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The grain-inclusive dog food category is surging, according to manufacturers, though retailers are concerned that dog owners are still being fed conflicting information about the benefits of grain-inclusive diets versus grain-free diets.

“We’ve seen tremendous demand for value-premium grain-inclusive foods over the past year, and we’re ready to grow our product sets and apply our high-meat nutritional strategy to this category,” said Heather Acuff, product development director for Nulo Pet Food, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas.

Nulo saw a sharp increase in sales following the launch of its grain-inclusive lines in 2019. This can be partially attributed to concerns stemming from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) June 2019 report on a possible link between grain-free diets and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), Acuff said.

“Many pet owners were led to believe grain-free foods are harmful and that grain-inclusive diets were in some ways safer,” she said. “This caused a shift in their typical purchasing patterns that is evident throughout the industry.”

Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care, a manufacturer in Hereford, Texas, said sales of both the company’s grain-inclusive and grain-free diets are growing.

“Our Merrick Healthy Grains recipes have been a popular choice for over a decade and continue to gain momentum with pet parents,” she said. “There’s a lot of momentum in the grain-inclusive category as more companies introduce new products in this space.”

The debate over the merits of grain-inclusive diets versus grain-free diets remains contentious, with various retailers, manufacturers, veterinarians and pet nutritionists disagreeing over what is biologically best for dogs.

Becci Scott, co-owner of Fetching Dog, a pet store in Scottsdale, Ariz., said many dog owners are confused because they hear differing information about grains from the media, their veterinarians, pet retailers and dog food manufacturers.

“It would be fabulous if our industry would all get educated and be on the same page so that we’re all promoting the same information,” she said.

Ultimately, the pet food market is driven by demand for variety, and dog owners should seek to find the best dietary match for their pet, said Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.

“As a manufacturer, our philosophy of delivering complete and balanced nutrition has helped us to create excellent options both with and without grains for dogs and cats,” Nieman said.

In November 2020, Fromm Family Foods introduced Fromm Adult Gold with Ancient Grains. The chicken-based kibble features ancient grains that provide fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Because it includes more non-traditional grains, Fromm Adult Gold with Ancient Grains may be a better digestive match for dogs who are intolerant of other grains, Nieman explained.

Acuff said the choice between grain inclusive and grain free is personal for each pet owner. Pet owners are used to feeding grain-inclusive diets, which have been the norm as long as pet food has been commercialized. Grain-free diets are relatively newer, having been prominent for just a few decades.

“We believe there’s an opportunity for both product types to coexist in today’s marketplace, which is why we are proud to offer grain-free and grain-inclusive recipes in our growing product portfolio,” Acuff said.

In August 2020, Nulo launched its Challenger Stews. Like Challenger kibbles, Homestyle Beef Stew, Savory Chicken Stew and Harvest Turkey Stew are brick-and-mortar exclusive.

Acuff said the stews are full of lean protein and made with an aromatic, flavorful bone broth base. They can be fed as a complete diet or used as a kibble topper.

Nulo Pet Food also anticipates adding a new recipe for small dog breeds to its Frontrunner Ancient Grains line this summer.

Ingredients

To Grain or Not To Grain

“Ancient grains” is a buzzword in both the human food and pet food industries. The term refers to grains that have been minimally modified over time by selective breeding, cultivation and farming practices, explained Bryan Nieman, brand director of Fromm Family Foods, a manufacturer in Mequon, Wis. Some examples include sorghum, buckwheat, spelt, millet, quinoa, whole barley and whole oats.

Heather Acuff, product development director for Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas, noted that there is no regulatory definition of “ancient grains” but said “they are generally considered grains that are unchanged by selective hybridization and genetic modification over the last several centuries. The key differences between ancient and modern grains are seen in crop yield, crop hardiness, genetic diversity and nutritional composition.” 

In general, grains are nutrient dense and provide protein, fiber and minerals. Some also provide certain fibers that have a prebiotic effect and promote healthy gut bacteria, Acuff said.

Not all diets that are grain inclusive feature ancient grains. Nieman said some dogs that have shown sensitivities or intolerances to other grains might not have issues digesting ancient grains, while others may require a grain-free diet.

In kibbles, starchy ingredients such as wheat, corn, rice and other grains are used to bind ingredients together and hold the pieces’ shape. Grain-free kibbles use legumes and potatoes to achieve the same effect.

“Starch isolates, i.e., potato starch and tapioca starch, are a common alternative to featuring grains in a kibble formula,” Acuff said. “While starches offer better functionality in extrusion, ancient grains deliver a better all-around nutrient profile including higher protein, fat, fiber and minerals in comparison.”

Nieman said pet owners’ focus should be finding the best diet that works for their individual pet.

“Grains are not bad for pets,” he said. “In fact, the use of whole or ancient grains helps to provide the energy, fiber and protein essential for a healthy pet. That said, some pets may have an intolerance or allergy that requires a grain-free option that delivers fiber and complex carbohydrates through legumes or other ingredients. One is not necessarily better than the other—ultimately, it comes down to finding the best food option that yields the strongest digestive match for your pet.”

Consumer Education

Clearing Up Confusion

Independent pet specialty retailers agree that the average pet owner does not fully understand the pros and cons of grain-inclusive and grain-free diets.

“The average pet owner is clueless in this department, and most veterinarians take advantage of that vulnerability,” said Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products, which has three stores in Pennsylvania.

Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas, manufactures both grain-inclusive and grain-free options. Product development director Heather Acuff said “grain inclusive” doesn’t inherently mean “better.”

“There is a misconception that grain inclusive now suddenly means better food,” she said. “Just as there are many grain-free foods with carbohydrate levels surpassing 50 percent, there are nutritionally inferior grain-based foods out there as well.”

Acuff said this misconception gives retailers an opportunity to change the conversation to focus on the importance of animal-based proteins, conventional versus ancient grains, carbohydrate levels in foods and which ingredients should or should not be in the first five or six listed on the package.

“Then, guiding them to the right solution, whether it be grain free or grain inclusive, will make much more sense to pet parents and take fear out of the equation,” she said. “Social media campaigns, educational handouts and in-store conversations are just a few ways to initiate engaging communications with pet owners.”

Millennials are the largest and most influential group of pet owners and tend to seek more nutritional information, said Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care, a manufacturer in Hereford, Texas.

“They’ve often been referred to as ‘The Why Generation,’ questioning everything as they seek to understand what they are feeding their four-legged family members,” she said.

Baby boomers, on the other hand, could use more targeted education on pet nutrition, Shelaske said.

“This generation is on Facebook, which would be a great avenue to target,” she suggested.  

Becci Scott, co-owner of Fetching Dog, a pet store in Scottsdale, Ariz., said marketing ploys led people who started feeding dogs as adults around the 1980s to believe that they should feed dogs one food and one food only, when in reality dogs can benefit from having more variety and whole foods in their diets.

Scott enjoys having manufacturer representatives visit the store and demo products. She has representatives who stop in weekly or biweekly and stay for about three to four hours, using the time to start conversations with customers about nutrition and ingredients.

While pet owners have more information available to them than before, they shouldn’t have to understand the intricate ins and outs of individual diets or fully grasp the science behind animal nutrition to make a good decision about their pets’ diets, said Bryan Nieman, brand director of Fromm Family Foods, a manufacturer in Mequon, Wis. Retailers should be knowledgeable about each food they offer and be able to communicate this knowledge to help pet owners make informed decisions.

“Shoppers have a more intimate buying experience at a neighborhood pet store and often view their pet food shop as a trusted source of information,” Nieman said. “Because of that, retailers who take the time to understand trends as well as the features and benefits of what they sell to better educate customers will often have more success in selling a particular food or establishing a long-term relationship with a shopper.”