Several times a week I receive email from raw material companies encouraging me to try some new ingredient or bulk offering. Some of these outfits are chemical companies that make vitamins or other nutrients in a lab — no relationship to plants or food material whatsoever.
This is a non-starter for me, so the email hits the trash and I move on.
When I do find an interesting raw material that’s whole, or at least extracted from the whole plant or whole food, I ask for the studies backing it up, and then begin my own research into the traditional, Eastern, and indigenous knowledge to better understand this food or extract.
Modern science provides data, but it is limited in scope. Traditional, Eastern, and indigenous knowledge provides thousands of years of context and, in the case of some Eastern cultures, an incredible compendium of texts.
In the last 20 to 30 years, modern science has rushed to study many medicines from the East with a reductionist approach: analyzing that which is complex by studying the simpler, fundamental constituents that appear to make it up. From a reductionist perspective, for example, a blueberry is beneficial because of its phytonutrient content. In Eastern medicine, it is the whole blueberry that is beneficial because of the innate life force of the food. We’ll talk more about Western reductionist thinking in a moment…
Western and Eastern philosophies
Mankind has sought to understand nature for thousands of years. In the West, the Greeks and Romans developed early scientific observations and mathematics. While in the East, observation and study arose out of the fundamental belief in chi or prana (the life force).
The three classic works of Ayurvedic medicine were written sometime around 400 BCE. The texts are written in Sanskrit poetry with meter and melody. This is because poetry served as a memory aid. In the Charaka Samhita there are over 8,400 metrical verses that modern medical students of Ayurveda commit to memory.
Traditional Chinese medicine texts date back to the Han Dynasty: 206 BCE to 220 CE. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Li Shih-Chen wrote a pharmacopoeia called The Great Herbal, and describes in detail more than 1800 plants, animal substances, minerals, and metals along with their medicinal properties and applications. It took Li Shih-Chen 27 years to finish it.
Traditional knowledge, also referred to as “indigenous” knowledge, arose from indigenous cultures, and centers around the concept that emphasizes the symbiotic character of humans and nature.
Reductionism and modern science
Reductionism is a philosophical position holding that a complex system can be explained by calculating the sum of its parts. The idea of Reductionism was first introduced by Descartes in Part V of his “Discourses” of 1637, where he argued that the world was like a machine, its pieces like the mechanism of a clock, and that this machine could be understood by taking its pieces apart, studying them, and then putting them back together.
Reductionist thinking and methods still form the basis of many areas of modern science, including physics, chemistry, and biology. To its credit, the reductionist paradigm has given us life-saving medicines, helped unravel how the body functions, and discovered the role of vitamins and other nutrients.
East and West: The whole versus the sum of its parts
Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda have for thousands of years studied plants and foods in their wholeness. Modern (Western) science studies foods and plants by breaking down and identifying the constituents. With the growing interest in Eastern medicine over the past 40 years, researchers have applied the reductionist paradigm to dissect the components of these Eastern medicines from plants and foods.
What I have found on this incredible, 20-year food journey I’ve been on, is that understanding the components individually is only one part of the big picture; understanding the whole plant, or food, or extract with its unique chi or prana (life force) is to know that the whole exerts greater influence on the body system than the sum of its parts.
Back to blueberries
Even when we eventually are able to identify every phytonutrient in a blueberry to explain why it is such a powerful antioxidant, and we take the one phytonutrient we decide is the most powerful, make it in a lab, and sell it…but that isolated phytonutrient will never be as powerful in the body as the blueberry itself.
Our approach to food
We in the US approach food and feed with the same reductionist philosophy that now drives the industrial food system. As I frequently say in my barn talks, “There is very little food in feed.”
Nutritionism: a brief history
Nutritionism is the reductionist method as it applies to the nutrition sciences. The history of nutrition science and research as we now know it began in the mid-19th century. As described by Dr. Gyorgy Scrinis from the University of Melbourne, historically, nutrition science can be divided into three periods: one spanning between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century known as the era of “quantifying nutritionism”; the period from the early 1960s to the 1990s called “good and bad nutritionism”; and, a time stretching from the mid-‘90s to the present known as “functional nutritionism”.
Historically, these three periods have differed mostly in terms of focus:
• In the era of quantifying nutritionism, the focus was on discovering and quantifying the nutrients in foods. The aim was to prevent nutrient deficiency diseases.
• In the era of good and bad nutritionism, the emphasis was on the need to increase “good” nutrients and avoid or reduce “bad” nutrients. Negative dietary messages dominated, including advice to lower fat and limit egg consumption.
• The present era, functional nutritionism, marks the rise of a more positive and targeted view of nutrients and foods as functional in relation to bodily health.
In a concept paper published in 2015, the authors describe reductionist paradigm thus:
Today reductionism seems to have reached its limits as it has been pushed to its extremes in Western Science. The impacts of reductionism on nutritional sciences are more deleterious than beneficial ones and include threats to biodiversity and the environment, a sharp increase in the prevalence of obesity and diabetes worldwide, the destruction of food health potential through fractionation/refining and ingredient recombination and deterioration of animal well-being through animal agriculture. 
Holism: the Eastern approach
Holism is defined in terms of that which is indivisible — a whole in which the sum of its parts is not sufficient to define it, as the whole is simply more than the sum of its parts.
To take a holism approach to food processing would encourage food scientists to consider foods that are not only a sum of their nutrients but are fundamentally a package of bioactive compounds in a complex structure.
Humans, horses, cats, and dogs
Human populations most affected by the increasing prevalence of diet-related diseases are those who consume the most ultra-processed foods. Populations affected the least by chronic diseases are those that consume the most whole and minimally processed foods.
Many horses in North America are fatter than they were 30 years ago. Of course there was always a percentage of the pony population that was chubby, but the rate of obesity in equines and the parallel rise of insulin resistance cannot be ignored. It is the perfect storm of highly processed feed combined with hybrid seeds for hay and pasture that are meant for cattle.
As recently summed up by one prominent seed company:
We are the world’s leading producer of grass seed for cows, horses, and sheep….you can’t plant better forage seed. Our research shows that cows and sheep fattened on grass grown from [our] seed produce more milk and better quality meat than livestock fed on other grass varieties.
Like many the other seed companies, this one does not make a horses-only forage — just a pasture mix for grazing livestock.
Dogs and cats face rising obesity and overweight epidemics. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, as of 2018, 56% of dogs in the United States were overweight or obese. In cats, the number rises to 60%.
Already, there are dog breeds that are predisposed to obesity: Cairn terriers, West Highland white terriers, Scottish terriers, Shetland sheepdogs, basset hounds, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, dachshunds, beagles, cocker spaniels, and Labrador retrievers. Certain breeds, like sight hounds, appear to be resistant to the development of obesity.
Other major factors weigh in as well when it comes to companion animals and obesity:
- Neutering, which slows the metabolism but is necessary for control of the dog and cat population at large
- Lack of exercise
- Food quantity and quality
The matrix effect
Nutritionism born out of reductionism has led to the fractionalization and refining of foods. Modern processing has led to isolating nutrients from the food, creating nutrients in the laboratory, and the subsequent loss to the body of important micro-and phytonutrients found within the whole, unprocessed food source.
Nutritionism has, unfortunately, taught us to consider only specific parts of the food or specific vitamins from food without taking into account the critical role of the whole food structure itself: the matrix of nutrients combined with proteins, fiber, carbohydrates, and fat.
A prime example: whey protein
Whey protein is popular in human nutrition as well as equine nutrition. Whey is the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained. It is the byproduct of cheese making. A label that includes “whey protein isolate” is created by micro-filtering whey and removing everything that isn’t protein. But whey isn’t just protein; it contains fats, minerals, antioxidants, and carbohydrates. The immunoglobins, specifically IgG, are bound to fat molecules.
“Hydrolyzed whey protein” goes through the same micro-filtering as whey protein isolate but adds an additional process where the proteins are exposed to heat, acid, or enzymes that break the bonds that hold the amino acids together.
By contrast, “undenatured whey protein” is simply whey drained off the curd, cold-filtered, and dried.
Of these, which is the only authentic, whole-food form of whey? Undenatured whey protein, of course.
The parts, the whole, and BioStar’s goal
Yes, we do need modern science to better understand the components of the whole, to provide accepted methods of testing, qualifying, analysis, and research. And yet we also need holism for the profound affect of the matrix of the whole and its impact on the body system. We need holism to address environmental issues, agricultural issues, and health issues.
I am very proud to say that at BioStar we embrace the blended science of nature. We approach our formulas from paths both Eastern and Western, ancient and modern, life-force and reductionist.
We are constantly learning. Maintaining the health of our animals demands an open mind, scrutiny, logic and intuition — the foresight and consciousness avoid formulating products that correct one imbalance only to create a new one.
 Fardet, A., & Rock, E. (2015). From a reductionist to a holistic approach in preventive nutrition to define new and more ethical paradigms. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 3(4), 1054–1063. doi:10.3390/healthcare3041054