Grain-Free Diets vs. Grain Diets: What’s the Beef?

If you’re a conscious dog owner, you’ve most likely heard somebody somewhere warn against the “perils” of dog food that contain any type of grain. The ongoing debate of grain-free diets vs. grain inclusive diets can make any pet owner’s head spin! So, we’d like to spend a few minutes breaking down the research by starting with the facts in hopes that you can make a more informed decision for you and your pup.

Lets start by taking a look at grain-free diets. Grain-free diets gained popularity right around the same that carb-free, low carb and gluten free diets gained popularity among humans.

Blame it on the 90s

The gluten free trend started in the 90s. At the time, there were a few dog food recalls with recipes containing grains. By 1999, 25 dogs deaths were traced to these unfortunate recalls. Researchers conducted multiple scientific investigations into what could have caused such a calamity. The culprit? Not gluten, not grains. Each study pointed to levels of mycotoxins in the foods. They revealed that the mycotoxins were coming from the feed grade ingredients: they were incredibly low quality.

The grains used in the various brands of food had spoiled. They became moldy and contaminated, which scientists suspected had caused the mycotoxin. Due to negligence, the grains were still used in the foods to increase protein levels. The facts are, that the contamination was not the grains themselves, but rather the soiled versions of them.

The Melamine Recall

This wasn’t the last time we saw a massive recall of pet food. In 2007, Scientists found that some manufacturers had added melamine to dog food in order to increase protein levels. Tragically, melamine proved toxic to our furry friends, which resulted in thousands of pet deaths.

As a result, manufacturers pushed grain-free diets in hopes to resolve the issues and lessen the risks. The logic being that grain-free diets would a) increase the protein levels for our canines and b) eliminate the need for potentially-toxic grains. Then, through some creative yet deceptive marketing, consumers were told that all pet foods containing grains caused “sensitivities and food allergens.”

Which, to be fair, isn’t fully inaccurate. Today, research shows that the most prominent allergens come from sourcing poor quality beef, dairy, chicken, corn, and wheat. As expected, with all new research and information that is circulated, pet parents became gravely concerned not only with grains, but also with genetically-modified grains (wheat, corn, and soy) in their pet’s food. Turning to grain-free diets was the way to eliminate food allergens and increased protein levels. However, most pet owners didn’t realize that these grain-free brands of food also had extremely high levels of carbohydrates in the food. Why? Manufacturers replaced wheat, corn, and soy with white potatoes, tapioca and sweet potatoes.

The Importance of Being an Informed Consumer

As a consumer, it is important to note that “grain-free food” does not mean “carbohydrate free.” Many pet parents assumed their pets’ new diets were rich with protein and healthy fats to keep their dogs healthy. Sadly, vets across the country began to see dogs gaining unhealthy amounts of weight due to the uptick in carbohydrate intake. Basic biology and nutrition has shown us that increased carbohydrates convert to sugar-- the main contributor to diseases like diabetes in our pets.

High amounts of carbohydrates aren’t the only harmful ingredient in grain-free pet food. We also need to look at the protein levels. In order for a canine to have a lean, muscular body type, it needs a diet rich in high-quality protein, low carbohydrates, and high-fat content. Maybe you’ve heard of the macronutrient ratio as “the keto diet?” Turns out that this is the right combination for a canine to have an ideal body type also. And it’s mainly due to the protein; it is the foundational center for your canine.

Protein is responsible for every cell in your canine’s healthy body. Some proteins are produced by your pet’s body, while some must come from the diet. Most importantly, it’s not just high amounts of protein your pup needs. Fido needs large amounts of high-quality protein. It helps his body rebuild, repair, and maintain healthy muscle mass, just like us.

Risks of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)

Currently, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has flagged dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) as a big concern and is raising awareness around the impact dog food has in the disease. In 2019, the Federal Drug Administration reported that 509 dogs were reported to have DCM. FDA scientists reasoned the diagnosis resulted from dogs eating primarily grain-free food. However, it’s most commonly caused by a taurine deficiency largely dictated by breed and gender. Not grain-free food.

There are confirmed cases of DCM in dogs who eat grain-based foods, raw proteins and fat, as well as in dogs consuming homemade diets. At this point, however, there is no evidence of what may have caused the disease in these dogs. However, one thing is certain: breed plays a very particular role in the diagnosis. Not so much the type of diet a dog has.

What is DCM?

DCM is a condition of the heart typically caused by a taurine deficiency in breeds. Signs of cardiomyopathy include weakness, lethargy, coughing, shortness of breath, being unable to exercise, and fainting. Remember: If your dog shows any of these signs, please make an appointment with your veterinarian for a health visit.

In particular, DCM affects dogs who have poor heart muscle contraction and can lead to congestive heart failure. One of the most important things to note is that some dog breeds are genetically predisposed to acquire DCM.*(1) These are typically large breed canines, including Great Danes, Portuguese Water Dogs, Doberman Pinchers, Newfoundlands, Boxers, and Irish Wolfhounds.

Surprisingly, even the smaller breed of Cocker Spaniels are predisposed to the condition. DCM is generally acquired during the ages of 3 to 7 years. Research shows that more male dogs get diagnosed with the condition than females. The FDA also tells us that Golden Retrievers have the highest number of confirmed cases (so far).

The Role of Taurine Deficiency in DCM

How do scientists know that DCM is caused by a taurine deficiency? Well, it’s not completely certain, but 79.2% of all dogs diagnosed with DCM had low taurine levels. Diet was insignificant to the study’s results. So what does this mean for our pets and their food?

Since the FDA report, some dog food companies have started to add additional taurine supplements to their pet food. This dietary supplement may lead to a healthy conclusion of overcoming a DCM diagnosis. Typically, taurine in a canine’s diet comes from other amino acids found in high-quality proteins. High-quality protein sources rich in these amino acids include beef, turkey, chicken, eggs, and fish. Which, if you recall, is the ideal foundation for your dog’s diet!

But don’t just make sure to buy taurine-enhanced pet food! Taurine levels in food can also become affected by cooking pet food at extremely high temperatures. It’s best to find manufacturers who use a slow-cooking method. This method ensures optimal amounts of taurine. Additionally, slow-cooked pet food aids in the overall digestibility of the food.

The Future of DCM

The FDA is currently running ongoing tests to fully determine if there is any link between diet and DCM. *(2) The FDA is using a range of science-based investigative tools as the organization strives to learn more about the emerging threat of DCM. So far, there is no recorded potential link between certain diets/ingredients and a DCM diagnosis. The FDA is still gathering information to better understand if (and how) taurine metabolism (both absorption and excretion) may have a role in these reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy.

Becoming an Educated Consumer

Should you feed your dog grain-free food vs. grain-inclusive food? It honestly does not matter. When it comes to deciding whether your dog needs to be on a grain-free diet or a grain-inclusive diet, the answer really is a customer’s preference. Remember, you are the pet parent! You can see your dog’s stool, evaluate health, and determine weight patterns.

However, what is important is that, regardless of which diet you want Fido to follow, you make sure to feed him pet food made by a quality manufacturer. What makes a quality manufacturer of pet food? Pick one that does not use low-quality ingredients. Especially avoid brands that could have potential harmful mycotoxins in it.

You should always check out the FDA’s website for any recalls of pet food with the company you have chosen. Make sure to look for a pet food company that is transparent and has a real concern for your pet’s health. Read all the label ingredients and make sure you understand each one is. And, always consult your vet for pet food advice!

The Importance of Transparency from Pet Food Companies

One last thing! Don’t be afraid to raise your questions to any pet food company. If you need additional answers to your questions, the right pet food company will happily answer them. If for some reason you can’t get direct answers or a given the run-around, you will know for certain that something is awry. Avoid those companies like the plague (and DCM)!

Choosing the right food for your dog is the foundational crux of his health. Remember that Fido can’t pick what’s best for him. You are the decision-maker and have the ultimate pleasure of choosing what goes into your dog’s bowl. Serve it up, knowing you took the time to choose the food based on solid research and informed knowledge.


(1) PubMed-Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs-pathological, clinical, diagnosis and genetic aspects/2005

(2) FDA Investigation into Potential Link between Certain Diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy

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