Is a grain-free diet truly grain-free?

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Packaged Facts – a publisher of market research in the food, beverage, consumer packaged goods, and demographic sectors – in last year’s report stated that 89% of pet owners surveyed purchase kibble, 10% steer towards natural/organic, and 6% buy grain-free foods. I was surprised by these findings since the grain-free trend is skyrocketing, and did not think these figures accurately reflected what most of our Blog readers actually feed their pets. So, I asked my team to conduct an informal survey. We found that approximately 38% feed kibble, 40% provide a raw diet, 7% give dehydrated food, 1% feed freeze-dried, 4% serve canned food, and 10% cook for their pets. By extension, I believe these statistics mirror pet caregivers who also test their pets for food intolerance levels with NutriScan, our Hemolife saliva–based food sensitivity and intolerance test.

Several of you stated that grain-free foods – especially those that are corn- and soy-free – were important to you. (By the way, it is equally important not to feed wheat.) It demonstrates you are savvy and knowledgeable; when a dog smells like corn chips, it is from his body releasing the gluten metabolites of this diet through his skin. In general, kibble comprises a vast spectrum that varies greatly by quality and ingredients. I estimate that approximately 60% of the kibbles noted in our survey were grain-free and that 90% were corn- and soy-free. The majority of the dehydrated foods and raw diets mentioned were free of all three (wheat, corn and soy) as well.

Taking it to the next level, many of you noted that you make sure the meat you are purchasing is grass-fed or raised in a more natural environment. You recognize that what an animal is fed will be passed up the food chain to both humans and pets. Several studies have been conducted in humans; most notably the outcome of warning pregnant women and young children to avoid fish due to potential mercury contamination. Data now exists to support the same in pets: NutriScan results demonstrate that to some extent, corn, soy and other grains are still offending foods for dogs and cats.

In fact, a complementary study to NutriScan was conducted in 2010, which evaluated four over-the-counter venison dry dog foods available for the commonly known food allergens of soy, poultry and beef. Three of the four foods with no soy products named in the ingredient list were ELISA positive for soy. The authors concluded cross-contamination – which can happen in any number of ways – was the cause. We agree with this theory but do believe the authors overlooked another potential cause: the feed these deer ate.

Despite popular belief, deer are increasingly commercially raised and are not foraging in the woods for fruits and berries. In fact, a quick Google search showed that soy is an ingredient in several deer feeds. Their test and NutriScan detected foods that may not be ingredients in the actual formulation, but what is fed to the animal before it was turned into a food protein. In essence, soy, grains and corn may not be directly assaulting your pet’s system, but they are still expressed through the animal protein being eaten. Further, a study recently published from Europe examined 12 novel protein-based dry dog foods, including one hydrolysed product, and found that all but two of them contained undeclared sources of animal, poultry and bird origin.

What to do?
Overall, I recommend avoiding corn, wheat and soy in general, if they are listed as ingredients. Additionally, if your pet’s NutriScan test results show a medium or strong reaction to a food, I recommend avoiding it; Intermediate food reactions are also best avoided.

W. Jean Dodds, DVM
Hemopet / NutriScan
11561 Salinaz Avenue
Garden Grove, CA 92843

Raditic, DM; Remillard, RL; Tater, KC; “ELISA testing for common food antigens in four dry dog foods used in dietary elimination trials,” Journal of Animal Physiology & Animal Nutrition; 95 (2013), pp. 90-97. Retrieved from:

Ricci, R. et al; “Identification of undeclared sources of animal origin in canine dry foods used in dietary elimination trials,” Journal of Animal Physiology & Animal Nutrition; 97 (2013), pp. 32-38.

Sprinkle, David; “The Human/Pet Food Connection Heats Up,” Supply Side: Animal Nutrition Insights; 1:1 (September 2013), pp. 4-6. Retrieved from:

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