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The 2021 Guide to Choosing the Best Low-Carb Dog Food
I've been banging the anti-carbohydrate drum a lot as of late.
Not without good reason, of course. The evidence shows that excessive carbohydrate consumption is one of the primary causes of obesity. And it shows that canine obesity is the single most-common deadly canine nutritional disorder in the United States. It isn't hyperbole to say that carbs are killing our dogs.
Now, for those of you just tuning-in, here's what we've already covered:
I've explained how starchy and sugary carbohydrates make dogs (and their humans) fat. I've written about why dogs have no nutritional need for carbs, why wolves don't eat any carbs, and why, despite all this, Big Kibble continues to pack its food products with corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, and all kinds of other starchy carbohydrates.
Perhaps after reading all this you've considered switching your dog from a starchy kibble to a low-carb dog food. And, if you have, then you already know that one of the toughest things about low-carb dog foods is that they tend to cost somewhat more than higher-carb products do.
But for most of us that's about as far as the analysis goes. Because figuring out exactly how various products stack up against each other is hard -- the bag sizes aren't standardized, the serving sizes aren't standardized, a cup of one kind of food might contain more than twice as many calories as a cup of another, there isn't enough meaningful calorie information on the bag to guide us, blah blah blah.
Here's the bottom-line: Doing a true side-by-side comparison involves real, laborious calculator work.
So, in an effort to help you all understand how it will impact your budget if you switch your dog to a low-carb diet, I broke out my calculator. Over the past month or so I've been gathering nutritional and pricing data on an assortment of different low-carb dog food options. This post is a summary of my findings.
I focused my research exclusively on two factors -- price and digestible carbohydrate content. In other words, this is not a complete nutritional analysis of these various foods. That complex analysis would far exceed what this platform can accommodate.
What it is is a very thorough and accurate analysis of two very important issues. So, all else being equal, it will show you which supposedly "low-carb" products cost least (on a per-serving basis) and which products deliver the lowest per-serving carbohydrate content.
In the paragraphs that follow, I'll show you exactly how much low-carb bang you get for your buck with many of the most popular low-carb dog food options on the market today. Want to know how to keep your dog lean without cutting calories or breaking the bank? Then this post is for you.
Group 1: Big Kibble
Let's start things off by looking at a few garden-variety, carbed-out Big Kibble options from a few different price points and let's see where they come in, both in terms of price/serving and in terms of total carbohydrate content:
Purina Pro Plan Savor Adult Shredded Blend Lamb & Rice Formula
Max. Moisture: 12%
Minimum Crude Protein: 26%
Minimum Crude Fat: 16%
Max. Crude Fiber: 3%
Approximate Non-Fiber ("Digestible") Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 43%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Rice, Whole Grain Wheat, Corn Gluten Meal, Barley, Oat Meal.
Food/500 Calories: 132.70 g
Food/Bag: 8,165 g
Cost/500-Calorie Serving: $0.60
Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 40.0%
Ah, good ol' ProPlan.
Or, as the Purina website proudly proclaims, the "fuel" behind "eight straight Westminster Best in Show Winners." (Just take a look at that appalling list of primary non-animal ingredients -- no veggies, all starches -- and try to wrap your head around how ALL of the last eight Westminster Best in Show winners are on that food. That's mind-boggling. But I digress.)
It doesn't get any more "garden variety Big Kibble" than this. So, in my mind, this is the perfect place to begin our analysis.
More specifically, at an approximate cost of $0.60/serving (assuming that our dog only needs 500 calories/day) and with approximately 40% of calories coming from non-fibrous carbs.
That's a diet that's nearly one-half carbohydrates, but at a cost of only $0.60 for every 500 calories worth of food.
Now, as we look at other foods, we can use the ProPlan data as something of a baseline.
Oh, but before we move on, here are a few common 500-calorie human foods, just so you can see how the amounts we budget for dog food compare with what we shell out every day for our own enjoyment:
McDonalds Quarter Pounder with Cheese [520 calories, $3.79/burger];
Chipotle salad with steak, romaine lettuce, cheese, black beans, salsa, and fajita vegetables [485 calories, $7.50/salad];
Applebee's Tuscan Garden Chicken Salad [590 calories, $11.99/meal];
7.5oz. filet mignon [510 calories, a lot of money].
So, calorie-for-calorie, switching all those Westminster champs from ProPlan over to an "all-Quarter Pounder" diet would increase the cost of feeding them by about 700%. In other words, this ProPlan stuff is cheap.
(Also worth noting: switching your dog from ProPlan to an all-Quarter Pounder diet would reduce the animal's carbohydrate intake by about 25%.)
Blue Buffalo BLUE Wilderness Rocky Mountain Recipe with Red Meat
Max. Moisture: 10%
Minimum Crude Protein: 30%
Minimum Crude Fat: 10%
Max. Crude Fiber: 10%
Approximate Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 38.5%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Peas, pea protein, tapioca starch, dried tomato pomace, potatoes.
Food/500 Calories: 152.16 g
Food/Bag: 10,000 g
Bottom Line Information:
Price/500 Calorie Serving: $0.87
Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 41.0%
With marketing materials that cry out "down with those big dog food companies!" and "feed your dog like a wolf!" Blue Buffalo is doing its best to align itself with what consumers want.
The only problem is they're completely full of it.
For one, the Blue Buffalo Company is owned by General Mills, one of the largest food (cereal!) manufacturers in the world. Blue Buffalo isn't anti-Big Kibble, Blue Buffalo is Big Kibble. Don't let the "aw, shucks" tone of their nationally-televised commercials fool you.
And as far as the whole "like a wolf" thing goes, I don't need to remind you that wolves don't eat things like tapioca starch and potatoes.
But here's the bottom-line:
The per-serving cost of this product is about 50% more than our ProPlan baseline. And the carbohydrate content is essentially identical. So if your goal is to cut your dog's total carb intake without breaking the bank, switching from ProPlan to Blue Buffalo ain't exactly the way to do it.
Hill's Science Diet Adult Chicken & Barley Recipe Dry Dog Food
Max. Moisture: 10%
Minimum Crude Protein: 19.5%
Minimum Crude Fat: 11.5%
Max. Crude Fiber: 4%
Approximate Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 55%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Barley, wheat, corn, sorghum, corn gluten meal.
Food/500 Calories: 136.72 g
Food/Bag: 15,876 g
Bottom Line Information:
Price/500 Calorie Serving: $0.47
Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 52.6%
No discussion of "Big Kibble" would be complete without Hill's Pet Nutrition.
If you want a detailed breakdown of the company's shameful (but successful) effort to manipulate the veterinary community into recommending its products, you can find that in some of my other articles (and, in longer form, in my book).
For our purposes here, I'll just note that every bag of Hill's pet food proudly boasts that it is the "Number One Recommended Brand Among U.S. Veterinarians!" This gives you a good idea of how much U.S. veterinarians, as a whole, care about the issue of carbohydrate minimization. Because this product contains as much digestible carbohydrate per serving as you're likely to find anywhere in the pet food universe.
In fact, the carbohydrate content is nearly three times as high as the protein content. That's so insane that it's almost impressive.
It's also bad value. Because, if your dog needs about 500 calories per day, then switching from this product to our ProPlan baseline will only increase your pet food budget by a little more than a dime a day. And, at the same time, it'll reduce your dog's carbohydrate intake by almost 25 percent.
I literally cannot think of a single legitimate (i.e., evidence-based) reason why a dog owner would choose this product over the hundreds of others presently available. And somehow it is the number one vet-recommended brand. It boggles the mind.
So that's it when it comes to "standard" kibbles. Obviously there are plenty of other products out there but I'm just one man and you've all got a limited attentional bandwidth anyways. So hopefully that gave you a meaningful sense of what to expect from that category of products.
To summarize, with a standard kibble you're going to pay about $0.50-$1.00 for every 500 calories of food. And in return you'll get a product that is somewhere around 40-50% carbohydrate.
Group 2: Super-Premium Kibbles
Now let's go to our second category, the fancy kibbles. These are kibble-ized food products that have cultivated a reputation for being relatively low-carbohydrate and relatively high-quality. Who lives up to their reputation and who falls short? Let's take a look:
Orijen Regional Red (Kibble-Style)
Max. Moisture: 12%
Minimum Crude Protein: 38%
Minimum Crude Fat: 18%
Max. Crude Fiber: 4%
Approximate Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 28%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Red Lentils, pinto beans, green peas, green lentils, navy beans, chickpeas.
Food/500 Calories: 129.53 g
Food/Bag: 11,339 g
Cost/500 Calories: $1.31
Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 25.4%
Okay, this is obviously a big improvement over the standard kibbles. The digestible carbohydrate content here is around 37% lower than the Blue Buffalo and Purina products considered above. And it's a whopping 50% lower than the Science Diet!
And, yes, you'll pay more. But it's important to note that the price difference feels a lot more significant on a relative basis than on an absolute one.
Specifically, the price here is roughly twice as much as our ProPlan baseline. Which, of course, feels like a lot. But, at 500 calories/day, that only works out to a difference of about $0.70/day. Which doesn't feel so bad at all. Being someone who views carbohydrate minimization as the single most important issue when shopping for a new dog food, I'll definitely trade a can of soda per day for half the carbs.
Ketona Chicken Recipe For Adult Dogs
Max. Moisture: 10%
Minimum Crude Protein: 46%
Minimum Crude Fat: 16%
Max. Crude Fiber: 11%
Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Measured): 5.0%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Pea protein, green peas, oat hulls, flaxseed meal.
Food/500 Calories: 150.29 g
Food/Bag: 10,977 g
Cost/500 Calories: $1.47
Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 5.3%
Now, first thing's first: take a look at the name of this website; I founded the company that makes this product. I have a major financial conflict of interest here.
That said, it seems to me that the numbers really do speak for themselves. With only about 5% of calories coming from carbs, Ketona is as close to carbohydrate-free as you're going to find in a kibble product.
The Orijen product above was by far the lowest-carb kibble of our analysis so far. And Ketona contains about 80% less carbohydrate than that. It's truly in a league of its own.
The price is fractionally higher than the Orijen product and more than twice as much as the various Big Kibble offerings. But in the broader food universe it is still absurdly inexpensive. Less than a cup of coffee. Half the price of a fast-food hamburger. The gratiuity on a single beer.
I'm as biased as it gets here, but if you're looking to minimize your dog's carbohydrate intake and maximize it's meat consumption, and if you can't afford a raw product, Ketona is really your only logical choice. Like I said, its numbers really are in a league of their own.
Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Satiety Support
Max. Moisture: 10%
Minimum Crude Protein: 28.5%
Minimum Crude Fat: 7.5%
Min. Crude Fiber: 14.8%
Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 39.7%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Corn, wheat gluten, wheat, corn gluten meal.
Food/500 Calories: 173.31 g
Food/Bag: 11,975 g
Cost/500 Calories: $1.30
Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 48.2%
Two preliminary things are worth noting about this product.
The first is that it's only available with a veterinarian's prescription. So if the manufacturer (Royal Canin, a division of Mars Petcare) wants to sell it, it needs to persuade veterinary professionals that it works, not you.
The second is that it justifies its ultra-premium price point (almost identical to Orijen's) through the claim that it does something special: it improves satiety (i.e., it makes your dog feel "full").
Now I don't want to beat a dead horse here, but this is yet another reminder that vets really don't give a hoot about minimizing your dog's carbohydrate intake. Because about half of the calories in each bag of this food come from carbs. That's twice as high as Orijen and ten times as high as Ketona.
If you care about reducing your dog's carbohydrate intake in a budget-friendly manner, this definitely is not the product for you. It's got the high digestible carbohydrate content of Hill's Science Diet, but with the high price of Orijen. The worst of both worlds!
(One other note here: the entire basis for the "greater satiety" claim is the fact that the product is packed with a lot of indigestible fiber. But while indigestible fiber does indeed make dogs feel full, it does so without providing any caloric nutrition. This is because the fiber literally doesn't get digested. It just sits in the animal's stomach for a while (long enough to make it feel full) before passing right out the other end without being digested. So while it takes fewer calories to make your dog feel full, it also takes more food to give your dog the same number of calories as a lower-fiber food. It's a trick, and not a particularly nuanced one. The fact that lots of veterinarians fall for it is a seriously damning indictment of their nutritional science literacy.)
Group 3: Freeze-Dried Raw Foods
Unlike kibble products, which are produced through a manufacturing process called "extrusion," freeze-dried foods can be produced without using starchy carbohydrates as ingredient binders. And so they generally wind up much lower than kibbles in total carbohydrate content.
But it's important to note that these products come with two important drawbacks as well. The first, as you'll soon see, are the high prices. The second is the fact that they are comparably difficult to prepare. While kibble is as easy as meal-prep gets (shelf stable, scoop-and-serve), these products need to be "rehydrated" prior to feeding.
Let's take a closer look at the numbers.
Orijen Regional Red (Freeze-Dried)
Max. Moisture: 4%
Minimum Crude Protein: 36%
Minimum Crude Fat: 35%
Max. Crude Fiber: 5%
Approximate Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 11%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Pea fiber, pumpkin, collared greens, carrots, apples.
Food/500 Calories: 99.40 g
Food/Bag: 454 g
Cost/500 Calories: $8.75
Approximate Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 7.65%
If you accept the evidence that low-carb diets are healthful for dogs then there can be little doubt that this is a good product, nutritionally-speaking. The carbohydrate content is less than 10%, which is far lower than every kibble product in our analysis except for Ketona.
But there's a really large downside too. On a per-serving basis, this food costs a shocking fifteen times as much as ProPlan and six times as much as Ketona.
Those are not misprints. You're talking about a month's worth of ProPlan every two days. The jump from ProPlan to here is roughly analogous to the price difference between a fast-food hamburger and a dry-aged, USDA Prime ribeye at Peter Luger.
In the end, the only way this product is the right fit for you is if you meet all three of the following prerequisites: (1) you believe in the value of low-carb diets, (2) you've got the patience and time to prepare a freeze-dried product for each meal, and (3) you put a tremendous amount of stock in the notion that raw ingredients are inherently healthier than cooked versions of the same ingredients (an idea that, as I've explained elsewhere, doesn't have evidentiary support). If you take away any one of those elements, then one of the other products in our analysis seems to become a better choice.
Primal Pet Foods -- Canine Lamb Formula (Freeze-Dried)
Max. Moisture: 7%
Minimum Crude Protein: 34%
Minimum Crude Fat: 30%
Minimum Crude Fiber: 4%
Approximate Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 19%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Carrots, squash, kale, apples, broccoli, pumpkin seeds.
Food/500 Calories: 95.82 g
Food/Bag: 397 g
Cost/500 Calories: $7.73
Approximate Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 12.66%
There's not a great deal to differentiate this from the freeze-dried Orijen product. The carbs are somewhat higher (with about 13% of calories coming from digestible carbohydrates), but the price point and carbohydrate sources are pretty similar.
This means that the take-home message here is about the same as that from Orijen's freeze-dried "Regional Red" formula: if you can afford it and tolerate the inconvenience then the nutritional content is way ahead of all the kibble products other than Ketona.
Ketona, by comparison, contains less than half as much digestible carbohydrate, costs about 80 percent less, and doesn't require any kind of elaborate preparation and sanitation procedures. As I keep saying, I'm biased. But it sure looks like a no-brainer to me.
And we'll leave it at that when it comes to freeze-dried raw foods.
Lots of good things to say about the makeup of these foods. Relatively low-carb, relatively low-GI, diverse ingredient sources, organ meats, etc.
But, I must say, these per-serving prices blew my mind. I was most definitely not expecting them to be this high on a per-serving basis.
When you stack them up against the other categories of food in our analysis, the per-serving prices are so high that they really only represent a viable option if (1) you've only got one or two little dogs and you go through food very slowly; or (2) you've got a budget that can easily accommodate monthly dog food outlays that dwarf those that the average kibble-feeder spends on dog food; or (3) your budget isn't infinite but you think that one or more of these foods is, qualitatively, miles ahead of those found in the other categories.
It's very important to remember that these prices are not objectively high -- after all, at the end of the day, they're just a little more than our all-Quarter-Pounder diet would cost -- it's just that they are very high in comparison to our baseline, standard kibble. If you feel any "sticker shock" from this analysis, the conceptual take-home should be that most kibbles are ridiculously cheap, not that the other foods are ridiculously expensive.
But enough about all that. Let's move on to our fourth and final group: the "fresh" pet food delivery services.
Group 4: "Fresh" Pet Food Delivery Services
These brands started springing up right around the time that a cluster of human-use consumer products startups (Dollar Shave Club, Blue Apron) began attracting a great deal of money and attention from Wall Street investors.
From a marketing and branding perspective, they're all pretty similar. Millennial-friendly, Goop-style "wellness" imagery. Founding stories of plucky young entrepreneurs who noticed that most pet foods are "unhealthy," so they decided to "disrupt" the pet food market with their own ingenious new products.
The products themselves all share a few qualities too. Most notably, they're all composed of "fresh" ingredients, a term which is harder to define than you might think.
It doesn't mean that the ingredients are raw. They're not raw -- they're cooked. In the case of the three biggest brands, all their food products are cooked/processed in large industrial kitchens that churn out hundreds of thousands of meals each month. (Though all these brands note that they cook/process "gently," whatever that means.)
And it doesn't mean that the products are meaningfully customized or made-to-order -- just like kibble manufacturers, each company has a few different recipes and that's it. The "customization" they tout amounts to choosing one of 3-4 available recipes and then choosing how often they ship it to you. That's all.
But it does mean ... well, "not kibble." Which, at the end of the day, is mostly a statement about moisture. Kibble products are made shelf-stable by removing most of the moisture from their ingredients. With "fresh" foods, the ingredients are cooked but they aren't dried -- so they contain most of the moisture that they would if they were still raw. Just like, say, a Quarter Pounder.
What this means is that, like a Quarter Pounder, they'll spoil quickly unless they're kept refrigerated or frozen. So they're shipped in insulated boxes and you'll have to store them in the freezer until you're ready to feed your dog.
(These brands also highlight that, like Quarter Pounders, their products qualify as "human grade" under the relevant USDA regulations. Which feels pretty wholesome and reassuring, until you imagine what it might be like to actually swallow a forkful of the stuff. Money-making idea for any Instagram influencers reading this: shoot a video of yourself downing a plate of "fresh" pet food and license it to the manufacturer for use in their Insta ads! I digress.)
So what about the nutritional content? Are these products just "Goop for Dogs" or real improvements over the status quo? Let's take a closer look.
The Farmer's Dog -- Beef Recipe
Max. Moisture: 73%
Minimum Crude Protein: 11%
Minimum Crude Fat: 8%
Max. Crude Fiber: 1.5%
Approximate Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 6.5%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Sweet potatoes, lentils, carrots, kale.
Food/500 Calories: 314.47 g
Cost/520 Calories: $6.41
Approximate Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 14.3%
As I write these words, the Farmer's Dog is the largest "fresh" pet food delivery company operating in the U.S., so they're probably the best place to start.
What you see in their numbers are products whose nutritional contents are very similar to the freeze-dried raw products we reviewed earlier. Once you account for the difference in water content, the protein, fat, and carbohydrate numbers are all quite similar, with only about 1/3 of the carbs of the ProPlan baseline (but about 3 times the carbs of Ketona).
And, also like the raw products, the carbs come from a combination of high-starch tubers/legumes (sweet potatoes, lentils) and proper vegetables (carrots).
The price/serving is marginally lower than the two raw products but still more than ten times as much as the ProPlan baseline.
Ollie -- Beef Recipe
Max. Moisture: 70%
Minimum Crude Protein: 9%
Minimum Crude Fat: 7%
Max. Crude Fiber: 2%
Approximate Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 12%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Peas, sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots.
Food/500 Calories: 324.68 g
Cost/520 Calories: $6.30
Approximate Percentage of Total Calories From Non-Fibrous Carbohydrates (on Dry Matter Basis): 27.3%
Ollie is another relatively well-known "fresh" delivery service. And, importantly, the nutritional content of its products is actually quite different from the Farmer's Dog's foods.
Unfortunately, in this case "different" means "worse." While the carbohydrate sources are similar in the two products (a combination of tubers, legumes, and veggies), the carbohydrate content here is more than twice as high as what you find in the Farmer's Dog and the two freeze-dried brands reviewed above.
What makes things even worse is the price point. Despite containing twice the carbs of the Farmer's Dog, Ollie's foods are just as expensive (i.e., more than ten times the ProPlan baseline). Not good.
Nom Nom Now -- Beef Mash
Max. Moisture: 73%
Minimum Crude Protein: 10%
Minimum Crude Fat: 5%
Max. Crude Fiber: 1%
Approximate Non-Fiber Carbohydrate Content (Calculated): 11%
Primary Non-Animal Ingredients: Potatoes, carrots, peas.
Food/500 Calories: 403.55 g
Cost/520 Calories: $6.20
Approximate Percentage of Total Calories From Carbohydrates: 31.1%
Okay, one more "fresh" company, just for good measure.
Unfortunately, if protein and carbohydrate content are more important to you than things like moisture content and Goop-iness, Nom Nom is probably not the product for you. Its per-serving carbohydrate content is more than twice as high as the Farmer's Dog, higher than the Orijen kibble, and more than six times as high as Ketona. But the price point is just as high as Ollie and the Farmer's Dog.
This highlights one of the most important issues facing modern pet food shoppers: all raw and "fresh" products are not created equal.
To the contrary, it isn't uncommon for one product to look and "feel" just like another while containing wildly different amounts of the various macronutrients. Just because a product is raw or "fresh," does not mean it is high in meat-based protein or low in digestible carbs. Although it does mean that it'll cost you five to ten times as much as a kibble
That's about it. Thanks for hanging around to the end. Just a few more concluding remarks to wrap everything up.
1) On a per-calorie basis, the difference in cost between raw food and kibble is, in almost all cases, massive. Switching from a kibble to a raw or "fresh" product will increase your monthly pet food budget by 5 to 10 times, without exception.
2) I made this point above but I'll make it again: In my opinion, the massive price difference between the kibbles and the other products should not be read as an indictment of the higher-cost products. Don't see the pricing data and say "oh, how could I ever feed my dog something so expensive!?" Why? Because those products aren't objectively expensive -- they cost about the same as fast-food does. It would literally be a significant challenge to feed yourself a diet that costs less than they do on a per-calorie basis.
They're just much more expensive than the kibbles are.
3) I'm biased. I'm conflicted. I'm compromised. But at the end of the day, if your own priorities when it comes to choosing a pet food mirror my own (i.e., if macronutrient content and price are the two most important issues and hollow wellness slogans and branding are much less important), it's hard for me to understand why you'd choose anything other than Ketona. The price is a tiny fraction of the raw/fresh products and the nutritional content is far superior.
That's all folks. Thanks for reading.
[Like this post? Want to learn more about how to keep your dog healthy and happy? Check out Dogs, Dog Food, and Dogma, my book from Present Tense Press. Kirkus Reviews calls it "remarkable," "eye-opening," "scandalous," and "impressive." For whatever it's worth, I wrote it long before I founded KetoNatural, so you can feel confident that it's not just a marketing brochure.]