Should Labradors Eat Grain-Free? (Important Facts You Must Know)

By Benjamin Tash

In recent years, the hype around grain-free food for dogs have gained controversy for its possible health ramifications long-term. On the other hand, the pet food industry have not taken their supposedly healthy grain-free products off the shelves either, but have instead doubled down on their marketing strategy.

So many dog owners are left confused on whether or not to get their pooches on a grain-free kibble diet as an healthier option after all the marketing hype the pet food companies have propagated.

Labrador owners should be wary of what their dogs’ diet consist of, given that most Labs are predisposed to obesity and sensitive stomachs.

So Here’s Whether Or Not Labradors Should Eat Grain-Free:

Labradors should only follow a strict grain-free diet if they have true grain allergies. Highly processed grain-free legume-based kibbles should be avoided altogether.

Ideally, Labs should be fed with a whole food meat-based diet that is free from legumes or potatoes as its main ingredients. It’s also important to note that commercial grain-free foods that replace grains with low quality and inexpensive plant-based protein sources such as legumes are also laden with high starch content that are detriment to their overall health long-term.

Grain-free commercial pet food have also been linked with an associated drastic rise of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in recent years among Labs.

We’ll discuss the 3 main reasons why commercial grain-free foods aren’t what they’re cracked up to be, and their possible health issues on Labradors in particular. That way, you’re able to make an informed decision on your pooch’s diet moving forward.

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What Exactly Is Grain-Free Dog food & The Hype Behind It

Grain-free dog food comprised of raw meat, organs, bones are the natural biological go-to meal for all dogs, including their ancestors.

However, the commercial grain-free kibbles — which replaces grains with an alternative source of carbohydrates such as starch, legume, sweet potatoes, quinoa — do not intend on replacing grain with a higher meat content and necessary nutrients. As a matter of fact, these grain-free products have just as many carbohydrates as the grain-containing ones, if not more.

The marketing hype of grain-free dry food products has a certain element of truth to it, but these pet food companies aren’t telling you the full picture. Marketing campaign buzzwords like “organic”, “healthy”, and “organic” have little to no meaning if these kibbles have higher carbs and synthetic nutrients.

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It’s important to note that Labradors don’t truly need grain or carbohydrates to sustain their lives, as they usually only need protein and fats to derive their energy from.

Speaking of carbohydrates, you might also be interested in Can a Labrador Eat Rice? (You’d Be Surprised) or Can Labs Eat Corn? (Complete Guide)

3 Specific Reasons Why Grain-Free Diets Are Problematic

1) Cheap sources of low quality protein are used as substitutes.

Pet food companies have not replaced the grains with a higher meat content as thought by many, but instead they have incorporated inexpensive low quality plant-based protein as a substitute.

Plant-based proteins that are mainly used in grain-free kibbles include legumes in the form of lentils, peas, cheak peas, and soybeans which are not only high in starch and carbohydrates, but they also aren’t the best form of protein a Labrador should regularly eat. This is because plant-based protein have lesser amounts of amino acids and are less bioavailable compared to a meat-based protein, which are of a higher quality.

Besides that, the plant-based protein source found in most grain-free kibbles — the legumes — have high levels of lectins and phytic acid which are antinutrients. Antinutrients are natural compounds that interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients such as iron, calcium, manganese and zinc by binding to them. All of which can lead to inflammatory response and mineral deficiency in your Labrador, especially when this breed in particular are predisposed to sensitive stomachs.

To make matters worse, the phytase enzyme which neutralizes the effects of the toxic phytic acid found in lectins are destroyed by the high heat processing that’s used to create most of the commercial pet foods — at about 176°F for kibbles and in the range of 131 to 149°F for canned dog foods.

To add fuel to the fire, plant-based legumes and beans are often sprayed with herbicide glyphosate to dry them before harvesting. And according to a test by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2015 & 2016, almost half of all bean, lentils and pea products have glyphosate detected in them.

Glyphosates, together with the antinutrients found in legumes, tend to exacerbate and destroy the gut lining of your pooch, which then creates a “leaky gut syndrome” which allows the absorption of other toxins now that the gut barrier system has been compromised. As a result, the following implications may occur:

  • Gut inflammation
  • Decreased gut microbes which may weaken immune system and lead to digestive issues in your Labs.

2) Low Quality Starch.

Commercial grain-free pet food, particularly the kibbles and sometimes low quality canned foods, have high amounts of starch in the form of potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa, tapioca and green peas. These starch are high in carbohydrates and they provide little to no nutritional value to your Labrador.

As a matter of fact, these starches are included solely to act as binders in order to hold the kibble particles together after the extrusion process. And they are also nothing but fillers that add to the calories.

Being food-motivated that Labradors are, they would usually get addicted to the sugar found in these starches and carbohydrates that make up from almost 30% to 60% of all kibbles today. That may have explained why your Lab would never get enough of those sweet kibbles.

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High starch content found in grain-free kibbles have also contributed to obesity and other health problems such as bloating, which are prevalent among Labradors today.

Labradors derive most of their energy from proteins and fats. And studies have proven that carbs are not considered an essential part of a healthy canine diet.

In addition to that, dogs lack the amylase enzyme to break down the starch found in these grain-free kibbles and hence, constantly digesting highly processed kibbles filled with high starches would be detrimental for them.

Check Also: Do Labradors Have Sensitive Stomachs? (6 Reasons + 10 Tips You Must Know) or Are Labs Lactose Intolerant? (Can We Give Milk To Labradors?)

3) Associated Rise to DCM Cases

To date, there has been over 1000 reported cases and 300 deaths associated to Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), an enlarged heart condition due to the expansion of the heart’s lower ventricles. Based from a study from the FDA on DCM cases from 2014 to 2019, 90% of the affected dogs have been fed with grain-free foods with 93% of which have had lentils/peas in their foods.

I believe these figures are underreported due to a lack of awareness from pet owners, and the real figures are much likely to be higher.

A recent study from Tufts University delved into the biochemical composition of grain-free & grain-based diets currently under scrutiny by the FDA and its possible links with DCM. The findings of the study indicated that foods comprising of peas, pea protein, pea starch, or pea fiber exhibited the biggest difference across the two diet groups, and was also positively and strongly associated with many compounds that were higher in 3P/FDA foods. 3P means foods with pulses, potatoes, or sweet potatoes. Thus, confirming the link between grain-free dog food and Heart Disease (DCM).

While some breeds such as Doberman Pinschers, Boxers and Great Danes are genetically predisposed to having DCM; breeds such as Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Newfoundland and English Setters are also prone to having DCM from taurine deficiency. It wasn’t till recently when Labs in huge proportions succumb to such cardiac diseases, and it does correlate to the uptake of grain-free foods in Labs.

Studies have also shown that adult Labradors fed with high legume inclusion grain-free diets for 30 days tend to display commonalities with dogs with suspected dilated cardiomyopathy, thus proving the susceptibility of Labs to DCM.

Read Also: Why Do Labradors Die Young? (7 Reasons You Should Know + Tips For Longevity)

Why Are Grain-Free Foods The Possible Culprit?

Dilated Cardiomyopathy is most commonly associated to taurine deficiency, amongst other factors.

Instead of adding higher quality animal based protein into the food as expected by many, pet food companies skimp on production costs by incorporating cheap plant-based ingredients such as legumes, starch and potatoes to replace the grains — which are as equally as bad, if not much less.

Breeds such as Labradors do need a certain amount of supplemental taurine or other amino acids for supplemental taurine production in their body for their heart health. Since plant-based proteins found in grain-free do not have methionine and cysteine amino acids — to induce taurine production in their bodies —nor do have taurine in them, Labradors are prone to suffer from taurine deficiency if such foods make up a huge proportion of their diet intake.

The other reason why legume-based grain-free diets are detrimental to your Labrador is due to the changes in microbiome in guts. This is because of the glyphosates  and lectins found in grain-free kibbles in the form of legumes are responsible for inflammation and break down of the intestinal gut.

And that may lead to an increase in toxin absorption which also means that lower amounts of taurine and other essential amino acids are absorbed by the gut. Changes in the microbiome of the guts may also lead to an increase in taurine-degrading bacteria as per the report by “Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Diet in Dogs”.

You might also want to check out Why Does My Labrador Fart So Much? (8 Reasons + Tips On What To Do)

What Should You Feed Your Labrador Instead of Grain-Free Food?

It’s been advised by professionals to not feed your Lab with a grain-free diet unless your pooch has a true grain allergy.

Ideally, your labrador should be fed with whole food meat-based diets that are free of legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients. Feeding them with processed foods as their main dietary intake should be minimized at all costs because of heat-damaged deficient nutrients in them including taurine.

Studies have also shown that excessively heat-treated kibbles are poorly digested by pooches compared to a raw meat diet, thus lowering the amount of taurine absorption altogether.

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Therefore, grain-inclusive and legume-based grain-free processed kibbles should be avoided altogether for the sake of your Labrador’s health. Place a huge emphasis on providing your pooch with loads of meat-based diet with either raw or cooked meat.

Many dogs thrive on a raw meat diet as it’s a natural form of food source for them for ages, if not centuries and raw meats are typically packed with high quality protein, fats, vitamins and minerals that are biologically suitable for energy-driven Labs.

It’s also important to note that cooked foods for your pooch should be  loaded with proteins and fats, and carbohydrate content be kept at a minimum of at most 10%.

If you can’t afford a raw meat diet nor do you have the time to cook for your pooch, then consider getting a meat-based canned food instead. Though canned foods are still highly processed and are much more expensive than kibbles, their benefits far outweigh the potential health risks of a kibble diet entails. A meat-based legume-free canned dog foods have:

  • Lesser starch content
  • No indigestible fillers
  • Better protein quality
  • Poses a lower bloating & obesity risk for your Lab. 

Apart from that, you should also keep in mind to refrain from feeding them certain fruits that are toxic to them, i.e., grapes. Find out why here: Can A Labrador Eat Grapes/Green Grapes? (Crucial Info)

You might also be interested in Can Labs Eat Raw Eggs? (All You Must Know)

Other Articles You’ll Enjoy:


FDA: FDA Investigation into Potential Link between Certain Diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy

AKC: Grain-Free Diets — What Pet Owners need to know

Intvetcare: Toxic Foods? — Understanding the impact of Legumes and Grain-free Diets on Dogs

Inspection Canada Gov: Food Safety Bulletin — Executive Summary: Glyphosate Testing

TUFTS Study — Smith, C.E., Parnell, L.D., Lai, CQ. et al. Investigation of diets associated with dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs using foodomics analysis. Sci Rep 11, 15881 (2021).

McCauley, Sydney R., et al. Review of canine dilated cardiomyopathy in the wake of diet-associated concern. Journal of Animal Science. Volume 98, Issue 6, June 2020, skaa155

Smith, Caren E., et al. Investigation of diets associated with dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs using foodomics analysis. Scientific Reports.Volume 11, Article number: 15881 (2021)

Panacer K, Whorwell PJ. Dietary Lectin exclusion: The next big food trend?. World J Gastroenterol. 2019;25(24):2973-2976.

 Willy J.Peumans and EISJ.M. Van Damme. Lectins as PIant Defense Proteins. Laboratory for Phytopathology and Plant Protection, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.

Ilka M Vasconcelos, José Tadeu A Oliveira, Antinutritional properties of plant lectins. Toxicon, Volume 44, Issue 4, 2004, Pages 385-403, ISSN 0041-0101