Grain is one of the top allergens for dogs. While dogs have evolved to eat grain, according to a study published in the Nature journal, grain does upset some dog’s stomachs and can trigger skin problems in some dogs.1
If your dog is sensitive to grain, finding a grain-free dog food can often be essential to their wellbeing. Luckily, there are tons of grain-free options on the market, mainly due to the misconception that grain-free is healthier for all dogs (read: it isn’t).
Still, sorting through this plethora of grain-free dog foods on the market can be difficult, which is precisely why we made this review article. We’ll discuss some of the best and worst grain-free dog foods on the market and guide you through choosing the best one for your pooch.
A Quick Comparison of Our Favorites in 2022
The 10 Best Grain-Free Dog Foods
1. Merrick Chunky Grain-Free Wet Dog Food – Best Overall
This wet dog food is the best grain-free option currently on the market. It is high in both protein and fat, making it fitting for most canines. The moisture content is very high, so the guaranteed analysis can be somewhat misleading. However, after taking the amount of moisture included in consideration, we found that this dog food included more protein per calorie than most other dog foods on the market.
The ingredient list is practically perfect, as well. Deboned beef is the first ingredient. Because this food is chunky, you can see the bits of beef. Beef broth is included as the second ingredient and adds quite a bit of extra protein and nutrients to this dog food. Vegetable broth is also included and adds several nutrients as well. We also liked the inclusion of beef liver. The liver is a nutrient-dense organ that is an excellent ingredient in dog food.
Many dogs love this food because of its texture. It is chunky, which is quite rare actually. Most wet dog foods are ground. It also includes quite a bit of gravy, which makes it very tasty. If your dog is picky, this is a decent food to try as well.
2. Purina Beyond Wild Grain-Free Dog Food – Best Value
We liked this dog food. The ingredient list is second-to-none. This food contains only animal products and added minerals. The first ingredient is whole chicken, followed by turkey broth, chicken, liver, and duck. We loved that this list includes a variety of different protein sources, which will help prevent the formation of food allergies.
This food is also extremely high in protein and fat while remaining low in carbohydrates. This is how our dogs evolved to eat, so this food is perfect for most canines.
On top of this, this food is high in glucosamine, which can be helpful for canines with joint problems. The inclusion of the liver also increases the percentage of vitamin A, iron, and essential amino acids – all things our dogs need to thrive. Plus, there are no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or peas.
Overall, this food contains everything your dog needs and nothing they don’t, all for a lower price than most of the competition. This is the best grain-free dog food for the money. We really can’t recommend this dog food enough.
3. Instinct Raw Boost Grain-Free Dog Food with Real Chicken – Best for Puppies
This food is suitable for all life stages, including puppies and giant breed puppies. It can meet the nutritional needs of any canine, no matter their age.
This food contains real freeze-dried bits of meat, which increases the protein content substantially. Cage-free chicken is the first ingredient, which is a high-quality protein for most canines. However, many dogs are allergic to chicken because they’ve eaten it so much. If your dog is allergic to chicken, this is not the right dog food for you.
The third ingredient in this dog food is peas. There may be a connection between peas and specific health problems in dogs, which is one reason this food is not rated higher. However, there is currently not certain information on this matter. We are waiting for the FDA to get done with their investigation. In the meantime, you can read more in-depth information on this matter in the buyer’s guide below.
We loved the macronutrient content of this food as well. It is very high in protein and fat, which is exactly what our dogs need to thrive.
4. Wellness CORE Grain-Free Dog Food
Even though this food is rated number four on our list, it is still an excellent option for most dogs. It includes deboned turkey as the first ingredient, followed by turkey meal and chicken meal. Meat meals are not necessarily a harmful ingredient. They are often more nutritious than whole meat. Meal is made by cooking down the meat so that the moisture content is lowered. You basically make broth with it and then keep going. This leaves a nutrient-dense powder behind.
This method of cooking meat is exceptionally suitable for dry dog food since it must be low in moisture to be formed into kibble.
While we have no problem with the meal in this product, we did not appreciate the inclusion of peas. Peas may be linked to specific health problems, which we will discuss more in-depth later. For this reason, we prefer food without peas – if only until the research is out on the pea issue. It is always better to be safe rather than sorry.
The macronutrient content of this food is pretty good, though the fat could be a bit higher.
5. CANIDAE Grain-Free PURE Real Salmon & Sweet Potato Dog Food
This is another decent food, though it isn’t the best we’ve ever seen. It is made from only eight ingredients with no grain included. If your dog is allergic to grain and a variety of other ingredients, this is one of the better dog food options out there that they might tolerate. It is also great for dogs that have sensitive stomachs since the low number of ingredients means there are fewer things that may mess with your dog’s digestion.
The ingredients included are quite high-quality as well. It includes salmon, salmon meal, and menhaden fish meal – three ingredients that are high-quality and reliable choices for any dog food. However, this food also includes peas, which are currently being investigated by the FDA. Peas may be related to certain heart conditions in dogs, though the investigation is currently not complete. This is one of the only significant downsides of this food.
The macronutrient content of this food is pretty decent. It contains a high percentage of protein and fat, which is perfect for most dogs.
6. Nulo Freestyle Salmon & Peas Recipe Grain-Free Adult Dry Dog Food
This food is made from 80% animal-based proteins. All ingredients are low-glycemic, which means that they won’t cause your dog’s blood sugar to spike. We also liked that it contains high levels of vitamin B6 and other amino acids, which are essential for your dog’s muscle mass and heart.
The first ingredient in this dog food is salmon – deboned salmon in particular. Other ingredients include things like turkey meal and menhaden fish meal. We did not have a problem with most of the ingredients. Most are quite high-quality and suitable for almost all canines. However, like many other dog foods on this list, this one also includes peas. As we have discussed in other reviews, peas may be linked to specific heart problems in dogs – though the jury is still out on a definite answer.
On top of the peas, this food also does not contain very much protein. Carbohydrates are quite higher in the food as well. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for all dogs, protein and fat is almost always preferable to carbohydrates in dog food.
7. Taste of the Wild Sierra Mountain Dry Dog Food
Most of the dog foods made by Taste of the Wild are grain-free. Because of this, Taste of the Wild’s recipes are pretty popular among those looking for grain-free dog food. While this food isn’t all bad, many of their recipes aren’t our favorite. We reviewed their Sierra Mountain recipe in particular.
This food includes lamb and lamb meal as the first two ingredients. Lamb is a rare ingredient in the dog food market, so this food may be suitable for dogs with allergies. After these first two ingredients comes a list of vegetables – besides the “egg product” that appears in the number four spot. Some of these veggies are high-quality, but others raise some red flags. Peas and lentils are included pretty high on the list. These ingredients may not be the best for our dogs, which we will discuss in-depth later.
This food is made without grain, corn, wheat, fillers, artificial ingredients, flavors, colors, or preservatives. Overall, it is generally healthy. However, all of the negatives we’ve discussed bumped it’s rating down by quite a bit.
8. American Journey Salmon & Sweet Potato Dog Food
This food is free from grain, including corn and wheat. It is also free from soy, which is another common allergen in dogs. Fillers are avoided, so it may be suitable for dogs with sensitive stomachs as well. It includes an array of nutritious veggies and fruits, like blueberries and carrots. Salmon oil and flaxseed at extra omega fatty acids to the food. This added nutrition helps your dog maintain healthy skin and fur – a particularly nice feature for those who struggle with allergies.
However, that’s really where the positives end. The ingredient list starts out high-quality with deboned chicken as the first ingredient. However, peas show up as the fourth ingredient, and pea protein shows up further down in the list. Protein from meat sources is always a better choice for dogs than protein from plant sources. The amino acids included in each source are just different.
Furthermore, peas may be linked to DCM in dogs, which is a severe heart condition.
The protein content of this food is okay, but we are unsure how much comes from meat. The fat content could be much higher as well.
9. Blue Buffalo Wilderness Chicken Recipe Grain-Free Dog Food
Blue Buffalo is a popular brand, but this recipe disappointed us. The ingredient list starts out okay with deboned chicken and chicken meal. However, it then includes peas and pea protein.
Peas contain quite a bit of protein. Sometimes, dog food companies isolate this protein and add it to their dog food. This raises the protein level of the food. However, plant protein is not the same as meat protein. It simply doesn’t include the same amino acids. Because of this, it is not a quality source of protein for our canines in most cases.
While the protein content of this food is quite high, we have to remember that a lot of it comes from peas. Therefore, the amount of protein from meat is not particularly high. The fat content is low as well. As we will see in the buyer’s guide, our dogs were bred to live off of high quantities of fat, which this food just doesn’t provide.
Besides this substantial complaint, this food is also quite expensive.
10. True Acre Foods Chicken & Vegetable Dog Food
We wanted to like this food. It looks great on the outside. It includes plenty of fiber to support your dog’s digestion, as well as a host of omega fatty acids to support your dog’s skin and coat. It is also free of many artificial ingredients.
However, after some digging, we did find quite a few downsides to this food. While it does include chicken as the first ingredient, peas and pea starch are the second two. While we don’t have the exact amounts of each of these ingredients, we would probably bet that if they were combined, the pea and pea starch would likely be the first ingredient – not the chicken. This is a standard trick dog food companies use to make sure ingredients appear lower on the list.
Peas are not a great ingredient for our dogs. They may be related to certain heart conditions, which we discuss in-depth in our buyer’s guide. The FDA is currently investigating the link.
Poultry by-products are also included in this food. This is troublesome for two reasons. Firstly, by-products are lower quality ingredients in general. Secondly, we don’t know what kind of poultry is included. The ingredient is quite vague. “Poultry” could be many different things.
Buyer’s Guide: Choosing the Best Grain-Free Dog Food
Picking out dog food can be surprisingly complicated. We’re here to arm you with all the information you need to choose the perfect dog food for your canine. Below, you’ll find an explanation of some of the critical concepts you need to know to choose the best grain-free dog food.
What is the deal with peas?
Throughout our reviews section, we’ve knocked a few foods down because they included a substantial amount of peas. While peas are a healthy food for humans, they may not be for our canines.
The FDA is currently investigating a link between certain dog foods and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). This serious heart condition can lead to death in some dogs when untreated.
Though the link is still under investigation, the FDA has discovered the grain-free diets may be the culprit. However, it does not appear to be all grain-free diets. Instead, many of the diets consumed by dogs with DCM seem to be eating dog foods that contain peas or lentils. Some dogs seem to be affected that are eating grain-inclusive foods high in peas and/or lentils.
Therefore, it is likely not the exclusion of grains itself that is causing the problem. Instead, it is likely a multitude of factors such as breeds (Golden Retrievers seem to be particularly affected) and diet. Peas may or may not be a factor, but right now, it seems more like the former.
For now, we think it is safer to choose a food that does not include high amounts of peas – at least while the FDA is investigating the link.
The Importance of Protein and Fat
Today, many dog foods are incredibly high in carbohydrates. The majority on the market appear to be near 50% fat when the moisture content is removed from the equation. Many dogs can get away with eating this many carbohydrates. However, that doesn’t mean they can thrive on this diet.
Every animal needs a certain amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to survive. These three nutrients are called macronutrients. Studies have shown that dogs prefer a macronutrient content containing 30% protein, 63% fat, and 7% carbohydrates. This is the ratio they are naturally meant to consume and what they need to eat to thrive.
When searching for dog food, it is in your pet’s best interest to choose a food that lines up with the ratio as closely as possible. Unfortunately, it is tough to find a food that even comes close to this ratio on the market today. Instead, we recommend aiming to choose food that is as low in carbohydrates as possible.
When reviewing each food, we compared it to this ratio as well. Some foods are ranked very low mostly because they completely miss the mark on their macronutrient content.
Wet or Dry Dog Food?
Many pet parents get hung up on whether to choose dry food or wet food. We’re here to provide a simple answer to this debate: it doesn’t matter. You can find great wet dog foods and great dry dog foods. In the end, it doesn’t matter which form of dog food you choose, as long as it is high-quality. So what is the best grain-free dog food?
Some people press dry dog food because of the misconception that it keeps your dog’s teeth cleaner. However, scientific evidence is mixed in this regard. The only food that seems to keep a dog’s teeth cleaner significantly is food specially designed to do just that. Furthermore, if you’re brushing your dog’s teeth or providing dental chews, it probably isn’t going to matter that much anyway.
Simply put, there are many different ways to keep your dog’s teeth clean. Only feeding them dry food is not one of those ways.
Don’t get stuck on the debate on dry food vs. wet food. Instead, just choose whichever food works best for your canine. Some dogs get gassy on wet dog food, while others find dry dog food very unappetizing. Some dogs couldn’t care less. It’s a matter of personal preference and your dog’s specific reaction.
Do All Dogs Need Grain-Free Food?
Short answer: No. There is no reason for most dogs to eat grain-free food.
Long answer: Despite the push by many companies over the last few years, grain-free food is often not any better for your dog than grain-inclusive foods. In many cases, grain-free foods do not include more meat. Instead, these recipes often include higher quantities of inexpensive veggies, like potatoes and peas. Sometimes these vegetables are worse for our canine than high-quality grains.
Dogs have evolved to eat grain. As they evolved next to people, dogs became more accustomed to human-like diets, which often included higher amounts of carbs. Because of this, most dogs break down starches just fine. Whole grains are often very nutritious.
The only dogs that have to skip the grain are those that are sensitive or allergic to them. If your dog has an adverse reaction to grain, then you should avoid it. However, there is no reason to go switching your dog to a grain-free food if they digest grain just fine.
There are many different grain-free dog foods on the market. On the one hand, this means you have plenty of options to choose from. On the other hand, it also means that it can be challenging to sort through them all. We hope this article pointed you in the right direction and provided you with everything you need to know about grain-free dog foods.
We reviewed ten different dog foods in particular. The Merrick Chunky Grain-Free Wet Dog Food came out on top as the best food you can purchase. It includes high-quality ingredients, including UDSA-inspected beef. The chunky beef pieces and gravy make this food practically irresistible as well.
If you’re on a budget, the Purina Beyond Wild Prey-Inspired Grain-Free Turkey, Liver & Duck is another good option. It is quite inexpensive when compared to other foods. However, it is made almost entirely of meat, which is always a great sign.
Featured Image Credit: Tatjana Baibakova, Shutterstock