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Grain vs. Grain-Free Dog Food: Which One’s Better?

Written by: Oliver Jones

Last Updated on May 17, 2024 by Dogster Team

Grain vs Grain-Free Dog Food - Featured Image

Grain vs. Grain-Free Dog Food: Which One’s Better?

The grain versus grain-free debate is a controversial and heated topic in the dog world, especially when it comes to specialty dog food. Many dog owners only buy grain-free dog food, while others prefer dog food containing whole grains. There are many reasons why a dog owner would and should choose one over the other, especially if it’s a vet recommendation and the appropriate diet for your dog. Things like allergies and digestion are important to consider as well, so choosing between a grain or grain-free diet is not exactly easy. If you’re not sure which is better for your dog, read on to see which one could potentially suit your dog better.

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At a Glance

Image Credit: Left – Grain Dog Food (Ekaterina Markelova, Shutterstock); Right – Grain-Free Dog Food (Mat Coulton, Pixabay)
Grain Dog Food
  • Whole Grains
  • Health Benefits
  • Potential Health Risks
  • Price & Availability
Grain-free Dog Food
  • Grain-Free/Limited Ingredients
  • Health Benefits
  • Potential Health Risks
  • Price & Availability

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Overview of Grain Dog Food

metal dog food bowl
Image By: Alkhaine, Pixabay

Whole Grains

Before grain-free dog food became a trending dog product, many dog food blends and recipes contained whole grains. Grain dog food usually contains one or multiple: rice, wheat, barley, oats, corn, and soy. Some grain dog food is soy, wheat, and corn-free but still contains other sources of grains. Some premium brands of limited-ingredient diets will still use one or two types of grains, usually selecting oats or rice. Grain dog food is coming back in popularity, but with fewer corn-based and soy-based products hitting the shelves.

Health Benefits

Grains contain multiple vitamins and minerals, as well as providing your dog with healthy carbohydrates. They are rich in nutrients like iron, B vitamins, and magnesium, as well as dietary fiber to help digestion. Dog foods containing grains contain extra protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are both essential to your dog’s overall health and well-being. They can help improve your dog’s skin and coat, making it healthier and softer to the touch.

Potential Health Risks

Grains were once the suspect of dog allergies, especially in dogs that constantly itch and have digestive issues. The biggest offenders were wheat, soy, and corn, though rice was considered just as bad at one point. However, dogs are more likely to be allergic to protein rather than grains, with poultry and pork being the most likely proteins to set off allergic reactions. However, there are dogs that are truly allergic to some grains, so it’s not something to rule out right away unless through an elimination diet.

  • Provides balance with whole grains
  • Great source of carbohydrates
  • Contains B vitamins, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids
  • Corn, wheat, and soy may trigger allergies

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Overview of Grain-Free Dog Food

dalmatian dog eating dry food from a bowl
Image Credit: Sergey Fatin, Shutterstock

Grain-Free/Limited Ingredients

Grain-free dog food became a hot topic of debate, and millions of dog owners ditched their grain dog food, hoping to cure their dog’s allergies and other health issues. With wheat, corn, and soy being the worst of the bunch, grains were being blamed for allergies, skin conditions, digestive issues, and even joint problems. Longtime dog food brands, as well as new brands, created their version of grain-free dog food to keep up with the demand since many people assumed grains were now bad. Although the grain-free fad has considerably slowed down, there are plenty of dog food brands that still sell their grain-free recipes. Many of these recipes are limited-ingredient recipes, which use only a handful of ingredients to prevent allergic flare-ups.

Health Benefits

One of the best perks of grain-free dog food, especially with premium dog food companies, is that the food usually contains a small number of ingredients. That can seriously help eliminate allergies and stomach issues unless one of the limited ingredients is an allergy trigger. Grain-free dog food usually contains potatoes and peas for carbohydrates instead of relying on filler-ingredient grains to fuel your dog’s energy. Dog recipes that are limited ingredient or grain-free also tend to be a little higher quality at the budget level, especially compared to older value brands that were created decades earlier.

Potential Health Risks

While grain-free dog food was once hailed as the best diet for your canine, the pet industry was sent reeling by a massive FDA grain-free dog food recall in 2018. Studies found a connection between dogs with dilated canine cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free dog foods with high concentrations of lentils, potatoes, legumes, and peas. Cardiomyopathy is a serious heart condition that can be fatal, which is why the FDA made a massive recall of grain-free brands. However, that doesn’t mean every case of DCM is caused by grain-free dog foods, so don’t ditch your dog’s diet without talking to your vet first.

  • Contains no grains (soy, wheat, corn, etc.)
  • Non-grain sources of carbs and fats
  • Can be better quality dog food
  • May lead to serious heart problems like DCM
  • Limited ingredient recipes may still contain allergens


How Do They Compare?

dog food bowl-pixabay
Image Credit: ariesa66, Pixabay


  • Edge: Grain Dog Food

While limited-ingredient recipes are a great concept for higher-quality dog food, many of them are grain-free dog foods containing ingredients possibly linked to DCM. We like the high-quality standards of most premium grain-free dog food brands, but there are high-quality dog food brands that do contain grains and no fillers. Unless your dog has very specific grain allergens and is not predisposed to heart problems, a grain-free diet is most likely not the best option. The edge goes to grain dog food.


  • Edge: Varies

While grain-free diets tend to be a bit more expensive, there are plenty of budget grain-free dog foods and premium grain dog foods. There are many different dog food brands that offer both budget and premium, so both diets can be affordable and expensive. Neither diet really has an edge price-wise, though grain dog food has more budget options.

Health Risks

  • Edge: Grain Dog Food

While grain dog food was blamed for dog allergies, grain-free dog food does not look as perfect due to the FDA’s findings. It’s important to point out that there are grain dog foods containing lentils, potatoes, and peas, but not in the high concentrations that grain-free diets use to replace grains. Limited ingredients may help dogs with severe food allergies, but they’re not always the best diet option. When it comes to the health risks of both diets, grain dog food gets the edge.



When it comes to dog food, there are a lot of opinions on what is considered “healthy” for your dog. The debate between grain and grain-free dog food is still a hot topic, but the FDA’s recall list caused a lot of commotion. Grain dog food is not nearly as bad as grain-free dog food brands claim, but it still has a slightly negative connotation. Unless your dog has a confirmed grain allergy or needs a limited ingredient diet, your dog can live a long, healthy life on a grain dog food diet. We highly recommend asking a veterinarian for dog food recommendations before switching to new dog food, especially if it’s a complete and total diet change.

Featured Image Credit: (Grain) nadisja, Shutterstock, (Grain Free) 279photo Studio, Shutterstock

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