In the last decade or so, more and more dog owners have made the switch to grain-free dog foods. They are often viewed as high-quality alternatives to cheaper foods that use corn, grain, and soy as fillers.
Take a stroll through your local pet market and you're bound to see aisles of grain-free products.
While these products are praised for their high protein content and allergy-free composition, some recent studies have begun to raise some questions about the overall healthiness of a grain-free diet.
You see, once grains are eliminated from the formula, manufacturers have to include alternative ingredients that can act as a carbohydrate source for energy.
For many brands, peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes are the go-to. They're complex carbohydrates that are affordable and easy to source.
However, the FDA has recently started an investigation about the effects of these ingredients on dogs.
The studies are still ongoing, but it's theorized that consuming large amounts of peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes is connected to increasing cases of heart problems among dogs of all breeds.
Not All Grain-free Diets Are Bad
Not all grain-free diets are bad for your pup. The key is finding a formula that excludes ingredients that could cause some potential problems down the line.
There are several products on the market that don't use peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes.
We've rounded up a selection of some of the best so that you can give your furry friend everything they need to stay healthy.
7 of the best Pea and Legume-Free Dog Foods
1. Purina Pro Plan Sport All Life Stages Performance 30/20 Formula
Purina Pro Plan is very popular amongst dog owners with pups that like to stay active. It's made of 30 percent protein. There is also 20 percent fat to keep your dog going.
The dry food is formulated for building and maintaining muscle mass. Plus, it has a bevy of nutrients and minerals to support your dog's entire body. This includes glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health, omega fatty acids to keep the skin supple, and much more.
There are no peas, lentils, legumes, or potatoes. There's no corn, wheat, or soy either. Just the healthy stuff.
2. American Natural Premium Original Recipe Dry Dog Food
Despite its simple packaging, this dog food from American Natural Premium has a collection of healthy ingredients. It's designed to provide a balanced diet while improving your dog's digestive health.
In total, it has 25 percent protein. Most of that chicken meal. Though, pork meal, fish meal, and chicken liver are used as well. Instead of potentially harmful carbohydrate fillers, this dog food formula contains brown rice and barley.
These are complex carbs that release a steady flow of energy throughout the day, helping your dog avoid that dreaded energy crash.
3. Instinct by Nature's Variety Ultimate Protein Grain-Free Cage-Free Duck Recipe
This formula from Instinct is grain-free. However, it has a significantly higher protein content than most products on the market.
Approximately 47 percent of the recipe is all protein. On top of that, 90 percent of the protein that's used comes from real duck and chicken. It doesn't contain any harmful fillers or unnecessary additives.
Instead, it's filled with natural probiotics, omega fatty acids, and antioxidants. The food is great in terms of digestibility and can help your dog improve his or her immune system.
4. Nature's Logic Canine Pork Meal Feast Dry Dog Food
If you're looking for a dog food that's completely free of synthetic ingredients, this option from Nature's Logic may be for you. It 100 percent natural and contains a ton of beneficial ingredients to improve your dog's health.
When it comes to protein, this recipe is made up of 38 percent. There are many plant-based ingredients, but they are used to provide your dog with a boost of vitamins and minerals. They are all minimally processed. No peas, lentils, legumes, or potatoes are used.
To improve your dog's digestive health, each piece of kibble is coated in digestive enzymes and plasma protein. It's a nice touch that could benefit your pup in the long run.
5. Health Extension Original Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe Dry Dog Food
The original dry food recipe from Health Extension is great for any dog. Not only is it free of any potentially harmful ingredients, but it has some great superfoods to enhance your pup's health.
These include asparagus, ginger, blue-green algae, and more. There's also a good supply of omega fatty acids. To improve joint health, glucosamine and chondroitin are added as well. This makes the food a good choice for all life stages.
The protein content is 24 percent. Most of it comes from deboned chicken, chicken meal, lamb meal, and fish meal. Brown rice, oatmeal, and flaxseed are used as carbohydrates.
Wet Canned Food Without Peas or Legumes
Merrick Grain-Free Real Chicken Canned Dog Food
While most canned dog foods contain bits of peas or potato, this option from Merrick does not. Its main ingredient is real deboned chicken.
Some tasty chicken broth is added as well to ensure that your pup has no problem gobbling this meal up. The recipe is completely grain-free. However, it does not contain any fillers that could damage your dog's health.
Instead, it's a balanced meal that's made with the finest ingredients around. The recipe has a good blend of healthy amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to keep your dog in good shape.
Purina Pro Plan Savor Adult Classic Chicken & Rice Entree Canned Dog Food
This canned food from Purina Pro Plan is great for supplementing the brand's kibble. Like the previous wet food, chicken is the primary protein source.
The food uses lean chicken that's supplemented with liver for a boost of nutrients. As a carbohydrate source, rice is used. The rice provides a steady supply of energy throughout the day while making the food more palatable for your pooch.
Some notable extras of this canned food option include antioxidants for immune health and omega fatty acids for supple skin and fur.
In 2018, the FDA published a warning about the possible link between high amounts of peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes to canine dilated cardiomyopathy. This condition, also referred to as CDM, results in weakening of the heart.
Essentially, the heart is unable to contract and pump blood throughout the body efficiently. As a result, the valves may become enlarged or start leaking. As the disease progresses, it can lead to congestive heart failure.
Previously, CDM was thought to be a genetic disease. A range of breeds is genetically predisposed to suffer from it without proper care and precaution. However, there has been a rise in CDM cases.
To make matters worse, it has been affecting dog breeds that aren't genetically predisposed to suffer from it. The FDA even took things a step further in 2019 by publishing a list of brands that have been associated with a rise in CDM cases.
Studies have shown that peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes could be the culprit. This all comes down to how a dog's body processes the ingredients and the effects it has on taurine levels.
The Taurine Connection
Taurine is an essential amino acid that contributes to vision, digestion, and heart health. Dogs are able to produce taurine in their bodies naturally. So, it's never really been an issue with dog nutritionists and vets.
However, it's now theorized that peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes make it difficult for your pup's body to produce the taurine they need to stay healthy.
That is because those ingredients contain plant-based protein. While grain-free dog food products are known to have higher levels of protein than their cheaper alternatives, not all of that is coming from animal meat.
To keep costs low, some manufacturers may use peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes to bump up the protein content. It's great for dogs to have more protein, but it can only truly benefit them if its protein from animals. Dogs are natural carnivores and don't rely on plant-based foods to survive.
The problem with commercial dog foods is that manufacturers aren't required to state where the protein is coming from. The only requirement is to provide a crude protein analysis, which represents the content of the food as a whole.
While you can certainly take a look at the ingredient's list to see what types of proteins are used, there's virtually no way to distinguish if that high protein content is coming from animal meats or peas and legumes.
Are Peas, Lentils, Legumes, and Potatoes Unsafe for Dogs?
It's important to note that the FDA is still researching the link between these ingredients and canine dilated cardiomyopathy.
Many scientists and veterinary professionals are working together to find a definitive answer to whether or not the ingredients are to blame.
With all of the available information that's out now, you may be wondering about how safe these ingredients are for your dog. While they may cause some problems for your pup's heart, they are not inherently bad. The key is how much your dog consumes.
Peas, in particular, are important to analyze. You can find peas being used in some of the most popular dog food products out there. Peas are perfectly fine for your dog, but they're not necessary. They are a complex carbohydrate, so they are absorbed into the body slowly over time.
When compared to simple carbohydrate fillers, they are a much better alternative. However, they should never be a replacement for protein or used as a cheap filler to bump up the calorie count and nutrient analysis.
Peas do contain protein, which can be helpful in small amounts. However, they are an insoluble protein. This isn't the type of protein that your dog needs to thrive.
It can supplement other amino acids that make the muscles healthy, but they shouldn't be the prime source of protein that your dog eats.
The same goes for lentils and legumes. Lentils and legumes are great sources of fiber. As are potato skins. But, again, it all comes down to how these ingredients are being used in your dog food. At the end of the day, your dog needs real meat protein.
If peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes, are being used to substitute real meat, they are unhealthy. If they are being used sparingly to complement the real protein sources, they are fine for your pup.
Are Grain-Free Dog Foods Bad?
As a dog owner, you've probably been told for years that grain-free dog foods are the best option when it comes to providing your dog with a balanced diet that keeps them healthy.
This idea stems from the way that canines digest food. It has been theorized for decades that dogs have a more difficult time digesting grains.
Many believe that grains can lead to obesity and allergic reactions. While all of this is still true, not every dog requires a grain-free diet.
In fact, scientists have proven that dogs have adapted a lot through domestication. Modern house pups are genetically different than their ancestors and wild canines.
While they still hold many of the same traits and health issues, they have adapted to domestication and can handle a lot more than canines in the wild.
One way that they have adapted is how they handle starches.
Most healthy dogs will have no problem eating grains in moderation. Grains like oats, brown rice, and millet are chock-full of great minerals and nutrients. Plus, they are a suitable source of fiber to keep your pup's digestive tract in good condition.
Like peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes, it comes down to how those starches are being used. Are they a primary ingredient used to replace good proteins or are they supplementary?
Truth is, if your dog is not already obese and doesn't have any known allergens, they can do just fine on a standard formula with grains. It's only when a dog is allergic to those ingredients that you need to make the switch to grain-free alternatives.
According to researchers, the trend of moving toward grain-free formulas is unfounded. Grain-free foods were first created to address the needs of a small part of the canine population.
They were designed with allergy-sufferers in mind. However, due to clever marketing and the spread of misinformation, many dog owners unnecessarily switched over.
What to Look For
Finding a dog food formula that doesn't contain peas, lentils, legumes, or potatoes is easier said than done. As we mentioned, these ingredients are a popular choice for manufacturers because of their lower costs.
Before you choose a dog food product, whether it's kibble or canned food, you need to scan the ingredients list and make sure that they aren't used at all. It's also a good idea to look for the following features.
When you're checking the ingredients list, look out for healthy alternatives to peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes. Some of the best ingredients to go with include pumpkin, squash, and sweet potatoes.
They are all high-quality complex carbohydrates that are used frequently by dog food manufacturers. Pumpkins have high levels of beta-carotene and contain essential vitamins for keeping the skin healthy.
Meanwhile, things like acorn squash and butternut squash have a bevy of vitamins that help with overall vitality and health. All three of these ingredients are also an excellent source of fiber that can keep your dog regular.
It's important to know what your dog is consuming in terms of nutrients. All dog foods have a guaranteed analysis, but not too many of them have a complete analysis. A complete nutrient analysis will be able to tell you how much of each nutrient is in the food. Rather than providing percentages, these charts show you how many grams the food contains.
Formulated by a Nutritionist
For even more peace of mind, you can see if the recipe was worked on by a qualified veterinary nutritionist. Some of the best brands have a board-certified nutritionist on staff that works to ensure that the food is as healthy for your dog as possible.
High-Quality Protein Comes First
As with any dog food, protein should be the single most prevalent thing in the recipe you choose. Don't just take the crude protein analysis into account. Look at the ingredient's list and make sure that high-quality protein sources are listed at the top.
The more protein sources included, the better. A variety of sources ensures that your dog is getting a complex array of amino acids that aren't coming from fillers like peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes. If any plant-based ingredient comes before a real animal meat source, move on to another option.
While the jury is still out on how peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes affect your dog, the overwhelming amount of evidence thus far should capture your attention. It's better to be safe than sorry.
If the FDA were to definitively state that these ingredients directly cause canine dilated myopathy, a good portion of the dog food industry will have to make some major changes. We're talking about a completely new way of approaching canine diets.
By investing in dog foods that are free of these potentially harmful ingredients, you can get a head start on the change. Either way, it's better to air on the side of caution than to risk your dog's health in the long run.