Why are many pet food companies using ancient grains?
Recently, veterinarians and consumers have been misled into thinking grain-free foods cause dilated cardiomyopathy (heart disease) in dogs. Instead of educating consumers and veterinarians about the nutrition and science of their grain-free foods, many companies chose to remain silent, and instead quickly developed and launched products with “ancient” grains to help save market share. Unfortunately, many of these companies have fallen into the same pitfall by launching these new products without data to support their efficacy in providing adequate nutrition. In other words, these foods could cause the very issue they are promoted to “solve”. Failure to back your foods with 3rd party nutrient analysis, 3rd party digestibility, etc. will further ruin the reputation of their company.
What are ancient grains?
Ancient grains include millet, quinoa, spelt, amaranth and teff to name a few. Contrary to what marketing tells us, nutritionally, ancient grains are like well-known grains like corn, rice and oats. Ancient grains are plants that have been popular in many geographies for a long period of time, although they are newly popular to the United States as a food import. More recently both quinoa and millet have been touted as superior ingredients in many “premium” pet foods.
Why doesn’t Guardian use millet or quinoa, also known as “ancient” grains?
Given our co-founder’s background, ingredients within our food and the benefits they provide to the animal must be supported by and backed by science. In addition, those ingredients must also be sustainable. As a result, failure to meet both criteria results in the exclusion of that ingredient in our foods. In the case of millet, multiple studies (graphs below) have found millet to be inferior or like corn in the total tract, protein, and fat digestibility. Given these facts, millet arguably should not be used in pet food. Because we focus on delivering the proper nutrition with "rock star" digestibility we cannot logically justifying paying for a more expensive ingredient that provides less nutrition (Graphs 1 and 2 below)?
Why is digestibility important?
We often harp on digestibility because it is critical in evaluating pet food and ingredients within it. Digestibility studies, involves collecting stool and analyzing it to determine the percentage of macronutrients and micronutrients absorbed compared to what was fed. This process does not involve any invasive procedures, inhumane conditions or otherwise harm to the animal. Shoot does not everyone clean up after their dog or clean the litter box daily? In short, this means companies who don’t perform digestibility testing have no idea what the actual calorie content, or digestibility of their food is – meaning that your pet is ultimately the one being experimented on. This is particularly true for foods with ancient grains. Additionally, it is important to remember that the DCM scare was largely focused on lack of known nutrient content and the digestibility of grain-free foods.
Regarding quinoa, do you know the story behind quinoa’s rise in popularity in human nutrition?
Quinoa is native to the Andes region in South America (Peru & Bolivia), which is where most of the quinoa today comes from. Quinoa fields once covered a small percentage of the land, and llamas grazed on the rest which protected the soil and re-fertilized the land with manure. Given the quinoa boom which helped the economy, farmers began selling of their llamas to grow more quinoa. The result was more clear-cutting of farmland, the use of new fertilizers for maintaining the nutrients in the soil, pollution from other agricultural chemicals and now erosion and strains on limited water resources. Additionally, demand in EU and the USA has caused prices to increase six-fold in less than a decade creating a sustainability crisis. As a result, the poor can no longer afford to eat the crop they grow (Cherfas. 2016. NPR).
Quinoas in-appropriateness in pet food:
Additionally, Godoy (2020) presented data at the American Society of Animal Sciences demonstrating that quinoa is less digestible than millet and equivalent to both rice and oat groats (Graph 3). So, you are simply paying for marketing and an over-priced grain!
Given all of these facts, Guardian choses to not use quinoa in our foods due to the socioeconomic concerns, environmental impact and because data available does not show nutritional benefit over traditional grains. Just because the ingredient is plant-based does not mean it is sustainable nor have a harmful impact in the world. Additionally, we are not the type of company that focuses on the latest ingredient fads that does not have any provide any nutritional benefits over common ingredients used today. Said differently, ancient or common a grain is a grain! Said differently, ancient or common a grain is a grain!
More importantly, Guardian will only launch a product when all our requirements are met such as 3rd party nutrient analysis and 3rd party digestibility. Both of which are and will always be available on our website. We do this to be transparent and so consumers can make educated decisions on what to feed their pets. This helps break through the marketing hype, or in other words, it helps separates facts from fiction. When looking for a dog or cat food you should as a pet owner know the nutrient content and digestibility of the food they are feeding. If you ask the company for this information and they say it is proprietary, then move to a company that is more transparent and is willing to share the data.
Kore et al., 2009 Evaluation of alternative cereal sources in dog diets: effect on nutrient utilization and hindgut fermentation characteristics. J. Sci. Food. Agric. 89:2174-2180.
Fortes et al., 2010. Digestibility and metabolizable energy of some carbohydrate sources for dogs. Animal Feed Science and Technology. 156:121-125.
Godoy. 2020. Awardee Talk: Corbin Companion Animal Biology Award. 2020 ASAS-CSAS-WSASAS Virtual Meeting.