Grain-Free Gets Going
Grain-free diets can offer great advantages, such as healthful ingredients and more meat, making them a hit with customers.

As people have become more aware of the role nutrition plays in their own health, they are realizing the same is true for their pets. Thus, many of the trends that can be observed on human dinner plates have steadily trickled down to dog bowls. Grain-free foods and treats are currently at the center of this movement, which is being driven by pet owners’ increasing understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet.

“People are becoming more knowledgeable than ever before,” says Christine Bessent, CEO and president of Herbsmith, a Hartland, Wis.-based company that manufactures raw, freeze-dried and dry-roasted treats. “They’re realizing that heavily processed foods aren’t good for them or for animals. They want high-quality, real foods, with ingredients they actually recogn



Limited-ingredient foods and treats are gaining favor with these discerning customers, who are increasingly exploring grain-free options, says Bessent. These formulas typically have shorter ingredient lists compared to conventional foods and treats—in fact, some contain just a single protein source. They also generally eschew artificial preservatives, additives and fillers, and they often incorporate fruits and vegetables into their recipes. Additionally, they do not contain wheat, corn or soy products.



"Some pet owners have found that switching to a grain-free diet improves their pet’s overall health. Others do so believing their dog’s skin, allergies or digestive issues are caused by grains."


Grain-free started taking off about four years ago, says Joel Sher, vice president of Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Company, Inc., a Wheeling, Ill.-based pet food company. He adds, however, that not all grain-free foods are created equal.

“The implication of grain-free is that it offers a higher meat content, higher fruit and vegetable content,” Sher says. “It is more aligned with what dogs would eat in the wild, and is better for them. But as grain-free has become more popular, it doesn’t necessarily mean this. Some offer more protein than others. Also, just replacing a high-starch, grain-based product with a high-starch, vegetable-based product won’t bring a good result for the pet.”

Advantages & Cautions

Rob Cadenhead, vice president of sales and marketing for Performance Pet Products, a Mitchell, S.D.-based company, which makes Spring Naturals brand pet food, says that some pet owners have found that switching to a grain-free diet improves their pet’s overall health. Others do so believing their dog’s skin, allergies or digestive issues are caused by grains; and this can be the case. But Cadenhead warns that a grain-free diet isn’t right for every dog.

“Some dogs might actually benefit from a diet containing grains, since just like people, every canine’s metabolism isn’t the same,” he says.

Robert Downey, president and founder of Annamaet Petfoods, Inc., concurs. Annamaet, located in Telford, Pa., makes holistic and natural dog and cat food. While he agrees that some dogs do better on grain-free formulas—gaining increased energy for example—going grain-free isn’t an automatic cure-all.

“Many consumers would like to blame grains for problems with their dogs,” he says. “Often, whole grains aren’t the issue; it’s the use of refined grains in dog food. Many nutrients are stripped from refined grains, which compromises the immune system.”

Downey’s other concern is the exceedingly high protein content some grain-free formulas contain. Although the belief that dogs evolved on higher protein/higher fat diets is accurate, he says, the difference is that back then, these were wolves that only ate every three or five days.

“And to eat, they had to chase down and kill their prey,” Downey adds. “Now, we’re not only feeding them every day, but most owners feed their dogs multiple times a day.”

Simon Beaulieu, a marketing and advertising representative for Elmira Pet Products (an Ontario, Canada-based company that manufactures pet food for private-label and under the Nutram brand), agrees that feeding a dog grain-free food with levels too high in protein and fat could cause the animal to gain weight, especially if the dog isn’t doing a lot of exercising.

On the other hand, Beaulieu points out that, in the right situation, low-glycemic grain-free foods could help with obesity issues, since these formulas prevent energy spikes that can cause a dog to overeat in an attempt to regain energy.

Sher advises that retailers pay attention to the starch content and glycemic index, as consumers are becoming more educated about this in their diets, and consequently, in their pets’ diets as well. A year ago he wasn’t getting this kind of inquiry, he says, but now questions about glycemic index are common.



Tackling Grain-Free

In some ways, it has become easier to sell grain-free products. “A lot of the brands have done a great job of advertising, so more people are asking for grain-free and higher-end diets,” says Beaulieu. “The whole market is growing; in fact it’s being flooded with grain-free products, making it harder for manufacturers to stand out.”

The growing number of products on the market also makes it more difficult for retailers to figure out what to offer, says Heather Govea, senior vice president of independent sales and corporate marketing at Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc. Based in Pacoima, Calif., the company provides formulas for dogs and cats.

“The best way for a retailer to make their choice when deciding which grain-free foods to promote is to ensure that there are a variety of options for the consumer, including different protein sources and carbohydrates,” she advises, also suggesting that retailers make things easier for their customers by creating a dedicated grain-free section in their store.

Heightened consumer awareness of these formulas brings additional challenges, says Ron Jackson, assistant to the president of Dublin, Ga.-based Hi-Tek Rations, a dog and cat food manufacturer. Thanks to the “proliferation of misinformation” on the Internet, educating consumers can be more difficult today compared to several years ago, he says.

“There’s a great deal of concern about specific ingredients and we must constantly provide consumers with fact-based information based on nutritional science rather than unsupported hearsay,” says Jackson, adding that well-informed retailers can assist in this effort.

Manufacturers are focused on helping retailers with product education and sales in various ways. For example:

     • Hi-Tek offers retailers nutritional and product training, as well as factory tours.

     •  Herbsmith conducts webinars for retailers and consumers, conducts in-store education and samplings, and
        offers Internet-based employee education.

     •  Elmira offers training seminars and provides detailed brochures with ingredient information and feeding

     •  Evanger’s relies on an army of sales reps, including a nutritionist, and provides education on their website, as
         well as information sheets and shelf-talkers.

     •  Natural Balance arms its sales team with a “tool box” of promotional programs, and offers in-store and online
         product information and education.

     •  Annamaet offers free samples, a frequent buyer program, shelf-talkers, sell sheets and posters. The company
         also has staff available to answer retailers’ questions when they call

     •  Performance Pet Products’ assistance includes on-shelf video displays, shelf talkers, banners, training
webinars, and a hotline for retailers with questions. The company also offers introductory coupons and

Increasingly, consumers are looking for “consultant stores,” that can reliably and knowledgeably advise pet owners, says Bessent. And even though grain-free products typically carry a higher price tag than conventional formulas, once people believe in the concept of grain-free and understand the value, they’re willing to spend the money, says Beaulieu, resulting in satisfied customers, healthier pets and repeat business for retailers.  

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