Grain Free & Other Marketing Trends

June 3, 2019

Cat owners have a strong emotional interest in what they feed their cat because they are in control. Unfortunately, the pet food industry has taken advantage of this emotion with their marketing strategies. The average cat owner is “eating up” what these marketing geniuses are selling: great sounding diets with little to no scientific data to back up their claims. Google, TV celebrity chefs and pet store employees know very little, if anything, about feline nutrition. 

The most difficult concept to grasp is that cats need nutrients, not ingredients.

The body does not particularly care about any specific ingredient.  The body does care whether or not it can process an ingredient to obtain the required nutrients within the food.  For example, many owners are looking for meat as the first ingredient or a high protein diet.  Can your cat digest and process that protein?  Does the protein fulfill the cat’s amino acid requirements? What happens if your cat consumes more protein than it needs?  Could your cat pull the same required nutrients from another non-meat source? Let’s address these questions and dive into some of the most common cat food myths:

Myth #1 – Cats are carnivores and should eat a grain free diet.

There is no science supporting a grain-free diet for cats and there are no known benefits. This is just a marketing ploy for smaller/start-up pet food companies to “get their foot in the door” or “stand out” against the large pet food companies.  Yes, cats are obligate carnivores and do not require grains. However, cats still have the ability to process grains and obtain nutrients from them. Research is very limited on many grain-alternative ingredients.  On the other hand, we have decades of research on grains and their nutritional value in cats. Additionally, grain-free does not mean carbohydrate-free, as these diets substitute other carbohydrate sources (i.e. potatoes, peas) for grains. Some grain-free diets actually contain more carbohydrates than traditional diets. The issue we have is that we do not know the digestibility of these uncommon, “anti-grain” food sources and whether or not cats can pull the required nutrients from them.  We know a lot about the digestibility of corn, wheat and rice in cats.

Grain-free is simply marketing.

Myth #2 – A natural diet is healthier for my cat.

The word “natural” has little meaning for cat diets.  Anthrax and the plague are natural. Compare your definition of “natural” with AAFCO’s (The Association of American Feed Control Officials) definition: “a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.”  We are looking for the correct nutrients in the proper balance, not whether the ingredient is natural or not.  An “unnatural” ingredient that supplies necessary nutrients is far superior than a “natural” ingredient that your cat cannot digest.

Natural does not mean better.

Myth #3 – By-products are low quality ingredients that should not be in my cat’s food.

AAFCO defines by-products as “Secondary products produced in addition to the principal product.” By-products are not necessarily a bad thing.  Here are some by-products I consume:  cashews, wheat bran, molasses.  By-products do not mean hair, teeth, hoofs and horns. When a cat eats a mouse, they don’t just eat the skinless, boneless skeletal muscle.  They eat the entire mouse, by-products included, like the nutrient-rich liver and heart. If you read the ingredient list of many diets that claim to have no by-products, you can usually find a by-product in the list.

By-product ingredients do not imply a lack of nutrition.

Myth #4 – Diets with human-grade ingredients are better for my cat.

USDA defines products fit for human consumption to be officially “edible.” Prior to 2016, the phrase “human grade” on pet diets had no meaning.  Recently, AAFCO defined “human grade” as pet foods that meet human production standards (must have the “edible” standard). They are still working on the official guidelines to label a pet food “human grade.” For an ingredient to carry the “human grade” phrase, it cannot leave the human food chain and should be manufactured in a human food plant. One should note that once your cat has digested and absorbed the nutrients from the food, the source of the nutrients becomes irrelevant.

Diets with the “human grade” label are no safer than diets without the label.

Myth #5 – Corn and other grains are cheap, low quality fillers put in cat food to decrease costs.

Some incorrectly claim that grains are simply used as cheap fillers in pet diets.  Why would I feed my cat corn? Well, it turns out cats can process corn quite well and pull protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals from it.  Cats can absorb many nutrients from ingredients that are wrongfully labeled as empty calories or fillers. By definition, ingredients that weigh more are listed first on the ingredient list.  When many cat owners look for meat as the first ingredient, their assumption is that the diet contains mainly protein.  However, this is misleading on many accounts.  Meat is 70% water so the weight of meat which puts this ingredient first on the list is essentially water weight.  Additionally, the meat ingredient listed first may have less protein available to your cat than a meat meal ingredient further down on the list.

The “filler” argument is simply a marketing ploy.

Myth #6 – The ingredient list determines the quality of my cat food.

The ingredient list says nothing about the nutritional profile available to your cat after digestion. Many ingredients are used to appeal to the cat owner, not the cat’s digestive tract. My favorite example is the carrot. Most would argue a carrot is a “good ingredient.” However, a cat’s ability to break down beta-carotene from a carrot into Vitamin A (a nutrient) is very limited. If a pet food company is relying on carrots to supply the necessary Vitamin A to your cat, this may result in a deficiency. One cannot determine that the required nutrient quantities in the correct balance are sufficiently absorbed by your cat’s digestive tract just from reading the cat food label. Furthermore, singling out ingredients or prioritizing ingredients is not productive. The sum of the ingredients in regards to the complete and balanced nutrient profile they provide to the cat is what matters.

Cats cannot read.

The ingredient list is to appeal to the cat owner,

not the cat.

Myth #7 – My cat has allergies, so a grain-free, gluten-free diet is best.

Most food allergies, which are rare, are against proteins, not carbohydrates. The most common food allergies in cats are beef, dairy, fish and chicken. A cat with a known allergy to a specific ingredient is one instance where the ingredient list is useful. 

Grains are an uncommon allergy in cats.

The gluten-free marketing to cat owners is a human trend that is spilling over into the pet food industry with no scientific evidence to back it up. 

No cat has ever been diagnosed with a gluten allergy.

Myth #8 – Cats did not evolve eating grains and should be eating small mammals like their ancestors.

Many cat owners want a diet to represent what cats “back in the day” were eating such as rabbits, mice, rats and birds.  On the surface, this seems reasonable until we compare their environments from then to now. A cat’s diet in the past was for survival and reproduction, with cats living only a few years.  The modern-day cat lives to 15+ years, resides primarily inside, is spayed or neutered and vaccinated against infectious diseases.  Cats can pull the required nutrients from non-meat sources like grains despite the fact that they are obligate carnivores.

Modern day cats living in modern times have no need for an ancestral diet.

Myth #9 – Commercial cat diets caused my cat to become overweight.

Many companies wrongly state that that grain-free diets prevent obesity because they are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates.  Unfortunately, ingredients do not matter here and it is all about the calories. It does not matter whether the calories come from a protein or carbohydrate source. Too many calories will lead to weight gain. Many grain-free diets are actually higher in calories than traditional diets, which may promote weight gain.

Grain-free diets may cause obesity.

Myth #10 – Higher priced cat diets are better for my cat than inexpensive, grocery-store brands.

I often hear “I only buy expensive diets” or “I spent a lot of money on this diet, so it must be good.” Good nutrition does not necessarily have a price tag.  Just because you spend more does not mean you are getting more.  The main cost in cat food is protein.  Many are looking for meat as the first ingredient or a high protein diet.  However, once your cat’s protein requirements are met, the excess protein is eliminated as waste.  In this case, more protein is not necessarily better and inevitably you end up paying for expensive stool in the litter box. 

Spending more on a diet does not equate to better,

more complete nutrition.

The above reflects some of the growing trends in the pet food industry, which cater to a cat owner’s desire for “better ingredients.”  The concern regarding recent diet trends that promote new, “superior” ingredients is that they have not been studied sufficiently.  They may result in a nutrient deficiency and/or disease in some cats.  Cat owners are better served by sticking with large pet food companies that employ veterinary nutritionists to formulate their diets.  Preference is given to companies that employ AAFCO feeding trials (and nutrient profiles) and manufacture their own diets in their own facilities.  We have more problems with grain-free, no by-product, natural diets than any other diets on the market. There may be adequate grain-free diets on the market, but this has not been our experience. 

Dirt is organic, natural, grain-free and by-product free,

but I would not feed it to my cats.

As we learn more about feline nutrition, some of these points undoubtedly will change.  There are many things we do not know about feline nutrition.  My general rule for pet owners is that if you get really excited about a pet food, avoid it.

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