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What does Grain Free really mean in pet food?

Any pet food made without grains is considered 'grain free'. However not all grain free pet foods are the same. In fact, some may even be lower quality than a regular pet food with grains! We take a look at what grain free really means, the difference between gluten free and grain free, and what goes in when grains come out.

If you already feed a grain free pet food, you might want to grab the bag and check those ingredients. What you find out might surprise you...

field of wheat 

What foods are grains?

Common grains you'll find in both human and 'regular' pet food include rice, corn, wheat, oats, barley, sorghum and rye. All are popular carbohydrate sources in both our own and our pet's diet. Common grain-free carbohydrates include potato and sweet potato (kumara), peas, lentils and beans, as well as other fruits and vegetables.  

Does grain free mean no carbs?

This one's commonly misunderstood. The answer is no. Grain free does not mean a food has no carbs. Grain free simply means the carbohydrates come from sources other than grains. A grain free pet food can be high carb, low carb, or anything in-between, same as a 'regular' pet food. 

Why are grains in so many foods?

Grains are a food staple in almost every culture on Earth. Wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley... all common grains you'll find in 'regular' pet food, as well as human food, from bread and breakfast cereals, to cookies and pancakes (we're getting hungry just reading that list).

Along with nutrients such as fibre, and vitamins like iron and vitamin B, the main reason grains are so popular is because they are such a good source of the important nutrient group called carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are the body's primary source of energy.

They help fuel the brain, kidneys, heart muscles, the central nervous system, are involved with digestion, and more. 

Grains are a carbohydrate source that are typically easy to digest, giving both us and our pets a quick source of energy. Whole grains in particular are recommended as part of a healthy diet. One benefit of whole grains is they lower our risk of heart disease by up to 30%. 

Can pets be allergic to grains?

Luckily, food allergies are not as common as you might think. They happen when your pet's body wrongly identifies a protein as a bad guy, and calls in the immune system in to fight it off, which can trigger an allergic reaction

If a pet is allergic to 'grains' it's more likely the protein in the grain - called gluten - that they are allergic to. For some pets it's one grain they are reacting to, such as wheat, rather than all grains.

Some people - and some pets - cannot break down the gluten in certain grains, making them gluten intolerant. A gluten intolerance can vary from a mild sensitivity to more serious Celiac Disease. 

Although gluten and grain allergies are uncommon in pets, the move to a grain free or gluten free food is recommended for pets allergic or sensitive to gluten or grains. If your Vet wants your pet on an elimination diet to help get to the bottom of what your pet's allergic to, they might suggest the move to a grain free food.

Does grain free mean all meat?

Grain free does not mean low carbs, or no carbs, or all meat. Grain free doesn't even mean better quality carbs! 

Unless you check what goes in, when grains come out, there's no guarantee grain free means you're moving to a better quality food. In fact, you could be moving your pet on to a lower quality food.

Just seeing 'grain free' on a label, does not make a food better for your pet. 

For a pet food to be 'complete and balanced' it still needs to supply your pet with carbohydrates. If it's grain free, those carbohydrates will come from sources other than grains. 

However some grain free foods actually add more, lower quality carbohydrates to replace the grains!  

Are grain free and gluten free the same?

These two are frequently confused. But no, gluten free and grain free are not the same. Gluten is the name given to the protein found in some grains, but not all grains contain gluten. There are many gluten-free grains. 

Common grains that contain gluten are wheat, barley and rye. You'll find those used in a lot of foods we eat, and maybe foods you give as treats to your pets too.

Pasta, bread, pastries, cakes, cookies, breakfast cereal, pancakes and more, all contain gluten (unless they are made with gluten-free grains of course). That's why a gluten free pet food can still contain grains. Common gluten-free grains include rice, corn, oats, sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth.

Luckily, gluten intolerance is not common in pets. When a food allergy is suspected, the more likely culprit will be common proteins such as beef, dairy, chicken or lamb.  

What are the common carbs used in grain free pet foods?

Now you're in the know about what grain free really means, let's take a look at what carbohydrates go in to pet food instead, when grains get taken out.

There are only a handful of common carbohydrates used in most grain free pet foods. Two of the most common are potato and sweet potato. They sound the same, but are quite different nutritionally. 

Potato versus Sweet Potato

Both are grain free carbohydrates, but sweet potato is considered nutritionally superior to potato. Sweet potato (we know it as Kumara), are lower GI than potatoes. That's good news for diabetic pets as low GI foods are less likely to cause blood sugar to spike. GI is measured from 0 to 100. Potato has a high GI, around 87 depending on how it's prepared. Compare that to sweet potato which is a lot lower, around 54.

sweet potato

Although potato and sweet potato are similar in calories, carbohydrates and protein, sweet potatoes are also higher in protective antioxidants, including vitamin A and vitamin C.

Sweet potato, rather than potato, is an example of a higher quality carbohydrate to look for on the ingredients list of your pet's grain free food. However if your pet's food lists both, check which one is listed first to find out which there's more of.


The humble pea is actually a little powerhouse carbohydrate, making peas a popular, nutritious grain free carbohydrate choice in grain free pet foods. 

Peas contain almost every essential vitamin and mineral, are relatively low calorie, very low GI (around 22!), with 70% of calories coming from carbs. Peas are also high in fibre to help digestion and healthy stools. Like sweet potato, peas are also rich in protective antioxidants.


Peas are another quality grain free carbohydrate you might expect to see in a grain free food. However they can be a common ingredient used by some brands for ingredient splitting.

A word of warning...

Watch out for ingredient splitting with peas and lentils in particular. 

Red lentils and green lentils are not different. Green lentils are the whole lentil, whereas red lentils are normally split in half with the shell removed. However some pet foods list them twice, by separating 'green lentils' from 'red lentils' on the ingredients list.

Another one to watch for is 'green peas' listed separately to 'yellow peas'. Other than colour, they have the same nutritional content, so this is another sign there may be ingredient splitting going on.

What is ingredient splitting?

Ingredients are listed in order of weight. But if you were to add those red lentils to the green lentils, or the green peas to the yellow peas, combined they might move few places up the ingredients list. 

Ingredient splitting is done by some brands to manipulate how good the ingredients list looks. It wouldn't look as good if lentils or peas were the first or second ingredient! By splitting them up, it moves them further down the ingredients list.

Tapioca (Cassava)

This is an interesting one to find in pet food. Better known in human food as a dessert. Not as common in higher quality grain free pet foods.

Tapioca, also called Cassava, is a high GI carbohydrate used in some grain free foods, usually in place of other starchy carbs like potato. Depending on how it's prepared, tapioca varies from around 70 to 93 on the GI index (potato is around 87, sweet potato around 54, and peas are way down around 22). Being starchy, tapioca helps bind the ingredients together so they form a kibble shape, rather than crumble.

Tapioca doesn't offer much in the way of nutritional value, and being high GI is not recommended for diabetic pets in high amounts. As potato is gluten-free, it's not a common allergen, however for a pet with a potato allergy, tapioca is a potato substitute that a pet's system is unlikely to have encountered before, so should not be allergic to. If used for that purpose, you won't see both tapioca and potato in the ingredients.

Overall, tapioca is a lower quality carbohydrate with limited nutritional value, so you won't typically see it used in higher quality grain free pet foods. 


Lentils are a popular gluten free carbohydrate you'll find in grain free pet foods. Lentils are a good source of fibre, and high in B vitamins, phosphorus, iron, zinc and antioxidants. Lentils are also low in starch, and low GI - around 32 - making them another popular choice for diabetic pets. 

Lentils are a popular, more nutritious carbohydrate common in grain free pet foods, however do keep an eye out for ingredient splitting with these, same as peas.   


Chickpeas are a higher quality grain free carbohydrate. They are high in fibre, known as a great source of insoluble fibre to help with gut health. Chickpeas are also low in fat, and high in Lecithin, an essential fatty acid for cell production that also helps heart health.


Chickpeas are also high in potassium which is involved in helping heart, muscle nerve and kidney function, as well as blood pressure. The list of vitamins and minerals goes on, as chickpeas are quite nutritious, but keep in mind most foods use chickpeas for their fibre, and in small amounts, so chickpeas won't be there as a primary source of vitamins and minerals in the food. Chickpeas and peas are not the same, so will be listed separately on the ingredients list.

Continue learning...

Is Grain Free really better for your pet?