. It’s rich in fiber and helps support muscular and metabolic activities.

Brown rice flour – Brown rice flour is also made from the whole rice grain, again retaining the original nutrients. It has more protein and fiber than its white counterpart and, like whole wheat flour, is easily digestible by dogs.

Barley – Barley is rich in soluble and insoluble fiber, low in cholesterol and digestible by dogs.

Oats – Oats are high in protein and fats when compared to other cereal grains and are full of fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals like vitamin E and B, zinc and iron.

Sorghum – Another whole grain, sorghum is also gluten-free and rich in antioxidants, B1 and B2, iron, zinc and dietary fiber.

The importance of reading labels… thoroughly!

Unfortunately for pet parents, marketing ploys can add to the confusion surrounding grains. “While I don’t want to say manufacturers are purposeful trying to deceive dog parents, there are clever ways to make a food appear more appealing to people who don’t have a wealth of pet food knowledge like industry-people do,” says Lindsay.

“One example could be a company calling out ‘98% protein’ in big print, and in smaller but still legible print, ‘from animal sources’. A pet parent may quickly see this and think, this is a great food, it’s 98% protein. However, this food could really be 30% protein, with 98% of that protein coming from animal sources. It’s not necessarily a bad food because it has less protein, but it could be misleading to the pet parent overwhelmed in the food aisle.”

Education is key to cutting through all the misleading marketing noise. Read labels thoroughly, and research anything you don’t understand. Talk to your vet, and don’t be afraid to contact companies to inquire about their nutritional facts. As far as the grains vs. grain-free debate is concerned, take everything with a grain of salt. Seek out quality, transparent brands, and do your best to stay current on all the latest research. The more you know, the healthier your pup will be!


Animal Wellness is North America's top natural health and lifestyle magazine for dogs and cats, with a readership of over one million every year. AW features articles by some of the most renowned experts in the pet industry, with topics ranging from diet and health related issues, to articles on training, fitness and emotional well being.