Grain free pet food has become all the rage, but how necessary is it? Are grains actually bad for pets and, if so, what are the dangers?
- Rich in real animal protein
- Blend of omega-3
The truth is that grain free pet food is little more than a marketing scheme created by pet food manufacturers to sell more products. The idea is that by labeling a product as “free” from something, it leads to consumer to assume that the ingredient the product is free from is somehow inherently bad. In this case, there’s a supposed link between grains and cat food allergies or other health problems.
This isn’t to say that all manufacturers of grain free pet food are evil or that grain free food is inherently bad. We just want to give you a little insight into the issue to help you see why it’s important to do your own research when evaluating pet foods.
In this article, we’ll talk about grain free cat food including what it is, its potential benefits, and special considerations to make before choosing this type of diet. You’ll also learn what you need to look for in grain free cat food and see our top picks for the best options.
What Is The Best Grain Free Cat Food?
- NomNomNow Fresh Food Delivery
- Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain
- American Journey Chicken Recipe
- Instinct Original Kitten Grain-Free
- Blue Buffalo Wilderness Mature Chicken
- Ziwi Peak Lamb Recipe Canned Food
- Nature’s Logic Feline Chicken Feast
- Castor & Pollux Organix Grain-Free
- Merrick Purrfect Bistro Grain-Free
- Stella & Chewy’s Yummy Lickin’
What is Grain Free Cat Food, Really?
As you can probably imagine, grain free cat food is simply cat food made without grains. The most common grains in pet food, generally speaking, are corn, wheat, and soy. These are often used in low-quality products as fillers – ingredients used to add bulk or additional protein to products without significantly increasing the cost for manufacturers. Unfortunately, these ingredients don’t increase the nutritional quality of the product for your pet.
Though low-quality grains are never a good thing in cat food, not all grains are bad. Whole grains like whole brown rice and whole grain oatmeal are actually very nutritious. Carbohydrates should never make up a significant percentage of your cat’s diet, but if you do include carbs in your cat’s food, they should be digestible and nutrient-rich options like these. Whole grains can provide essential nutrients as well as dietary fiber for your cat.
The Trouble with Grains in Cat Food
Pet store shelves are full of grain free cat foods which may lead you to wonder, is grain really bad for cats? Not necessarily.
Many people assume that a grain free diet is more natural for cats. Generally speaking, this may be true. After all, cats are obligate carnivores who receive the majority of their nutrition from animal sources. In fact, they are biologically adapted to consuming animal products rather than plants and don’t have the same ability as herbivores (and even omnivores like dogs) to digest plant products like grains. That being said, grains have been used in commercial pet foods for decades.
The main problem with grains in cat food is not the grains themselves but the potential that they might outweigh the animal ingredients. Your cat has no nutritional requirement for carbohydrate in his diet and high carb foods can actually be bad for his health.
You may have also heard about the current concern with grain free pet food being linked to heart disease. The FDA is currently investigating a potential link between grain free diets and an increased risk for dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. When it comes to grain free cat food, heart disease is less of a concern but it is still a developing investigation.
Special Considerations with Grain Free Cat Food
When shopping for cat food, you always need to keep your cat’s individual requirements and preferences in mind. In addition to meeting your cat’s needs, of course, you also need to make sure you’re making an educated decision.
What do you need to think about when shopping for grain free cat food?
Don’t assume that all grain free cat food is better than grain-inclusive cat food. Unless your cat has an allergy to a specific grain, there is no real reason to feed him a grain free diet. Plus, if you know which grain your cat is allergic to, you can simply feed him a diet that doesn’t contain that ingredient.
Another thing to remember with grain free cat food is that many recipes contain beans and legumes.
These foods contain lectin proteins which are difficult for your cat to digest and which have been linked to health problems. They are also high in phytic acid which may impact absorption of essential nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and iron. Aside from these negative effects, beans and legumes also contain significant amounts of plant protein. Grain free recipes with high legume inclusions may appear to be higher in protein, but it may not all come from animal sources.
When evaluating grain free foods, you need to follow the same general rules you do with any cat food. Read on to see some important things to look for.
What Should You Look for in a Good Cat Food?
Your cat deserves the highest quality diet you can consistently afford. If you’re looking for an affordable cat food, you may want to skip the entire grain free category unless your cat actually needs it. Grain free foods are not exclusively more expensive than regular food, but that is often the case.
Aside from price, you need to look at the overall quality of a cat food and determine whether it will meet your cat’s needs. Here are general things to look for in a good cat food:
- High in real animal protein. Your cat needs a high-protein diet and it should come primarily from animal sources. Real meat, poultry, or fish should be the first ingredient in the recipe and, ideally, make up two out of the first three.
- Rich in health omega fatty acids. Healthy fats provide your cat with a concentrated source of energy and support for healthy skin and coat. It should come primarily from animal sources and you should look for a balance of omega-3s and omega-6s.
- Low carbohydrate content. You can estimate the carb content of cat food by adding up the guaranteed analysis percentages for protein, fat, fiber, moisture, and ash (estimate 7% for dry food and 3% for wet food). The lower the carb content, the better.
- Limited in plant proteins like legumes. If you choose grain free food, avoid products that contain a significant amount of plant protein and opt for digestible carbohydrates like low-starch veggies rather than a lot of legumes.
- No artificial additives. Artificial colors, flavors, and dyes have no place in your cat’s food. They serve no nutritional benefit and have the potential to trigger negative reactions.
Now that you know what to look for in a high-quality cat food recipe, you’re ready to start shopping on your own! Before you do, however, we want to tell you how we make our cat food recommendations so you know whether you can trust the picks we’ve reviewed in depth below.
How Do We Make Cat Food Recommendations?
We know you want what’s best for your cat and we want to help you figure out what that is. You don’t need to be an expert on pet food to make a healthy choice for your cat, but we understand that you probably need a little help. We have decades of experience in the pet food industry and we’re devoted cat owners ourselves, so rest assured that we would never recommend a product we wouldn’t be happy to feed our own cats. We don’t make recommendations lightly!
Here are some general requirements for a cat food recipe to receive our stamp of approval:
- A source of high-quality animal protein as the first ingredient
- At least 30% crude protein for kittens and at least 26% for adults
- A minimum of 9% crude fat for kittens and adults
- A balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, primarily from animal sources
- A rich blend of nutrients from natural sources and supplements, as needed
- Limited carbohydrate content from digestible sources (like whole grains and veggies)
- No low-quality fillers, by-products, or artificial additives (preservatives, dyes, or flavors)
The 10 Best Grain Free Cat Foods
There are plenty of grain free cat foods out there, but not all of them are created equal. Many pet food manufacturers rely on the misconception that the grain free designation will lead customers to assume their product is higher quality than the competitor, but that’s not necessarily true. To help you sort through the options and find a decent grain free diet you can trust, we’ve compiled our top picks.
|Our 2021 Picks: Best Grain Free Cat Food|
|NomNomNow Fresh Cat Food Delivery
|Taste Of The Wild Rocky Mountain Grain-Free
|American Journey Chicken Recipe
|Instinct Original Kitten
|Blue Buffalo Wilderness Mature Chicken
|Ziwi Peak Lamb Recipe Canned Food
|Nature’s Logic Feline Chicken Feast
|Castor & Pollux Organix Grain-Free
|Merrick Purrfect Bistro Grain-Free
|Stella & Chewy’s Yummy Lickin’ Salmon & Chicken
Our Top Overall Pick: If you want to give your cat the best of the best, we recommend trying fresh food. While a raw diet may be closest to your cat’s evolutionary diet, it isn’t practical or affordable for most cat owners. Fresh food offers a high-quality alternative and subscription services like NomNomNow make it easy to feed your cat fresh. NomNomNow offers two cat food recipes, one with chicken and one with fish, both of which are naturally grain free. They rely on real animal proteins with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as their NomNomNutrient mix to deliver healthy and balanced nutrition for cats. Simply provide some basic information about your cat including his age, weight, and activity level so the company can calculate his calorie requirements and send pre-portioned packages of fresh food right to your door.
Most Popular Grain Free Cat Food: When you don’t know what cat food to choose, you may find yourself turning to a trusted brand like Taste of the Wild. Not only is TOTW one of the most popular pet food brands at the moment, but they are also a grain free brand. This Rocky Mountain grain-free cat food is a great option because it features plenty of real animal protein from fresh salmon, chicken liver, chicken, smoked, salmon and roasted venison with limited carbohydrate inclusions. Potatoes and peas are the main carbohydrates, but the estimated carb content of the recipe is only about 2.5%.
Most Affordable Grain Free Cat Food: Affordability is a major concern for many pet owners and grain free food can become expensive. If you’re looking for a moderately priced option that still delivers good quality, consider Chewy’s American Journey brand. This chicken recipe dry food is grain-free and high in protein, featuring fresh chicken and chicken meal as the top two ingredients. Tapioca is the primary carbohydrate with turkey meal and menhaden fish meal as supplemental sources of animal protein. This recipe does contain some pea protein and peas, but the estimated carb content is under 25% which is pretty good for a dry food. You’ll also find an assortment of fresh fruits and veggies which provide natural sources for key nutrients.
Best Grain Free Kitten Food:Providing your kitten with a high-quality diet is essential for his growth and development. This Instinct Original Kitten recipe is grain free and loaded with real animal protein. Fresh chicken, turkey meal, and menhaden fish meal make up the first three ingredients with chicken meal, white fish meal, and lamb meal appearing later down the list. Peas are the fourth ingredient, but the estimated carbohydrate content is under 15%, so they may not be a major ingredient. You’ll be glad to know that this formula contains fresh fruits and vegetables for nutritional support and is supplemented with dried fermentation products for digestive benefits.
Best Grain Free Senior Cat Food: Your cat’s nutritional needs don’t change significantly with age, but he may not need as many calories as he starts to slow down in his older years. This Blue Buffalo Wilderness Mature Chicken recipe canned food is a great option because it is formulated for older cats. It has an ideal blend of real animal protein and healthy fat without going overboard on calories and it contains limited carbohydrate ingredients. This recipe features protein-rich chicken as the first ingredient with a rich blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for optimal skin and coat health. The estimated carb content is under 5%.
Best Grain Free Cat Food for Sensitive Stomach: If your cat has a sensitive stomach and you suspect grains may be the issue, you may be thinking about a grain free diet. While you’re at it, you may as well consider a recipe made with a limited number of ingredients as well to further reduce the risk for triggering an allergy. This Ziwi Peak lamb recipe canned food is not marketed as a limited ingredient diet, but it does contain a single source of novel animal protein and a single carbohydrate ingredient. It is packed with protein and natural flavor, as well as moisture and healthy nutrients. This would be a great choice for any cat, not only cats who need a grain free or limited ingredient diet.
4 More Top-Rated Grain Free Cat Foods
When shopping for the best grain free cat food, wet food is a good place to start and this Nature’s Logic Feline Chicken Feast is an excellent option. Not only is it grain free, but it is also free from beans and legumes. This recipe features fresh chicken as the main ingredient with chicken liver and chicken heart for supplemental protein. Dried fruits and veggies provide natural sources for key nutrients, completely negating the need for synthetic supplements. Overall, it is packed with protein and quality nutrition.
If you’re looking to increase the quality of your cat’s diet with a grain free recipe, why not go organic as well? This Castor & Pollux Organix Grain-Free Organic Chicken & Sweet Potato Recipe is packed with wholesome, natural ingredients like organic chicken and chicken meal as well as organic fruits and veggies. It does contain some peas and pea protein, however, so be mindful of that.
For protein-packed nutrition and natural flavor in a grain free diet, consider this Merrick Purrfect Bistro Grain-Free Chicken Pate. It features real chicken as the main ingredient with chicken liver for supplemental protein. Dried cranberries are the primary carbohydrate with salmon oil for omega-3 fatty acids. This recipe contains an estimated carb content of just 3%.
If you want to feed your cat raw food but it isn’t practical, consider a freeze-dried raw diet like this Stella & Chewy’s Yummy Lickin’ Salmon & Chicken Dinner Morsels. Made with a protein-rich combination of chicken and salmon, this recipe is packed with real animal protein and healthy fats. It is gluten free and grain free, plus it’s free from artificial additives as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is grain really bad for cats? Not necessarily. It is by no means preferable to animal ingredients, but healthy whole grains can provide your cat with some nutrition. The carbohydrate content of your cat’s diet should be as low as possible, but most pet owners don’t have the budget to feed their cat a raw or premium canned food diet – these options tend to be the lowest in carb content. Low-quality grains like corn, wheat, and soy should be avoided but whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal aren’t inherently bad.
- Does grain free food cause heart problems in cats? When it comes to grain free cat food, heart disease is a common concern among pet owners who have heard about the FDA investigation. The thing to remember is that most cases involve dogs rather than cats. This isn’t to say that there’s no possibility of a connection, but there’s not enough evidence to say that grains cause heart disease in cats. Even so, you should be wary of grain free recipes that include high concentrations of beans and legumes, particularly at the expensive of animal proteins.
- Are there any grain free cat food benefits? When pet nutrition experts talk about grain free cat food, bad things are bound to come up. This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t any benefits. When it comes to grain free cat food, benefits are dependent on the quality and makeup of the product (as is true for any cat food). As long as the product is still high in animal protein and very digestible, it shouldn’t be bad for your cat. If your cat is allergic or sensitive to grains, it could even be the best option.
- Is wet food lower in grains than dry food? If you’re looking for the best grain free cat food, wet food is generally a good option. Wet food tends to be lower in carbohydrates than dry food, though you still need to do your own evaluation to make sure. Grain-inclusive canned foods do exist, but many wet foods are grain free because there is less need for carbohydrate, not necessarily because the manufacturer wanted to make it grain free.
- Should I switch my cat to grain free food? There is not a yes or no answer to this question because it depends on your situation. If you want to increase the quality of your cat’s diet, switching to grain free isn’t a guarantee. You still need to take a look at the guaranteed analysis and the ingredients list to judge the quality of the product for yourself. If your cat has a confirmed allergy to grains, however, you might consider it. Keep in mind that many high-quality cat foods don’t contain common grains like corn, wheat, and soy, so you may not even need to choose a completely grain-free recipe if your cat is sensitive to one of these grains. There’s also always the option to just pick a recipe that doesn’t contain the ingredient your cat is allergic to.
With so many cat food options on the market, it can be tough to make a choice. Don’t assume that everything you read on a cat food label is completely truthful, especially if it’s unclear what a statement like “grain free” actually means. It’s your job to do the research and to make an informed decision that’s good for your cat.
We know it can be overwhelming to pick out a good product, so we’ve done our best to give you the information you need to know what you’re looking for. If you still need a little help picking out a good grain free food, simply try one of our recommendations reviewed above!