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Grain v Grain-Free v Starch v Carbs

A couple of weeks ago I shared an article on Facebook by Heal the Dog (06/0717) which discussed the evolution of dogs and their ability to digest starch and how the extent of this differs even between dog breeds as well as differing between dogs and wolves - possibly/probably due to where in the world the breed originated and how starch-based the diet of the people in that area was. So, if you'd like to take a more in depth look at the wolves v dogs, genetics side of things that is a great starting point.

Anyway, first things first grain v grain-free v starch v carbohydrates because often they are used interchangeably...and sometimes that's a marketing ploy.


1) "wheat or any other cultivated cereal used as food"

2) "a single fruit or seed of a cereal"


Without the above


"an odourless, tasteless white substance occurring widely in plant tissue and obtained chiefly from cereals and potatoes. It is a polysaccharide which functions as a carbohydrate store and is an important constituent of the human diet"


"any of a large group of organic compounds occurring in foods and living tissues and including sugars, starch, and cellulose. They contain hydrogen and oxygen in the same ratio as water (2:1) and typically can be broken down to release energy in the animal body."

So, grain v grain-free v starch v carbohydrates?

There is a big trend at the moment (both in commercial foods such as kibble as well as fresh/raw feeders) to feed grain-free so I'm going to talk about the reasons for and against and where I stand on the issue.

Wholefood Hounds Original Minced Chicken & Fish

My feelings are that, particularly with commercial food grain has been used as a cheap filler. BUT it's also a filler in human food! Why do we eat bread and pasta etc - probably because it's cheap, easy, convenient and fills us up. Just as there is debate over high carb v high protein diets for weight loss, cardiovascular health, lifespan etc for humans, there is a similar debate with dogs. The difference is that, on the 'herbivore - omnivore - carnivore' spectrum, dogs and humans are at different points. How far humans should be between herbivore and omnivore is a matter of opinion and how dogs should be between complete carnivore and omnivore is also a matter of opinion (or possibly conjecture).

I'm of the opinion that, firstly, what the best diet is may actually depend on the individual dog or human in question. Secondly, diets are often less about philosophical view points and more about tangible concerns i.e. time, cost, practicality, availability.

I'm going to start with carbs and go from there...

Firstly, can dogs digest carbs? This is the answer I have on the Wholefood Hounds FAQ page -

"There is evidence to suggest the domestic dog has evolved with humans to digest carbohydrates. Although they do not produce the enzyme amylase (which breaks down carbs) in their mouths like humans, they do in fact produce it in their pancreas instead.

Carbs provide energy in the form of glucose (all animals have a metabolic need for glucose). Dogs don't have an absolute dietary requirement for carbs because they can synthesize glucose from protein. However, the advantage of feeding carbs is that they help with the functioning of the digestive tract and it saves the protein from being diverted from its primary use, i.e. tissue repair and growth."

Reasons for going 'Grain-Free' (not to be confused with going gluten-free)...

Allergies are increasing and many owners and vets see improvement when they omit grain from the dog's diet - this is probably the biggest reason for a grain-free diet (along with the belief that wolves don't eat grain and therefore dogs shouldn't). I suspect the very heavy grain nature of kibble is a contributing factor to allergy but I also think the processing, chemicals and lack of food in its unrefined state plays an equally important role in the exacerbation (or cause) of allergies.

But here's the thing...

When cutting out grain another starchy/carby filler often replaces it. Some grain allergies will be allergies in the true sense (in which case going grain-free is the solution). Also, fresh starchy veg such as pumpkin and sweet potato are also arguably more nutritious than say pasta or rice, which again, may be a reason to switch to grain-free. However, if it is an 'allergy' with yeast as the root cause then actually it is more beneficial to reduce all types of carbohydrate and not just grain. All forms of carbohydrate turn to sugars and sugar feeds yeast (and possibly cancer but that's a whole other can of worms that i'll leave well alone!). In this case, a diet low in grains AND starchy veg may be beneficial (hence the new High Protein/Low Starch range).

In summary...

My aim with Wholefood Hounds is ultimately to make feeding a fresh food diet a realistic prospect for as many dog owners as possible. It is important to me that I have a base range that is as close in cost to supermarket options as possible (fresh ingredients will always be more expensive but hopefully the pay off is a healthier dog and a saving at the vets). So, the Original Mutt Meals do come with grain (and lentils) as standard even though I do agree that it is a filler.

In some cases grain is actually beneficial - it is great for dogs who need to put on and keep on weight for example (like Millie). But mostly, it is a way to make fresh food a realistic option, particularly for owners with big dogs and/or multiple dogs. Personally, I don't lose sleep over feeding my kids spag bol, nor do I lose sleep feeding my dogs the doggy equivalent!

The grain-free option on the original meals is only slightly more expensive and still contains the lentils (which are a plant protein) but it replaces the grain with pumpkin. A big advantage of this option is actually in dogs who have a tendency to put on weight (not looking at you Whiskey).

And finally, the new High Protein/Low Starch range replaces the lentils and the grain/pumpkin of the Original meals with extra animal protein i.e. meat and whole egg - making it ideal if yeast is a big problem for your dog or if your dog has a greater need for protein (which is particularly important in young dogs for growth and old and sick dogs for repair). Millie (foster, still available, very good natured!!) is older and needs to put on, and keep on, weight but has yeasty ears so feeding her is a bit of a balancing act - weight v. yeast. This range does still contain fresh veg, some starchy and some non-starchy but it is much higher in animal protein and very low in overall carbohydrates.

As an aside...

The veg mix which accounts for approx 1/3 of all meals consists of blitzed starchy and non-starchy veg. The ratio of starchy to non-starchy is often determined by what is in season but it always has a mix of both. For example, this week's veg mix is carrot, celery, capsicum, cauliflower, broccoli, sweet potato and beetroot along with the Superfood Pesto with spinach, celery tops, oranges and the all the usual supplements. The veg is blitzed for two reasons - one, it prevents selective eating and two, it's much easier for dogs to digest this way. It just maybe doesn't look as appetising to us as the type of meal where you can see chunks of vegetables!

As for the animal protein in the meals it's worth baring in mind that 'real' meat is a much higher quality protein with higher digestibility than animal by-products and the like, even though these also count as 'animal protein'. So regardless of whether you choose the Original Mutt Meals with a minimum 1/3 animal protein or the High Protein/Low Starch Mutt Meals at 2/3 protein your dog is getting high quality meat from the human supply chain in a minimally processed form (it's gently cooked).

If you want to know what I do...

I don't eliminate grain completely (and barley is my grain of choice) but I do limit it - because Whiskey gets too chunky and Millie's ears are a nightmare! I feed them a mix of all of the Wholefood Hounds' ranges for dinner and give them sardines, mackerel, salmon or eggs most days for breakfast. They also have fruit, raw veg, human leftovers, yoghurt, golden paste, occasionally mussels and generally anything else they can get their paws on!

As long as mine getting a varied, minimally processed, fresh, wholefood diet with calcium and organ meat (see previous blog) then I am confident that they have a healthy, balanced diet ~ Stef & Whiskey x

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