There’s few topics hotter in the pet industry right now than grain-free diets. Despite all the rumors, manufacturers are standing by their products, maintaining their commitment and reaffirming their belief that these formulas provide a nutritious and safe dietary option for pets.
"The emphasis [should be] on high-quality fresh and raw animal proteins in the recipe," says Don King, vice president of marketing for Champion Petfoods. "If grains, starches or legumes are a dominant part of a pet food recipe, it comes at the expense of animal proteins."
For its part, Champion has invested in creating a unique network of regional farms, ranches and fish suppliers to provide its kitchens with the real food ingredients that are used in its recipes.
"We know that dogs and cats are carnivores and their natural diet is rich in protein from animal, poultry and fish sources," continues King. "These ingredients provide the building blocks of vitamins, minerals and amino acids essential to the continued health and well being of dogs and cats."
Like Champion, ZIWI has adapted its sourcing and manufacturing to make its grain-free products as healthy as possible.
"All of our proteins are ethically- and sustainably-sourced from free-range, grass-fed, grass-finished farms," says Heather Hickey, vice president of sales for ZIWI. "All of our seafood is wild-caught from New Zealand’s pristine blue oceans."
The company uses an air-drying process when manufacturing its grain-free products. This slow, two-stage method is designed to eliminate pathogenic bacteria—such as salmonella and listeria—while preserving nutrients in the product ingredients. The results are recipes for cats and dogs that contain 96 percent meat with high levels of muscle organ and bone.
Hickey says this kind of recipe is more in line with the wants of pet owners, and she’s seen a growing demand for food and treats that do not contain grain.
"As consumers move away from foods that contain legumes, we have seen an increase in pet parents seeking recipes with high inclusions of meat and high levels of taurine," she says.
In manufacturing Dr. Bob’s Wisdom foods, Earth Animal has taken an approach similar to that of Champion and ZIWI. The company places a strong emphasis on ingredient sourcing that can be traced from the farm to the final product, which contains meat and organic fruit and vegetables. The company also uses an air-drying process to produce a high-protein product with balanced nutrition and whole ingredients.
"You can actually see the blueberries," says Dr. Bob Goldstein, a veterinarian and co-founder of Earth Animal. "You can see the green beans, you can see the carrots."
According to Dr. Goldstein, diets with too much grain filler put pets’ health at risk.
"They used so much [grain filler] that the amount of meat protein was so low, and they were running into problems, like a taurine deficiency," he says.
Taurine is an essential amino acid for pets, especially felines, since their bodies have a limited ability to produce taurine on their own.
Part of the reason grain-free diets came about was to address this issue. Caru Pet Food believes that grain-free products can be especially beneficial to cats, which is why their popularity has risen.
"Pet food companies are now becoming more aware of the needs of felines in several ways," says Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru.
Another reason that grain-free foods are in demand is to help animals with health or weight issues.
"Feeding grain-free products right off the bat has a lower carb count, which is beneficial for pets that may have a little extra fluff," says Pettyan. "Additionally, for pets with sensitive stomachs or allergies, grain-free recipes cater to these dietary needs."
Hound & Gatos has also embraced the health benefits of grain-free diets.
"Many veterinarians believe that skipping relatively high-carb grains, like wheat, barley or corn, can help pets feel fuller between meals, alleviate skin irritation and lead to fewer, smaller stools as well as promoting a healthier skin and coat," says Patrick McGarry, general manager, Gott Pet Products, parent company of Hound & Gatos.
"Since cats are obligate carnivores, it goes without saying that they require a diet high in animal protein and low on less nourishing fillers such as grains," continues McGarry. "Dogs, on the other hand, are omnivores. But, just like people, they’re better off without a lot of complex carbohydrates in their diet like those found in common grains."
In giving their customers information on grain-free products, retailers should also be prepared to give advice on transitioning pets to these foods and treats.
"As with any new pet food, we would highly recommend introducing it to their pet slowly," says Pettyan. "Changing foods too abruptly can cause digestive issues and potential aversions to the new food."
McGarry also recommends a gradual transition to grain-free food. He also suggests trying to determine whether an animal has a grain sensitivity prior to switching to a grain-free diet.
"Retailers should also encourage customers to try skipping other ingredients that may be triggering their pet’s food sensitivities, such as common animal proteins," he adds.
But at the end of the day, retailers should do their best to offer nutritious recipes that are appropriate to pets’ biological needs and contain vital nutrients.
"We recommend that retailers emphasize that optimal nutrition for a dog or cat should be based on understanding their physiology and eating anatomy," says King. "Dogs and cats are not predominantly grain or legume eaters." PB