2020 Pet Food Trends: Grain vs. Grain Free – Which is Best for Your Pet?

In the final part of our three-part series, we take a look at the difference between grain and grain free pet food diets and which is best. In addition, we provide the latest on the DCM question, which has been top-of-mind for the industry this past year. 

Throughout 2019, headlines about grain free pet foods and dogs with enlarged hearts circulated around the news and the industry in general. Manufacturers, distributors, retailers and consumers anxiously awaited any news as to whether or not there is indeed a link between grain-free diets and enlarged heart disease and DCM (canine dilated cardiomyopathy).

In response, the commotion has brought up an important discussion regarding grain vs. grain free pet foods and which is best to feed pets. Before we dive into what we know, let’s take a look at where the DCM issue stands as of now.

DCM Update

To put things simply, there is still no dietary link between grain free pet food ingredients and DCM. And there’s been no major update since we last checked in early last year. In June of 2019, the Pet Food Institute released a Q&A document that outlined the DCM issue along with questions from a consumer’s perspective. They instructed pet owners that the most important thing they can do is “make sure your dog is receiving a complete and balanced diet that is formulated for his or her life stage.” When asked if any ingredients or grain free food as a whole should be avoided, the FDA stated that they do not advise any dietary changes based on the information gathered so far.

The Result

When this issue first arose, many pet owners impulsively switched their pets’ diets believing the absence of grains was causing these problems and that grains are healthier for pets. They also felt uneasy about not knowing the cause of pets’ enlarged hearts. As a result, diets with grains surged this past year, as owners searched for answers and made changes to their pets’ diets in an attempt to combat these issues.

What’s Next

With the DCM question in full swing, manufacturers wasted no time developing formulas to accommodate retailers’ requests for formulas with grains while, at the same time, some chose not to react due to the lack of evidence-based facts. Those that did tweak formulas added grains such as oats, wheat or rice and removed legumes such as lentils and peas. Even though pet owners begin to realize that the link has yet to be proven, grain diets are still regaining popularity and are expected to return strongly in 2020. One veterinarian notes that “whole grains, in particular, shouldn’t be considered as fillers — they contain valuable nutrients, and the vast majority of domestic dogs and cats can digest them with ease.

Grain vs. Grain Free

So, what is the difference between grain and grain free? Commonly used grains in pet food include wheat, corn, barley, oatmeal, rye and rice; novel grains include quinoa, buckwheat and sorghum, among others. Grain free pet food would contain none of those ingredients but most likely would include other carbohydrate sources like potato, sweet potato or legumes such as peas, lentils or beans. Grain pet food would have healthy grains as the main carbohydrate source and potentially a variety of vegetables as well.

As with most foods, some grains are better to feed your pets than others – and that could vary based on breed or health needs. According to Food Industry Executive: “In actuality, wheat gluten contains more than 80% protein, is 99 percent digestible, and has an amino acid profile similar to meat proteins. Corn, when prepared properly, is actually an excellent source of highly digestible carbohydrate, essential fatty acids, and fiber, and can be an especially crucial ingredient in diets for dogs with medical conditions requiring reduced fat or protein.”

The question many consumers have is whether formulas with grains are better for pets than formulas that are grain free.

Why Grain is Good

Grains have always had a purpose in pet food. They provide a variety of nutrients and vitamins that pets need in everyday life. Packed with carbohydrates, fats and antioxidants, pet food with grains supports the skin, hair, immune system and overall health. With each different grain comes different nutrients creating a nutritionally complete pet food.

While every pet has unique nutritional needs, all pets need vitamins and healthy substances found primarily in grain. Research shows that grain free isn’t necessarily better for pets, except for the 10% of pets who have a grain allergy or intolerance. That means, for most pet owners, there’s no right or wrong answer when deciding between the two. “While grain-free diets aren’t off the menu just yet, it’s clear that the consumer perception of what’s “healthy” is now pointed at the inclusion of whole grains and the removal of ingredients that have been overused in their place,” says one expert.  PetFood Industry goes on to note that “some professionals have questioned the validity of the FDA’s findings. Others dispute the logic behind alerting the public while so many questions remained.”


So, are grain free or grain diets better for our pets? Some say grain free is merely a marketing trend that’s once again following what we see in human food (see Part I and Part II of this series). And while 2019 did showcase its rise, foods with grains are expected to make a significant comeback in 2020. If your dog is doing fine on a grain-free diet, then there’s no sense in fixing what isn’t broken. However, as with anything, it’s always best to check with your veterinarian for the best options. As trends come and go, one thing is clear: Grain will always be a necessity, especially from a health perspective. That’s something manufacturers can count on for 2020 and beyond.