ST. LOUIS — Grains are a seemingly ever-trending topic when it comes to both human and pet nutrition. More than half of the world’s food energy comes from staple grains such as rice, wheat and corn. Despite this statistic, the health benefits of grains are shrouded with questions and have become just as hot a topic in the pet food world as its human equivalent.

Although humans and animals are physiologically different, pet owners tend to transfer their own nutritional concerns onto their pets. Thus, it’s important to know the facts about grains and the role they play in pet food formulas.

Rich source of nutrients
A nutritionally valuable ingredient in pet food, “grains” refer to the seeds of cereal grasses and include corn, wheat, oats, rice, millet and barley. Whole grains typically contain between 75% to 85% complex carbohydrates and less than 2% sugars. They are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, which are simple sugars held together by complex bonds. Complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly than simple sugars, as the body takes longer to break down the larger molecules. This results in a gradual and extended release of energy without spiking the blood sugar level.

The grains in pet foods are a source for these digestible complex carbohydrates that help meet a crucial physiological need for glucose, the most important energy source for all cells in the body. Grains also are an important source of several nutrients including protein, fiber, essential fatty acids, B-vitamins and minerals.

Protein provides the body with the building blocks needed to repair tissue and make hormones and other body chemicals. Fiber aids in digestive health, helps maintain healthy intestinal bacteria and plays a role in weight management. Essential fatty acids are needed for all cells of the body and help to maintain healthy skin and other tissues. Vitamins and minerals are vital for all cellular processes, contributing to immune defense, muscle and vision health, and brain function. Additionally, whole grains contain various phytonutrients and antioxidants such as vitamin E.

Substitutes not the same
When it comes to the nutrients pets need, grains deliver. These team players provide antioxidants, energy-rich carbohydrates and fiber to promote digestion. In fact, grains, especially corn, are key for helping pets digest the other nutrients in their food.

For example, corn provides protein, energy and linoleic acid, which is an essential fatty acid for dogs. Corn is also packed with dietary fiber to keep pets healthy and, ounce for ounce, contains twice the amount of antioxidants as an apple.

Throughout Purina’s 90-plus years of nutritional research, its scientists have seen evidence that nutritious grains such as corn produce positive results in pets. Pound for pound, nutritious grains deliver more complete nutrition than the ingredients that brands typically use to substitute for grains, such as potatoes.

Grain Myths versus Reality
Misconceptions surrounding the prevalence of grain allergies in pets, as well as myths such as “grains are fillers,” only add to the confusion around the use of grains in pet food. Purina acknowledges and respects the fact that some pet owners choose to feed grain-free foods; however, knowledge is power. Knowing the facts about grains and pets can help pet owners make well-informed decisions.

MYTH: Dogs are carnivores
FACT: Dogs are omnivores
Dogs are omnivores, meaning they derive their nutrients from both plant and animal sources. Domestic dogs evolved from early wolves, but despite sharing a few physical traits, there are several significant differences between the two. Because wild canids and cats do not consume grains, it is believed they cannot digest grains. In reality, one of the primary genetic differences between domestic dogs and wolves is the domestic dog’s ability to digest carbohydrates.

Research examining the DNA of dogs and wolves demonstrates several genetic changes occurring over the past 15,000 to 30,000 years. Compared to wolves, modern dogs have more of the genes that code for digestive enzymes, enabling them to better digest starches like those found in grains. This evolution was a crucial step in early dog domestication, allowing the ancestors of modern dogs to thrive on discarded grain products while living among early agricultural societies. Grains have been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years, and as dogs have evolved alongside humans, they, too, have utilized grains as a source of energy.

MYTH: Cats are unable to digest carbohydrates
FACT: Cats use grains as a source of energy
The incorrect perception that cats are unable to digest carbohydrates, including those from grains, stems from the facts that cats lack salivary amylase and sweet taste receptors. Some studies show that cats have less digestive enzyme activity for carbohydrate digestion compared to dogs, readily utilize amino acids from protein to make glucose, and lack the enzyme glucokinase that aids in glucose uptake by cells. Although these facts demonstrate that cats may differ from other species, as far as carbohydrate metabolism goes, they certainly don’t indicate cats’ inability to utilize dietary carbohydrates, such as those found in grains or commercial pet foods.

Today’s domestic cats are carnivores, just as their wild ancestors were. They require certain nutrients that are only found naturally in animal tissue. However, this doesn’t mean they can only eat meat or that they cannot consume grains. Cats, like other living things, need glucose to fuel their cells. In the absence of carbohydrates, the body will convert protein into the glucose it needs. The protein is broken down into its amino acid building blocks, which are metabolized to form glucose. However, this process diverts valuable protein away from the muscles, coat, immune system and other processes. Grains, therefore, are a “protein-saving” energy source for cats.

MYTH: Dogs and cats are allergic to grains
FACT: Grain allergies in dogs and cats are rare
Many people believe that dogs and cats are allergic to grains, but, less than 1% of dogs are allergic. Most allergies in pets are completely unrelated to food and include allergies to fleas or other parasites, pollen or mold. However, when food allergies do occur, they are rarely due to grain. Beef, dairy and chicken are the most likely causes of allergies in dogs, whereas cats are more likely to have allergies related to beef, fish or chicken.

Gluten is the protein component of grains. Wheat, rye and barley gluten contain specific proteins called gliadins which trigger the allergic response in people with celiac disease. Increased awareness around celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivities and wheat allergies have given rise to the many grain-free food options available to humans and has led to the misperception that wheat gluten and other grain glutens are pro-allergenic. While a very specific family line of Irish Setter dogs has been diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity, to date, celiac disease has not been identified in dogs or cats. 

Furthermore, not all glutens are the same. Gliadin is not found in the gluten from rice and corn, making those grains good choices for people with celiac disease and pets that may have wheat gluten sensitivities.

Purina makes products formulated without grain for the less than 1% of dogs that may have sensitivity to grain. For the other 99%, Purina believes the responsible thing to do is provide them with the best formulations for their needs, which include grains.

Part of Purina’s nutrition philosophy
Purina believes the formula pet owners feed their pets should provide complete and balanced nutrition and result in a healthy coat, bright eyes and abundant energy. Purina products are formulated to meet specific nutrient targets. Rather than prioritizing ingredients that are popular, Purina scientists study the nutrients that pets need, then look to nature for the best ingredients to deliver on them. Even the best ingredients aren’t as effective if they’re not blended in tandem with other ingredients to help make the food as nutritious and digestible as possible, so Purina scientists also study how ingredients work together and use the best team players, such as grains, in pet food formulas.

Communicating Purina’s science and nutritional expertise, the Purina Institute is a global professional entity of Nestlé Purina PetCare, which promotes responsible pet care, community involvement and the positive bond between people and their pets. A global manufacturer of pet products, Nestlé Purina PetCare is part of Swiss-based Nestle S.A., a global leader in nutrition, health and wellness.

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