Grains are more than just filler in pet food. They are an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber. They provide a major portion of the product’s carbohydrate component. Grains are also incorporated in kibbles (dry pet food) to help keep their shape and crunchy texture.
When it comes to grains in pet food, what usually comes to mind are wheat and corn. But because of certain health issues in pets that have been blamed on grains in pet food, many manufacturers are now using the so-called “novel grains”, such as barley, rye, and oats in their formulas.
But why are there issues about grains in pet food? What is fueling this tide of pet owners making changes to their pets’ diet by switching to grain-free pet food? To better understand what the hullabaloo is all about, it is a good idea to know what grains are and their pros and cons when they are used as ingredients in pet food.
What are grains?
Grains are the seeds of cereal crops that are cultivated as a food. They are important sources of complex carbohydrates composed of starch and fiber. Digestion breaks down starches into simple sugars (e.g. glucose) with the aid of the enzyme ‘amylase’. Glucose is an important source of energy for the body. The fiber component of whole grains is indigestible but has particular health benefits. Gluten, a type of protein in plants, may be present in some grains, while some are gluten-free. Gluten has been implicated in many health issues of dogs and cats. Grains that contain gluten include wheat, barley, rye, and spelt. On the other hand, gluten-free grains include rice, corn, and oats that are labeled “certified gluten-free”.
There are also the so-called “pseudo grains” which are seeds of broad-leaf, bushy plants, such as millet, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat.
Should all dogs or cats be placed on grain-free pet food?
Although there is an increasing number of grain-free products, many pet manufacturers still incorporate grains in their pet food formulas. The fact is, there are still many pets that thrive with grain in their diets. Some pets suffer from health issues or are allergic to grains and need to be placed on a grain-free diet. It all boils down to a dog’s individual dietary needs.
Grains have specific nutritional profiles that are taken into consideration when choosing what’s best for a particular dog or cat. On the other hand, some of the carbs used in grain-free pet foods are better options compared to grains. There is no single diet that works best for all pets as each differs in their needs and choices. Hence, to meet this need, pet food manufacturers have come up with lots of pet food formula options.
Whole grains versus refined grains
Ideally, whole grains should be used when incorporated in pet food formulas. They are unprocessed thus, the entire seed is left intact. The outer layer of the grain, called the bran, is rich in fiber, vitamin B complex, and trace minerals. The germ or seed core/embryo contains antioxidants, B-vitamins, vitamin E, and plant-based fats. The biggest component of the seed is the endosperm which contains starchy carbohydrates and some protein.
As for refined grains, the bran and the germ have been removed, which leaves only the endosperm. This makes them less nutritious compared to whole grains; fine grains have also been associated with faster elevation of blood sugar. Thus, you have brown rice which is whole grain, while white rice is refined.
When checking out pet food ingredients, be on the lookout for “whole wheat” or “whole oats”. Some pet foods utilize grain fractions like “wheat middlings”, “soy mill run”, or “wheat mill run”.
Can dogs digest grains efficiently?
Yes, a dog’s digestive system is designed to process cooked grains efficiently. Although they don’t have the enzyme amylase in their saliva, they have pancreatic amylase that enables digestion of starch into its simplest forms (glucose) so it can be utilized in the body as a vital source of energy.
Can cats digest grains efficiently?
Grains are not a required component of a balanced feline diet, but there is no research that suggests grains are harmful to cats. But, as obligate carnivores, cats can get all the nutrients they need from a high-protein, grain-free diet.
Why feed grains to your pets?
There are various benefits of feeding your dogs and cats with pet food that contains grains. These include the following:
- Whole grains contain fiber that supports the health and function of the digestive system. It ‘sweeps’ the gastrointestinal tract clean of toxins and other waste materials and promotes proper bowel movement. The beneficial bacteria in the gut also thrive on fiber.
- Soluble fiber helps control the levels of cholesterol and stabilize blood glucose in the body. It also enhances nutrient absorption.
- Whole grains are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals.
- Grains are useful in pets that are on a weight loss regimen as they reduce the calorie content of the diet while providing fiber that gives dogs and cats a feeling of satiety or being full.
- Pets suffering from kidney problems or liver disease can benefit from a diet that derives carbohydrates from grain. These pets need a low-protein diet to prevent further complications. This is also true in pets that have to be placed on a low-fat diet, such as those suffering from pancreatitis and intestinal bowel disease.
Unless a dog or cat is grain-intolerant or suffers from carbohydrate malabsorption, a small portion of gluten-free grain in the diet is healthy and nutritionally sound.