Why dog owners are buying ‘grain free’ dog food in Australia in 2023. And is it healthier?
Healthy Dog Treats love dogs, and will do anything within our power to make them healthier. And that often starts with a healthy choice in dog nutrition.
The main image on this article shows several confirmed HERBIVORES eating meat. There is NO question that they are Herbivores, yet, for survival, on occasion they eat meat. Kind of reminds me of a Carnivore dog who’s instinct and physiology is set up to consume meat, but in the wild, on occasion for survival, will eat plants. NOTE – in suburban homes, dogs are fed an almost herbivore diet (70% plant).
This article aims to INFORM owners of the contents of their commercial dog food, and what might be best for them and their dog. We will also aim to answer if ‘grain free’ is healthier for your dog – and what people might be choosing instead.
There seems to be a trend in dog food sold in Australia in 2023. These are the four levels of dog food, based on meat / plant matter content. Most people buy level 3 dog food.
1 HIGH MEAT CONTENT– welcome to PREMIUM priced ziwi. Great to see a brand interested in providing a high meat content option. Though looking at Air Dried Lamb for Dogs 1kg at internet prices of $65 kg, you could be buying 1 Kg of our Aussie chicken for a similar price. And while the dry dog food ‘appears’ to be high meat content, the best we can find out is that it contains “96% meat, organs and bone “ NO SPECIFIC percentages of actual meat !
If you buy our KANGAROO JERKY you get 100% MEAT. Not meat, offal and bones.
2 HIGHER THAN AVERAGE MEAT CONTENT. If a dog food has over 50% meat in it, it is truly an exception. That is because typically 30% of any quality meat/ offal seems to be the minimum level of meat required to reach the affco 18% minimum protein requirement.
Brands only brag about actual percentages when it is over 50% of the contents. Even though we would like to see 70-80% Total MEAT Content (DRY WEIGHT) in the dog food or a dogs total diet.
3 Regular commercial dog food, wet, dry or loaf typical has 30% – 40% at most, meat in it. THIS is not advertised on the label, for obvious reasons. Instead you see a picture of quality steak or chicken breast which is highly unlikely.
4 Vegetarian or vegan options have NO MEAT in them.
Corn gluten and Soybean concentrate are the two major ingredients used in these formulations as they have concentrated protein in them. HOWEVER, these ingredients are NOT natural to dogs, and not bio-available. They are however high enough concentrations to reach the minimum levels affco requires to be labelled ‘commercial dog food’.
Corn tends to be one of the lowest bio available foods that a dog can eat, and soybean meal is a “highly processed livestock food (that mostly herbivores eat) is that it’s cheap and can be sold at a premium price.”
The following two articles we have written about vegan dog food will provide plenty of back ground to why we always recommend MEAT first.
Why people buy “GRAIN FREE” DOG FOOD
When we asked Google AI this question, and they came up with three answers. We will start with what Google believes sites to have the most power on the net, and discuss what these answers mean.
1 “Grain free (dog food) is seen as Trendy”.
Google scoured the web and came up with the theory that “Grain-free dog food” has become increasingly popular with many owners buying it because it is seen as “being more trendy or upscale”.
Ironic that it is considered as “UPSCALE”, considering the cost of the ingredients is a tiny fraction of the cost of meat. Yet the prices of “grain free” kibble can be equal or more to the best premium meat kibbles on the shelves.
You would almost think that most people would put health about being seen to be trendy … but perhaps not.
2 Perceived health benefits of going grain free.
Some people believe that grain-free dog food is better for dogs’ overall health, digestion, and allergies. But by grain free, if you are buying commercial dog food, that usually means just a substitution of another plant material.
Let’s unpack why Google chose this benefit.
Dog’s evolved to chase, catch and eat meat prey. Dog’s brain and bodies crave meat protein. But what we are talking about in this article is why owners are striving to go “grain free” but skip adding more meat to a dogs diet. Why do owners instead just go for another plant alternative, that typically has the same or less bioavailable protein for their dogs ?
Grain free purchasers will typically buy the vegetable alternative which in dog food, is often sweet potato. In the next article we will compare FOUR of the main Grains used in dog food with FOUR of the main Plant matter (non-grain).
Sweet Potato does have a lower glycemic index, meaning a slower release of energy – but also equally LOW levels of ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS – as discussed in the last article “top food sources of ESSENTIAL amino acids “
The next article actually compares ALL of the amino acids of FOUR common grains and FOUR common vegetables (including sweet potato) found most commonly in dog food.
If you want to go to the ideological extreme of vegan foods for dogs, the manufacturers often replace meat with CORN or SOY. Corn has very low bio-availability (outing the dog’s body under stress to digest it – unless high processing tricks are employed which reduces the nutritional value of it further.
While SOYBEAN MEAL is a concentrate used to fatten cattle and should not be consumed by dogs in large amounts.
WHAT ABOUT DIGESTION RE GRAIN FREE dog food?
Yes, Google found that some sites claim that digestion is often claimed to be a benefit of grain free – even if it is replaced with vegetable matter.
But since just about every grain or vegetable on planet has lower bio-availability than MEAT and OFFAL. That equates to the digestion being WORSE for both Grain or vegetable, than Meat.
The only real benefit from plant matter is the fibre it can include – but that is ONLY a very specific type, and you could just add that as a topper to a meat meal, rather than add all of the plant matter “The use of carbohydrates or fibre for dogs as nutrition” https://www.healthydogtreats.com.au/dog-carb-diet/
Is lower dog food allergies a reason for using Grain free?
WE ADDRESSED this previous in an article – Can kangaroo dog treats help with dog allergies?
Basically, dogs can be allergic to grains, vegetables or meat. Kangaroo. Fish or croc are the safest options as they are considered NOVEL proteins that your dog should not be allergic with.
Vets typically suggest an exclusion diet to truly check allergy levels. Using a claimed ‘hypo allergenic’ kibble is often a useless option, considering that it often contains 10 or more ingredients, any of which your dog could be allergic to. So you are likely to just waste time, money and your dog’s happiness going for a random trial of another plant ingredient trial.
3 Marketing claims (for dogs going grain free)
Google says that “Many grain-free dog food brands make marketing claims about the benefits of their products, such as improved skin and coat health, increased energy levels, and reduced shedding.”
Any such claims, without rigorous repeated and INDEPENDENT dog trials is invalid. But this is not Googles fault, they probably scrapped a major international dog food brand site.
The way that most dogs improve dog health is to get more animal protein into them, so they can GROW good brain, organs, heart – all the major things. That means their energy is not wasted on trying to digest low bio available plant matter.
Many owners seem to put a lot of importance on “dog coat health”, seemingly above and beyond organ health – I guess its something easier to see – but NOT indicative of how healthy a dog’s insides are.
Many people consider for a young to middle aged dog to have a good coat when it is SHINY. But just about any edible oil can accomplish that. But oil is a fat, and at 2.5 times the energy value of protein, gram for gram, excess oil typically sacrifices the amount of other food they should be digesting.
We always recommend adding salmon fish oil or OMEGA 3 – as available in fish and roo dog treats, because that is an important functional oil that dogs actually require for brain heart and skin, not just to look good.
What about preventing “Dog hair shedding” ? This can be avoided (unless there is an underlying health issue), by building better dog hair in the first place.
PETMD Says “Protein in dog food also assists with muscle, skin, hair, nail, and blood formation. When protein is broken down, it creates amino acids that are essential nutrients for dogs.”
And yes, the best protein for your dog, is animal-based protein. So, at this stage you might be wondering what really are the …
Alternatives to grain-free dog food in 2023
Google’s sources say there are FOUR main categories of dog food
1 Grain-based dog food:
A Google source says , since the jury is out, scientifically, on whether grain or plant matter is better for dogs (forgetting that meat exists at all). Why not consider “Traditional dog food” made with grains such as rice, corn, or wheat.”
They mention that “Grains are a good source of carbohydrates, which provide dogs with energy.”
Again, please look at our last article on essential amino acid, to understand why high grain inclusion, such as “rice, corn, or wheat” is a bad idea. And that dog can just as usually use MEAT PROTEIN to provide ENERGY. THEY DO NOT NEED CARBS. (large quantities of sugar floating through their veins).
2 Novel protein dog food:
Google says – “This type of dog food is made with proteins that are not commonly found in commercial dog food, such as kangaroo, duck, or fish. Novel protein dog food can be a good option for dogs with food allergies.”
Note that on point two when protein is mentioned, even google goes for the wise choice of animal-based protein, which we happen to sell … in many varieties.
3 Limited ingredient diet (LID) dog food:
“LID dog food is made with a small number of ingredients, which can make it easier to identify and avoid food allergens.”
While this might be true, most dog food companies don’t go with this option, as it’s hard to differentiate their product from their competitor and maximise profits.
You will also find that no mix of real-world NO dog food (meat or plant) can be used to reach all of the aafco minimum vitamin and mineral values. This was purposely done to ensure that no RAW food, or natural “non kibble commercial dog food” could be legally called dog food.
That means that an “LID” product still often requires a long array of minerals and vitamins (often from non-natural sources) to be added to reach the aafco limits, which reduces its LID value.
4 Raw food diet:
Google’s source says: “A raw food diet for dogs consists of uncooked meat, bones, and vegetables. This type of diet is closest to what dogs would eat in the wild.”
Curiously THIS was never originally what RAW meant.
Originally RAW meat what a wolf and wild dog that evolved from a wolf would eat in the wild. The 80:10:10 rule of meat, offal and bones. Plant matter was ingested to make a dog vomit, or if they were unable to kill prey and had to eat berries just to survive until the next hunt. GRAINS and large amounts of plant matter were never originally ingested for nutrition. They were a survival back up.
THIS has become a modern-day thing originating back the “BARF diet”, to ensure that you had to buy some ‘vets back’ cereal grain mixture in an expensive plastic packet to ADD to meat. And ironically the plant matter was never raw, it was dried or cooked.
Facebook and other social sites are awash with “experts” claiming that you have to add 20 odd RAW ingredients often with as little as 30% meat, meaning that as far as meat protein benefit goes, their mixture is only somewhat more healthy (protein wise) than premium kibble mixes. The raw, or dried consideration is secondary to the actual amount of meat in the mix.
When we asked the Google question about grain free, we didn’t mention meat at all in the query string. Yet its answer lends themselves well to meat-based treat supplementation.
They summarise “grain free” question with “Here are some additional tips for choosing a good dog food:” (says Google)
1 “Look for a food that is made with real meat or fish as the first ingredient.”
While this is true, also look for one where the first three or four ingredients are MEAT, and not meat meal or meat bi-product or some other variation that spells low quality meat or offal not suitable for humans or dogs.
Also know that ingredient splitting is the trick used on labels to make it look like there is more meat in it than the actual percentage. That is because percentages DO NOT have to be included on dog food or pet treats, and by using “ingredient splitting” techniques many people think they are getting more than the typical 30% meat.
This is an article we prepared earlier: Know the tricks (splitting) on dog food labels & how you are being ripped off
2 “Avoid foods that contain artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.”
That is why we mostly sell single ingredient dog treats – so you actually know what you are getting. Even our composite treats, the small training treats typically have far fewer ingredients than LID dog food. And a similar amount of meat as most dog food.
3 “Choose a food that is appropriate for your dog’s age, breed, and activity level.”
And while that is true, and we give the same advice for people buying treats, it still comes down to most dogs not getting enough animal protein,
It is great that there are so many niche products out there, some worthwhile like ones for dogs with kidney decease, or pancreatitis, but dog food for a specific breed is mostly about charging a premium price, they would do far better at adding more meat, or you buying a meat ONLY dog treat.
4 “ Talk to your veterinarian about the best type of food to feed your dog.”
As long as you are mindful that many vet practices make a substantial income from selling you commercial dog food from large corporations. And those bags are mostly full of grain. How much revenue you ask? Well Google says:
“a study by the American Animal Hospital Association found that the average veterinary practice generates about 20% of its revenue from food sales.”
“In addition to the direct revenue from food sales, vets also generate revenue from services related to dog food, such as nutritional counselling and food prescription. These services can account for an additional 10-15% of a vet’s total revenue. Overall, food sales and food-related services are a significant source of revenue for most veterinary practices.“
To answer the original question “ why are people buying ‘grain free’ dog food in Australia and what are the alternatives to this in 2023?” There are various reasons, but few are to do with actual dog health.
All alternatives are strongly pushed by the big dog food manufactures. When trendiness, and misguided understanding about nutrition requirements (protein requirements) or allergies are the reasons for not eating grain – the reasons seem to be emotion based and what people are told by spokesmen for dog food companies, not what reality is.
Unfortunately, most media is paid to be printed or on the net by advertising, and the biggest advertisers in the dog food space, are those making grain and plant matter kibble and wet food (full of soy TVPs).
People are not typically buying more meat-based dog food in response to grain free, because most dog food makers do not make ‘more meat’ options. There just isn’t enough money in it for them.
With 8% of the Australian population claiming vegetarianism and 2% vegan, its easy to see why these owners might think that meat is a bad thing. Especially when vets selling plant-based kibble are a big part of the equation. We accept that humans are true omnivores having evolved the skill in slowly digesting plant matter of many more millennia than domestic dogs have been in existence.
With dogs being facultative carnivores, and easily able to eat a COMPLETE animal-based diet, it makes you wonder why they only get 30% meat in most commercial dog food, and why the percentage of meat is VERY RARELY listed on the front or back of the packages.
Since most vegetables are as poor in bio availability as their grain cousins, unless you get super saturated plant ingredients, Grain free can mean almost anything, and not necessarily any healthier.
In the next blog we directly compare main Grains used in commercial dog food, with vegetable based dog food in respect to their ESSENTIAL AMINO ACID bio-availability.
If you are considering the grain free trend. Perhaps consider the American experience that often starts the dog food and dog treat trends years before Australia catches on.
In March 2023 nielseniq said – “For many years, we continued to see more consumers embracing grain-free pet food. But, the past three years have shown signs of consumer fatigue or disinterest in taking this route. Last year, sales of grain-free dry dog food hovered around $1.4 billion, a modest 4.5% growth YoY.1 But, this number is still down from 2019 and the growth rate appears to be slowing. Meanwhile, grain-in dry dog food grew by more than 20% in both retail and online channels during the same time period. This seems to show that more consumers are returning to grain-in pet food.”
Right or wrong – “grain free” might not be the answer. But neither is minimal meat dog food.