The Re-Graining of Pet Food

After several years of watching the grain-free movement reshape the pet food category, the industry is suddenly seeing a resurgence of grain-in diets.




There have been few pet industry juggernauts to rival the grain-free category. According to GfK’s point-of-sale (POS) pet panel, grain-free items racked up $3.3 billion in sales over the past 12 months, up 9.4 percent from the year before. In a flat-growth industry, that’s pretty remarkable.


Over the past five years, the average number of grain-free SKUs per retail door has more than doubled, from 262 to 531.  In smaller outlets, grain-free items account for a full 50 percent of display area, while larger chains devote 35 percent of shelf space to grain-free.


With all of this momentum, one could hardly have expected the latest pet industry plot twist—the (apparent) resurgence of grain-in products. Wherever we look, new grains are being featured as healthy additions to pet diets; you can feed your cat or dog quinoa, flax seeds, sun-cured alfalfa, kelp—even chia seeds. The same “ancient grains” that are so popular on bread and crackers for us humans are now also available in pet chow.


And while remaining a tiny category overall (only 0.5 percent of all “with grain” pet food sales), items with ancient grains have more than doubled in sales since 2015, from about $9 million to $19 million in 2017.


We’ve seen this kind of topsy-turvy thinking in human diet trends. Butter is suddenly the best thing to put on your toast (again). Sugar makes a comeback, but only when it’s called “real cane sugar.” And red meat is no longer unhealthy; it’s a home run on the paleo circuit.



So what is the story behind this counter-intuitive, grain-hugging trend? Is the “re-graining” of pet food mostly hype, or is something really brewing here?


The truth is that, as in the human world, the search for health is often guided as much by word of mouth, advertising and PR as by scientific evidence. The growth in grain-free pet SKUs and sales was driven by a similar trend in people diets; the paleo movement and related regimens emphasize leaving things out and keeping ingredients simple and under control.


When looking broadly, the grain-in pet food segment has been declining at a pretty steady rate (minus five percent) for the past two years. At the same time, the grain-free trend continues to surge, with many new brands entering the space. Even the ones that swore off grain-free many years ago have jumped onto the grain-free bandwagon, taking the trend mainstream at last.


In the end, we know that pet owners are seeking the best for their furry family members; it is up to the industry—specifically retailers and vets—to educate customers on the right choices. The key is knowing what is best for any individual pet, rather than making broad judgments and recommendations. Help your customers make smarter decisions, and they will likely reward you with their repeated presence in your aisles. PB


Want to find out how GfK data can help drive better decisions for your store or brand? Contact me at

Maria Lange is Business Group Director of GfK’s Pet POS Tracking team. She can be reached at


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