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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Grain-Free Myth or "The Emperor's New Diet"

As described by Wikipedia, "The Emperor's New Clothes"  is a short tale by Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, a child cries out, "But he isn't wearing anything at all!" The tale has been translated into over a hundred languages.

The wave of grain-free diets that are flooding the pet food market very much reminds me of this parable. Several times a week I have a client proudly proclaim that they have switched their pet to the new, healthier grain-free food!!!! I admit, that like the townspeople in the story, at first I was unable to respond to these proclamations with anything other than a hearty congratulations (while doing my best to hide my bewilderment).

Grains (which include wheat and corn as they are processed for pet food) have been implicated lately in every animal malady possible. I have heard it blamed for every possible digestive disorder (of course), urinary tract problems, immune system problems, skin problems (this is a biggie), seizures, and cancer. Yes, I have had clients brag that, "Fluffy's ________ problem has completely resolved since we switched to grain-free!" This is sometimes accompanied with an insinuation that they are disappointed  in me for not thinking of switching their pet to a grain-free food. 

Most of the time, the improvement also coincides with some other form of therapy or medication, which gets no credit at all for the miraculous recovery. Sometimes not. However, it is important to remember that many chronic conditions wax and wane in their severity. Improvement which is credited to the new food, may simply be the condition taking its normal course. Lots of folks seem to think that "grain" is a major food allergen in pets. Scientific research says otherwise. In dogs, beef/dairy comprise 70% of all food allergies, followed by poultry, lamb, and pork. In cats, beef, dairy, and fish are the most common allergens. 

So, not ever having read or heard of the miracle of grain-free food in the extensive continuing education and veterinary references utilized by the doctors at my clinic (yes, we discussed this), I set out to research what factual, non-anecdotal evidence is out there regarding the benefits of grain-free diets. I didn't find any. None. So I sought out a veterinary nutritionist and asked him. He laughed and said, "You have no idea how many veterinarians have asked me that question in the past two years." He further said that as far as the experts are concerned, it is simply a fad being propagated by the growing boutique pet food industry. I bet that if you go to a fancy pet food store and try to buy a bag of Purina, some salesperson will try to get you to switch to some "wild," "natural," or grain-free food.

In fact, several large, reputable pet food manufacturers now carry "grain free" pet diets. Why? If they can't beat them, they are joining them. The grain-free fad is causing them to lose market share. 

Now I know this seems like a rant against grain-free foods. It's really not. In my search for information, I found nothing "bad" about these diets. They are usually nutritionally complete.  So if you want to feed them, go ahead. No problem!  But don't be fooled by the Emperor's new diet.