8 Out of 10 Pet Foods Now Contain This Dubious Ingredient

grain in pet food

Story at-a-glance -

  • The processed pet food industry sees opportunities to pull in new customers wherever people are achieving middle-class status and an increase in disposable income
  • Unfortunately, the industry also remains firmly committed to inexpensive grain-based diets for dogs and cats, meaning it isn’t equally focused on finding opportunities to improve pet health
  • The industry is also attempting to focus on pet food safety and finding ways to meet consumer demand for ingredient transparency and sourcing

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

While clicking through a recent edition of an online pet food industry journal, I came across an article titled "5 fast factoids for pet food's strong future."1 Since I plan to continue to be a part of "pet food's strong future" by educating pet parents about the problems with processed diets and the benefits of healthier alternatives, I of course had to give the article a look-see. Here are the five "powerful anecdotes and examples" the author lists:

  1. Pets are universally loved and valued
  2. Grains still have an important role in pet food
  3. The variety of grains matters for pet food and human food
  4. New research on pet food safety
  5. Pet food transparency and ingredient sourcing

Let's take a look at each of these.

'Pets Are Universally Loved and Valued'

I can certainly agree with this, and I'm sure all of you reading here today can as well. According to the author, as people achieve middle-class status around the world, pets become more important to them. This makes sense. Humans are naturally motivated to expand their personal internal and external worlds once they're able to consistently meet their most basic survival needs for food, shelter and safety. A question pet food industry experts are asking, according to the author, is:

"As people around the world transition from lower economic levels to earning more and having more disposable income, what are they choosing to do with their increased purchasing power?"

Based on extensive research, the experts found that people choose three things:

"Improving their nutrition (particularly buying and consuming more protein and meat), improving their shelter — and getting a pet, or better caring for their existing pets."

According to the author, this has "profound and positive implications" for the future of the pet food industry. Unfortunately, the next two items on her list suggest pet food producers are staying focused on grain-based formulas for cats and dogs.

'Grains Still Have an Important Role in Pet Food'

A whopping 80 percent of commercial pet foods in the U.S. contain grains, and despite the expansion of grain-free formulas in the market, volume and sales growth is slowing. Since like all markets, the pet food market is cyclical, the author recommends that manufacturers consider what might come next.

"Perhaps it's ancient grains," she writes, "which are very popular in human food — and we all know how closely pet food trends mimic those in human food." This is, of course, another example of a human food trend crossing over to pet food for no good reason, since dogs and cats have no biological requirement for grains, even ancient ones.

There's no official definition of ancient grains. They're generally defined as grains and pseudocereals that have remained essentially unchanged by selective breeding over the last several hundred years. By contrast, modern wheat, which is constantly bred and changed, is not an ancient grain, nor is corn or rice.

Ancient grains, which include teff, amaranth, quinoa, millet, sorghum, spelt, farro, kamut, freekeh, einkorn and others, are typically marketed in the human food industry as healthier than modern grains. But when it comes to your dog's or cat's diet, I recommend eliminating all grains.

The only grains wild canines and felines receive from their natural diet are predigested in the stomach contents of prey animals. In contrast, most grain-based pet foods contain loads of it because grain is plentiful and cheap. Grain-based pet foods are pro-inflammatory, increase the glycemic load and are generally detrimental to the health of dogs and cats because as carnivores, they aren't designed to process food containing grain.

'The Variety of Grains Matter for Pet Food and Human Food'

Since her audience, processed pet food producers, is focused on grain-based pet food, the author goes on to discuss the "potential" of cereal crop diversity to improve pet health, just as it supposedly does for human health.

"Studies across many species have shown a connection between cereal grain intake and lower risk of obesity," writes the author, "which means also decreasing the risk of fat cells, higher levels of inflammation in those cells and, in some cases, insulin resistance. One factor seems to be the diversity of cereal grains."

It appears she's focused here on obesity in pets, and the so-called benefits of grain-laden weight loss formulas. This is another ill-conceived crossover from the human food industry, where people are told to eat grains to lose weight and be healthier. (For a discussion on grains in your own diet, see Dr. Mercola's recent video and article How to Safely Bring Wheat Back Into Your Diet.")

Many people who fell for the myth that "fat free" foods are healthier 20 years ago realize now that fat doesn't make mammals fat, carbs make mammals fat. And carbs make pets fat. In fact, high-fat ketogenic diets are actually one of the best ways to help humans and pets manage their weight healthfully.

Additionally, low-fat, high-carb "weight loss" pet diets typically contain an enormous amount of fiber. The theory behind adding fiber is that it makes pets feel full. However, your dog's or cat's natural, appropriate fiber consumption is nowhere near the levels found in these foods.

All that fiber not only causes your pet to poop excessively, it can also block absorption of healthy nutrients into the small intestine. Too much fiber acts as a mechanical barrier, preventing trace minerals, vitamins and antioxidants from getting to and through the walls of your pet's gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Fiber may make your pet feel temporarily full, but he's not being satiated at the cellular level where it really counts. Chronic deprivation of nutrients to the cells can result in feelings of constant hunger. This is because your carnivorous dog or cat isn't getting enough protein to adequately sustain his biology.

And if his constant hunger keeps you shoveling more low-fat food at him, what you'll wind up with is a still-fat or even fatter pet that is overfed but under nourished. Next to water, animal protein is the most important nutrient for your dog or cat. Every cell of your pet's body requires protein and when he doesn't get enough of this essential nutrient, a host of negative side effects can occur.

The next most important nutrient for your pet is healthy, unadulterated fats. This means providing your pets with plenty of animal-based fats from grass fed, free-range sources.

When confronted with marketing of the latest-and-greatest in grain-based weight loss pet foods, your response as a savvy pet parent should be, "Since grains are biologically inappropriate nutrition for dogs and cats, it doesn't matter which or how many grains are contained in this pet food — I'm not buying it!"

'New Research on Pet Food Safety'

Pathogens in pet food are the focus of a great deal of attention in recent years due to the extraordinary number of processed pet food recalls, and the potential for humans to be exposed to salmonella and other disease-causing microbes in pet food.

The author discusses recent findings about the cleanliness of different types of food processing surfaces such as concrete (floors) and rubber (workers' shoes) that tend to be overlooked. She also notes that in a test of different sanitizers on stainless steel surfaces, a form of medium-chain fatty acids (C6:C8:C10) showed surprisingly positive results.

The safety of pet food is also a big concern for raw diet producers, most of which are interested in exploring what nature offers in the way of pathogen control. Recently, I interviewed representatives from Raw Bistro pet fare on their use of bacteriophage technology, and Answers Pet Food on their use of fermentation to control foodborne pathogens in their raw diets.

'Pet Food Transparency and Ingredient Sourcing'

The author writes about Canidae Farms, a sustainable farm from which the pet food company grows some of the ingredients used in their formulas. She visited the farm, and was impressed with Canidae's "… commitment to transparency with consumers, particularly in sourcing of its ingredients, and the way it is executing that strategy."

"Suffice it to say," she concludes "that Canidae's initiative may not make sense for every pet food company, but at least it should spur some ideas and questions to ponder."

Hopefully more pet food manufacturers will follow Canidae's lead, but in the meantime, it's important to realize that sorting through marketing hype on pet food labels is not the best way to find a truly healthy, ethical pet food.

The term "natural," for example, can only be used for an "ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources," but it may have been "subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation," according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

This means even rendered pet foods are considered natural. Meanwhile, AAFCO does not allow the term human-grade on pet food labels unless it meets a stringent set of criteria that few pet food companies can meet.

If you're looking for pet food made from ethically raised animals then looking for the grass fed label makes sense, but this, too, is fraught with confusion, as some grass fed animals were only partially grass fed. When shopping for grass fed beef, look for the American Grassfed (AGA) label.

For other foods, like chicken and eggs, look for pastured or free-range chickens. Be aware that many loopholes exist with these terms as well, as even a chicken let outdoors on a tiny patio for a few minutes can be described as free-range.
True free-range chickens spend the majority of their time outdoors, roaming around for insects, worms and other treats.

Farms raising true grass fed beef and free-range chickens typically practice sustainable agriculture practices that are both ethical and environmentally friendly. Healthy, ethically raised meats can often be found at local farmers markets or co-ops.

The only way to know for sure whether the pet food you're buying is from ethically raised animals is to contact the manufacturer and verify their supply chain. Usually companies that go through the painstaking effort to make nontoxic, human-grade, non-GMO food discuss it extensively on their website, offering all the transparency you need to feel confident feeding their food.

Finding clean food and transparent companies isn't an easy task, unless the company is truly committed to producing a high-quality and humane product, in which case they'll probably be glad to discuss their ingredient sourcing with you (and it will most likely be a small manufacturer).

Ultimately, however, the best way to know what's going into your pet's food is to make it yourself. Making your dog's or cat's food yourself means you can select ingredients that are human-grade, organic, grass fed and/or free-range, and you can choose exactly which ingredients goes into each meal. Be sure to do your homework before taking the plunge, however, as it's crucial that your homemade pet food be species-appropriate and nutritionally balanced.