WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF GRAIN-FREE DOG FOOD?
Many dog owners wonder about the nutritional balance of grain-free dog food. We’ve been told over and over again that it's essential for our pets’ health! But the truth, as always, is more nuanced: it all depends on the individual, for many reasons related to the composition of the kibble itself. For example, if you opt for grain-free dog food, you can rest assured that it will contain tubers or legumes instead. All dry dog food contains at least one of the three sources of carbohydrates to provide the kibble's structure. But all sources are not created equal... Find out more below!
Why Eliminate Grains from Your Dog's Diet?
The trend for grain-free dog food has followed in the wake of the BARF diet. This diet (as explained in our article dedicated to the topic - see link) aims to get as close as possible to the natural, ancestral diet of wolves and wild cats, which consists of raw meat and bones and does not contain any grains. The BARF diet did not manage to escape the marketing wave and, very quickly, we began to see the emergence of BARF kibble... not raw, but grain-free dog food.
So, is there any problem with eliminating grains? In truth: not really. Starches like peas or potatoes are only present for two reasons: to preserve the kibble and to reduce the cost of the food (because meat is expensive!). But whether the food is made up of grains or other things, so long as the ingredients used are high quality, well processed, and in small quantities, there is no “better” or “worse”. The important thing is to respect the sensitivities of your pet. The same reasoning is also valid when it comes to organic dog food.
Carbohydrates: Proceed with Caution
Carbohydrates have many names and forms, but they are most commonly known as "slow carbs" and "fast carbs". Unlike proteins and fats, carbohydrates are not essential nutrients for a well-balanced diet... for you or your pet! Quite simply, this is because our mammalian organisms can synthesise them from other nutrients. In this way, glucose can be obtained from protein through gluconeogenesis.
It should be pointed out that there are almost no carbohydrates in animals. They are usually only found in lactose, sometimes in the liver and blood, and a little bit in muscles. The prey consumed by our pets does not contain more than 12% carbohydrates, for example. However, carbohydrates are abundantly widespread in plants. As such, even if you opt for grain-free dog food, it almost certainly contains starchy carbohydrates in the form of legumes or tubers, and rarely below 20%.
Our dogs and cats are not biologically prepared to digest too many carbohydrates. However, if they are well processed and incorporated into the kibble in a reasonable dose, carbohydrates can participate in the development and maintenance of the body, by providing it with rapidly mobilised energy in the form of glucose. But beware of low-end products. Cheap grain-free dog food is often too rich in carbohydrates, which leads to excessive weight gain in your pooch, and can cause digestive problems, allergies, and even more serious and often fatal pathologies, such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, or even kidney failure.
The Magic Formula for Calculating the Level of Carbohydrates
The exact level of carbohydrates is rarely mentioned on dry food packets. However, it's essential to know! The formula for finding out the level of carbohydrates in your grain-free dog food is relatively simple:
Level of carbohydrates = 100 - (% protein + % fat + % cellulose/fibre + % crude ash + % moisture).
The Three Types of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are split into three main types: starches (also known as complex carbohydrates), sugars (simple carbohydrates), and fibres. They come from vegetables and, whatever they are, they all contain starch. Therefore, any dog food, even “grain-free” dog food, will contain at least 11% starch. The manufacturer will simply use starches from a different family, other than grains!
What are they? Wheat, corn, barley, rye, rice, oats, etc.
The advantages: They are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fibres.
The disadvantages: They are often very rich in starch. Wheat gluten is well known for causing food intolerances and allergies. Corn is a raw material that is not always of high quality. Finally, corn and wheat seeds are more likely to contain mycotoxins, toxic and dangerous moulds that can develop during storage.
What are they? Potato, sweet potato, yam, cassava, etc.
The advantages: They are quite comprehensive, as they contain certain essential amino acids, group B vitamins, and vitamin C.
The disadvantages: They are very rich in starch! Therefore, to be worth their while, they need to undergo a pretty major transformation.
What are they? Peas, lentils, soybeans, etc.
The advantages: They are rich in fibre, minerals (iron, calcium, zinc, copper), and essential amino acids.
The disadvantages: They are very rich in vegetable proteins, often lack vitamins, and contain what are known as "anti-nutritional factors" (tannins, lectins, phytic acid), which can make them difficult to digest, or even cause an intestinal flora imbalance.
The Difference in “Digestibility”
When it comes to the three different types of carbohydrates, their digestibility is not created equal. It depends on several factors: Firstly, the nature of the food. Rice, for example, is the most digestible source of carbohydrates, due to its low fibre content. Corn is also known to be very digestible, although its quality and origin must be closely monitored.
The mechanical (grinding, etc.) or physical (cooking, the transformation of starch into gelatine, etc.) process that the food has undergone is also important. Starch in itself is not bad for pets, but it must be given in very small quantities and, above all, have undergone a suitable transformation and been properly cooked.
The Importance of Reading the Label
So, ultimately, what’s better? With or without grains? As we may have mentioned, it all depends on the nature of your animal. Grain-free dog food or very low-starch kibble, sometimes marketed as BARF, will be best for animals with sensitive digestion, such as bulldogs, or "obligate" carnivores like cats.
Pay attention, though, to the other carbohydrates chosen to compensate for the absence of grains in your grain-free dog food. If your kibble contains 50% potato starch, for example, and your animal doesn't tolerate it well, it's useless from a nutritional standpoint!
PUBLISHED 27.11.2020 - HECTOR KITCHEN, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
By the Hector Kitchen medical and scientific team
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