Carbohydrates in Dog Food

carbohydrates in dog food
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Dogs have no nutritional need for carbohydrates, not even fiber. Yet there’s often a large percentage of carbohydrates in dog food.

There are several reasons why: 

  • The machinery that produces dry kibble requires sufficient carbohydrates to make the dough pasty and expandable.
  • Dog food must provide sufficient energy (calories), and carbs are the cheapest source of calories. Excessive carbs are an indicator of poorer quality food.
  • Dry food is far more profitable to manufacturers because it reduces the cost of ingredients. It also lowers the cost of packaging, transportation, storage, and other aspects of bringing dog foods to market. 
  • In both dry and canned foods, carbs are used for taste and texture. Those nuggets, cuts and chunks are made of – and held together by – sticky carbs like glutens, gums, and proteoglycans (proteins coated with sugars). 

All carbohydrates (except fiber) ultimately break down into simple sugars. And some foods have added sugars as well … keep reading to learn more about those ingredients. 

Can Dogs Digest Carbohydrates?

Dogs are perfectly capable of digesting and using carbohydrates, especially when they are pre-processed by cooking, as they are in processed dog foods. But dogs are also perfectly able to convert proteins in their diet into the glucose they need for metabolic functions. Carbs do provide energy (calories), and they may taste good. Vegetables and grains usually contain protein, a little fat, and other nutrients as well as carbs. 

A few years ago, pet food makers made much ado about a study showing that dogs have more copies of a gene involved in carb digestion than wolves. But this just shows the evolutionary flexibility dogs have developed in response to the food that was available to them. It does not mean dogs should eat carbs. It just means that they can derive nutrition from them if that’s what they’re given to eat. 

Health Impact Of Carbohydrates In Dog Food

Most dry kibble dog foods contain 30-60% grains or other starchy vegetables like potatoes and legumes. Foods that are high in carbohydrate aren’t healthy for your dog because they … 

  • Play havoc with insulin metabolism 
  • Disrupt the gut microbiome
  • Cause excessive hunger and obesity
  • Create inflammation that leads to tissue and organ degeneration

The highly-refined carbs in dog food actually make your dog hungrier, because they are so quickly digested, transported, and absorbed into cells. Blood sugar goes down, which triggers hunger hormones. So starchy foods are often a cause of obesity in dogs.

Given that inflammation is at the root of many canine degenerative diseases, reducing or eliminating foods that contribute to inflammation makes sense. 

Diet has a major impact on the gut microbiome. Research suggests that this is a major factor in obesity. Fortunately, when kibble-fed dogs are switched to a raw diet, their microbiome is able to substantially shift back to a more wolf-like gut bacteria population. 

Grain-Free Isn’t Better

Grains, ancient grains, legumes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are all very high in carbohydrates. Using them in “grain-free” foods does not equate to “low carb.” In some cases, grain-free and even minimally processed dog foods are actually higher in carbs than most dry dog food.

RELATED: Is starch bad for dogs?

Sugar Feeds Cancer Cells

As I mentioned earlier, all carbohydrates except fiber break down into simple sugars. Many dog foods contain other sugary ingredients as well. Watch out for ingredients like bakery products, beet pulp, cane, molasses, sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, molasses and anything that ends in “ol.” They’re all sugars. 

One of the best reasons to avoid foods with starch and sugar ingredients is that sugar is the favorite food of cancer. Cancer cells have limited metabolism that requires glucose. While the rest of your dog’s body can use protein and fat for energy, cancer can’t. This is the philosophy behind feeding ketogenic diets that are very low in carbohydrates to dogs with cancer.  

For your dog’s health, it’s best to avoid processed carbohydrates in dog food as best you can. 

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