Grain free dog foods are currently very popular with many dog owners. Indeed, there are many very good grain free dog foods and we are not discouraging anyone from feeding a good food that agrees with your dog. However, we do object to any notion that only grain free dog foods can be healthy for dogs or that foods that contain some grains are bad for dogs. Complete and balanced foods without nutrient excesses or deficiencies are what your dog needs, whether that comes in a grain free dog food or not.
There are a number of popular misconceptions about grains and grain free dog food, some of them being passed along by dog food web sites. We’ll try to address some of them.
Do grain free dog foods contain more meat-based protein than other dog foods?
Not necessarily. While some grain free dog foods have good meat protein, there are a lot of them that add pea protein and other kinds of plant-based protein to boost the protein percentage. These foods may be “grain free” but they are loaded with plant protein, plant material, and carbs. At the same time, there are some very good kibbles that use grains and have some good meat protein without so much plant material. These foods can also have a lower carbohydrate percentage.
Don’t corn and wheat cause a lot of canine allergies?
In a word, not exactly. Dogs can be allergic to corn and wheat but they are more allergic to meat proteins. In order, dogs tend to be allergic to: beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb, soy, pork, rabbit, and fish. Beef, dairy, and wheat are responsible for 68 percent of canine food allergies. Corn isn’t even on the list.
People often make a lot of assumptions when they see that a dog food contains corn without ever having a food trial or elimination diet done to see what their dog is actually allergic to.
It is true that dogs only digest about half of the nutrients in corn and wheat, depending on how they are prepared. Some lower quality dog foods have relied heavily on corn and used it as a substitute for meat protein. However, used in moderation or smaller amounts, there is absolutely no reason why most dogs can’t eat it, as long as the food also contains some good meat protein.
Don’t a lot of dogs have food allergies?
No. Allergies are not nearly as common as dog owners seem to think. If your dog is itching and scratching there could be other causes such as fleas or parasitic mites that result in demodectic mange. Even among allergies, flea bite allergies and atopy (inhalant allergies) are more common than food allergies.
If your dog is itching and scratching, try to find out the cause. See your vet. If you suspect your dog does have a food allergy or a food intolerance, it’s best if you work with your veterinarian to identify your dog’s food triggers instead of guessing.
Aren’t grain free dog foods healthier for your dog?
Again, not necessarily. While a small percentage of the dog population may need to eat a grain free dog food because of allergies to certain grains, most dogs don’t need to do so. If the other ingredients in the foods are equal, then grain free dog foods are not any healthier for your dog than foods with grains.
In fact, many grain free dog foods are likely to contain more legumes or “pulses” which can be hard for dogs to digest. A “pulse” is a grain legume and they include beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, and others. Some grain free dog foods today, in particular, rely on pulses to supply part of the protein in the food, and these ingredients often show up in the first five ingredients in some foods. These pulses are often 20 to 25 percent protein. Some pulses have been used in animal feed on farms for years but they are not easy for all animals to digest. Your dog is not a cow with four stomachs, or able to chew cud. There has been little research on how they are digested by dogs but some dogs have problems digesting them.
Do grain free dog foods contain fewer carbohydrates?
Usually no. Grain free dog foods typically contain potatoes, sweet potatoes or other non-grain carbohydrates. Many of these foods have as many or more carbs as foods that contain corn and other grains. Some grain free dog foods contain fewer carbs, but they are in a minority. Dog owners often seem to assume that dogs need a high protein, low carbohydrate diet and by feeding a grain free diet their dog will be getting fewer carbs. This isn’t true.
A moderate amount of carbohydrates is not harmful to your dog but we have seen some grain free dog foods with 40-50 percent (or more) carbs. Most people who buy a grain free dog food probably don’t expect it to contain that kind of carb percentage.
Which grains are included in “grain free” dog foods?
That’s a good question. There are lots of “grain free” dog foods that include some less common grains among their ingredients, leading us to wonder if “grain free” only means free of corn and wheat. What about oats, rice, millet, sorghum, and barley? What about “pseudo” grains – seeds that are nutritionally similar and used the same way that true grains are used? These pseudo cereal grains would include amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa. Can they be included in “grain free” dog foods? We have seen most of these grains and pseudo grains included in various grain free dog foods.
As you can see, the term “grain free” can be not only confusing, but misleading. There are plenty of good grain free dog foods on the market and if your dog is doing well eating one of these foods, that’s great. As with most products, some grain free dog foods are better quality than others, and it doesn’t always depend on the price of the food. However, we like people to know the facts. Think for yourself and make up your own mind about grain free dog food and other dog foods.
6 Best Grain Free Dog Foods
There are lots of good grain free dog foods today. These are some foods that we especially like. Your mileage may vary depending on whether your dog has any food allergies, food intolerances, or other special health considerations. Be sure to check out Pawster.com for reviews if you need more advice.
Full disclosure: we have tried all of these foods with our own dogs except for Zignature. We receive no dog food or compensation from dog food companies for mentioning their foods, i.e., I have to buy my own dog food like the rest of you.
Taste of the Wild Wetlands
Taste of the Wild is one of the most popular premium dog foods available today. Their foods are grain free and moderately priced. Most dogs seem to really like their formulas. And Taste of the Wild has expanded their canine formulas in the last couple of years so if you haven’t checked them out recently you should give them another look. Our favorite is the TOTW Wetlands formula. The first five ingredients in this formula are: duck, duck meal, chicken meal, sweet potatoes, peas. My dogs really liked the duck. It has 32 percent crude protein and 18 percent crude fat with 375 kcal/cup. This is a maintenance formula so it’s not appropriate for puppies. It has good probiotics, dried chicory root as a prebiotic fiber, antioxidants, a good ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids (6:1), and chelated minerals to help minerals be absorbed more easily. TOTW is not organic and it doesn’t use human grade ingredients but, on the other hand, this is a good grain free food at an affordable price for most pet owners. Taste of the Wild is made by Diamond which bothers some people who may remember that Diamond had some large dog food recalls years ago but we feel confident in recommending Taste of the Wild as one of the best lines of grain free dog foods available today.
Merrick Grain Free Real Texas Beef & Sweet Potato Dry Dog Food for Adult Dogs and Puppies
The Merrick Grain Free foods feature deboned meat as their first ingredient. They are U.S.-made (the Merrick facilities are located in Texas) using locally-sourced ingredients. And they use no ingredients from China. Merrick Grain Free comes in 13 formulas plus 5 Grain Free Lil Plates formulas for small dogs. Popular formulas include their Real Buffalo, Real Chicken, and Real Texas Beef kibbles. Merrick Grain Free also comes in canned/wet recipes. The Merrick Grain Free Real Texas Beef & Sweet Potato recipe features deboned beef, lamb meal, sweet potatoes, peas, and potatoes as the first five ingredients. It has 38 percent crude protein and 15 percent crude fat, with 422 kcal/cup. This is an all life stage formula. The food is 70 percent protein and healthy fats. It has a 10:1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio which is considered good. Enriched with antioxidants, the food also includes glucosamine and chondroitin for joint support. This beef formula is typical of the other Merrick Grain Free formulas. Merrick was purchased by Purina a couple of years ago and some people feared that there would be a decline in the quality of the brand but, as far as we can tell, Merrick continues to be a first rate brand.
Wellness CORE Original Grain Free
Wellness CORE is just one of the brands made by WellPet. Their other successful Wellness brands include Complete Health, Simple, and Trufood. They also make Holistic Select, Eagle Pack, Old Mother Hubbard, Sojos, and Whimzees. So, this is a petfood juggernaut. Wellness CORE focuses on grain free, protein formulas. Along with kibbles they make canned/wet foods, toppers, freeze-dried foods, and kibble + raw. Wellness CORE Original Grain Free Deboned Turkey, Turkey Meal & Chicken Meal Recipe remains one of their most popular dog foods. The first five ingredients are: deboned turkey, turkey meal, chicken meal, peas, and potatoes. It has 34 percent crude protein and 16 percent crude fat, with 421 kcal/cup. Along with good sources of meat protein, this food also has an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of about 6.5 to 1 which is very nice. The food includes small amounts of glucosamine and chondroitin for joint support. This is a maintenance dog food so it’s not appropriate for puppies. Wellness CORE has lots of other grain free kibble formulas for small dogs, large dogs, puppies, and recipes in other flavors. These foods are popular with many people who like grain free dog foods.
Zignature Turkey Formula Limited Ingredient Diet
While Zignature is a limited ingredient diet, it is surprisingly popular with many people whose dogs don’t particularly need an LID diet. They simply like the brand because the foods are good. Zignature’s foods are grain free with meat first. They are single animal protein foods. They have no chicken, chicken eggs, corn, wheat, soy, or potatoes in their formulas. This means that their foods don’t have many of the common dog food allergens and they are low glycemic so your dog’s blood sugar level stays steady. They also have antioxidants and essential fatty acids. The first five ingredients in this LID turkey formula are: turkey, turkey meal, chickpeas, peas, and pea protein. It has 31 percent crude protein and 18 percent crude fat, with 457 kcal/cup. The omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is 4:1 which is exceptionally good. This is an all life stage formula. Other formulas include venison, kangaroo, duck, salmon, pork, and more.
Instinct by Nature’s Variety
Nature’s Variety makes Instinct, a brand that emphasizes grain free, high protein dog foods. They also make Prairie – holistic dog foods that use whole grains. Instinct dog foods include raw formulations in the form of freeze-dried raw added to the kibbles or sold as separate products. Instinct also has canned dog foods. If you’re looking for high protein, grain free foods (with or without raw inclusions), you should check out Instinct. Instinct Original remains one of the company’s most popular formulas. It has 70 percent real animal ingredients and oils. Instinct uses cage-free chicken, USA-raised beef, and farm-raised rabbits. This is a grain free formula with no potatoes, corn, wheat, soy, by-product meals, artificial colors, or preservatives. Raw nutrition is added to Instinct Original by tumbling the kibble pieces with crushed, freeze-dried raw to increase nutrition and flavor for your dog. The original kibble formula comes in beef, chicken, duck, rabbit and salmon. Using the beef formula for our example, the first five ingredients are: beef, turkey meal, herring meal, peas, and chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols and citric acid). The food has 36 percent crude protein and 19 percent crude fat, with 518 kcal/cup. It has a 6:1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. This is an all life stage formula.
Farmina Grain Free Chicken
Farmina is an Italian pet food company. Their foods have been available in the U.S. for several years. You can read about the company on their web site. Along with their grain free foods they also make some excellent low grain/ancestral diet formulas. They use human grade regional ingredients. Their foods are GMO-free. They use no meals or by-products. Their products are made with animal cruelty-free testing. They use no artificial preservatives. And they are low glycemic. Their grain free foods are made with 70 percent meat or fish. The first five ingredients in their grain free chicken formula are: deboned chicken, dehydrated chicken (source of glucosamine & chondroitin sulfate), potato, chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols), and dehydrated egg product. This food is 37 percent crude protein and 18 percent crude fat. It has 467 kcal/cup. It has an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of about 3.5 which is very good. The food also includes glucosamine and chondroitin for joint support. This is an all life stage formula. Farmina makes foods for dogs of different sizes and puppy foods. They also have formulas in lamb, herring, wild cod, and boar. They have recently introduced skin & coat formulas made with quinoa. Farmina’s foods are exceptionally good. They used to be priced lower when they were new to the U.S. but word is getting out about them and now they are priced like some other foods that use a lot of meat protein in their formulas. Even though they cost more now, this is a brand we highly recommend.
These are six of the best grain free dog food brands we know on the market today. There are some other good brands that we just didn’t have room to include but you can find them if you look for some of the same things we do when you are shopping. Look for foods that use good quality ingredients. Look for meat as the first ingredient. Avoid generic ingredients. Avoid artificial preservative, colors, and flavorings. Avoid low quality sources of protein. If you read ingredients carefully you should be able to identify good quality grain free dog foods. And you can always check our reviews here on Pawster.com!