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Organic, Gluten-Free, & Natural Pet Foods: What Do They All Mean?

"Grain-free," "gluten-free," "natural," "organic". You will find these terms on many pet food labels today. What do these words really mean? Do they really provide better nutrition? Or is it all just marketing? Let's take a closer look.

Do Dogs & Cats Need Grains?

grain-free pet food Grain-free pet foods are very popular right now. There is a lot of misinformation when it comes to the subject of grains. First, grain-free does not mean carbohydrate-free. Canned foods have always been no or low-carb. Dry foods cannot be made without carbohydrates. So if a company wants to make grain-free dry food, they will need to use another carbohydrate source in place of the grain.

Dogs are omnivores. Cats are carnivores. Technically, neither require carbohydrates in their diet. But they are able to digest and use carbohydrates as part of a complete and balanced diet. Dogs and cats use grains the same way they use other carbohydrates like potatoes or green peas. They digest rice the same way they would a potato. The important thing is that the ingredient provide the necessary nutrients, not where the nutrients came from. The body can't tell the difference between a sweet potato and rice.

Are Grains Linked to Diseases & Obesity?

pet obesity Grains and carbohydrates in general have gotten some bad press lately. Grains have been blamed for the increase in diabetes in dogs and cats. The most common form of diabetes in dogs is very similar to Type 1 diabetes in people. This form of diabetes is caused by destruction of the beta cells in the pancreas. It is not caused by diet.

For cats, the biggest risk factor for diabetes is obesity. Obesity is caused by eating too many calories. Once diagnosed with diabetes, cats do seem to maintain blood sugar levels better with a low-carbohydrate diet. But their diabetes was not caused by eating grain. The most important thing for all diabetics is to maintain a healthy weight.

Some people have blamed grains for the obesity epidemic in this country. Eating too much of any food, especially those high in calories, can lead to obesity. Many grain-free dog foods are 500 calories a cup or more. Grain-free cat food can be over 600 calories a cup. This can be over 100 calories more per cup than most dry foods! That's a lot of extra calories! If you change your pet's food, be sure to check the calorie content. You may need to change the amount of food you are feeding.

Grains contain protein and fiber. They contain essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. They are not just "cheap fillers". In fact, some of the simple carbohydrates being used instead of grain are less nutritious than the grain.

"Gluten-free" has started to appear on some pet food labels. What is gluten? Gluten is the protein part of wheat. Should you avoid buying pet foods that contain gluten? No. Not unless your dog or cat has been diagnosed with a wheat or gluten sensitivity.

Are Natural Foods Better than Standard Foods?

natural ingredients in pet food Another hot topic in the pet food industry is the "natural" food craze. Natural pet food and treats are the fastest growing product category. But what does the term "natural" mean?

For many people, "natural" means unprocessed and free from chemical additives or artificial preservatives. But is that what the pet food companies mean when they say "natural"? The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), sets certain standards for pet food. However, these standards are not laws. Natural pet food is required to use only natural preservatives like vitamin E (mixed tocopherols). Added vitamins and minerals may be synthetic.

best pet foodsBe aware that the term "natural" may only apply to one of the ingredients in the food and not the finished product. For example, "Aunt Alma's Dog Treats with Natural Cheese Flavor" means only the cheese flavor is natural. The rest of the product may be completely synthetic.

There are so many choices. So many pet food companies. How do you know what is best for your pet? Grains are not bad for your pet. There are many grain-free diets that provide excellent nutrition. But they do not necessarily provide any health benefits over foods that do contain grains. Each food should be evaluated on it's overall nutritional profile and not on individual ingredients. It is important to pick a food made by a company that you trust. If you are not sure about a company, you can always check with your local veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist. They can give you a list of trusted pet food companies.

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I love your suggestion to evaluate the kind of food you’re feeding to your pets based on the overall nutritional profile. If we should be doing that for ourselves, why not for our furry friends as well? I also appreciate what you said about some grain free foods having more calories. We just got another dog, and have been discovering that she has a lot of food allergies, and our vet just recommended trying a grain free diet with her. I’ll be sure to check the serving sizes of the foods we get her!

Thanks so much for sharing this information about different types of pet foods.  Since I plan on adopting a puppy in a few weeks, I want to be sure I feed her the right foods.  It is good to know that grains can lead to meals with a higher caloric intake.  Maybe I will try to get a pet food that has a low amount of grains, though, since I still want them to get all the nutrients they need.

I’m really glad you addressed the topic of using natural foods or standard foods for pets. I’ve been wondering if the organic pet food I’ve been buying is really organic or not. You mentioned that if it says natural that doesn’t mean that its all natural just one ingredient. When they use the word organic is that just for one ingredient or does that mean all the ingredients are organic?

Hi Patricia,

Yes, there aren’t strict laws about using terms like “natural” and “organic” with pet foods. Do some research on the ingredients and what they all mean, and talk to your vet about their recommendations.

Thanks for reading!

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