against the grain: dr. ernie ward discusses grain-free diets
Grain-free, no-grain, and low-grain have been buzzwords in the health-conscious human diet community for the past twenty years or so. Supporters of reducing grains in the diet cite numerous health benefits – from easier digestion to decreased inflammation.
While there is no consensus on the value of grain-free diets among human nutritionists, consumers have made their choice known by spending billions on these foods. The grain-free diet debate is now moving to the pet food aisle.
There are currently more than 3,500 grain-free products available for pets. The number of choices has grown about 33-percent over the past year. The reason grain-free products are growing rapidly is simple: pet owners want them. Grain-free pet food sales soared 28-percent in 2013; from September 2012 to September 2013, American pet owners spent $1.7-billion dollars on grain-free pet products.* The vast majority of veterinary nutritionists disagree that grain-free is healthier. Who’s right?
My long-time opinion is to feed a low-or no-grain diet whenever possible or practical. My rationale is the research seems to indicate a lower-grain diet can help reduce systemic inflammation in dogs and cats, my personal greatest physiological foe.
Inflammation is the root of most of the body’s maladies; keeping inflammation at bay is a critical step in sustaining health. This doesn’t mean a pet is only fed meat; it means we look for healthier formulations. This is only my opinion and many veterinary nutritionists at universities and pet food companies will disagree. That’s okay with me. In the end, we’re given one life and must make decisions we believe will enhance and prolong the time we’re given. Argue away; unless I see clear evidence one way or another, I choose to reduce inflammation in any way possible.
What the grain-free pet food trend really signals is the humanization of animals. “We see the growth of grain-free foods – and natural pet products generally – as part of a larger trend toward humanization of pets,” said Maria Lange, Senior Product Manager of GfK’s Retail Sales Tracking team. “Consumers are clearly comfortable splurging on pets they see as valued family members, not just everyday animals.” I agree with many pet owners.
Whether or not you feed low- or no-grain foods to your pets is a personal decision you should make with your veterinarian. Grain-free diets cost roughly 45-percent more than “regular” foods with grains, according to GfK. That number seems a little high to me, but better food is usually more expensive.
I’m excited that pet owners have more choice in what they feed and how they treat their dogs and cats. Nutrition and diet are intensely personal topics that demand more than cookie-cutter approaches. More food choices mean more dietary personalization. No one has the “perfect diet” or the magic pill.
Nutrition is more art than science, and we’ve got a long way to go in our understanding the specifics of how food affects health and longevity. Until we have more evidence, talk with your veterinarian about the best food choices for your pet. It’s the least we can do for our forever friends.
*according to market data research company GfK