Introduction to Whole Food Feeding
At BioStar US, we take horse nutrition very seriously and strive to provide the most valuable and current information, from basic equine nutrition principles to the specialized needs of high-performance horses. Our focus is on the benefits of a whole-food diet and feed program, and how it can improve the health, performance, and well-being of your horse.
For more information, we invite you to see Tigger's book, Whole Food for Horses and peruse our Blog.
Making a switch away from commercial food products and processed feed can seem daunting at first. This is, in part, because feed companies have instilled a belief in horse owners that we — riders, owners, trainers, barn managers — cannot provide an adequately balanced feed program without a commercial feed company, because equine nutrition is too complicated for a horse owner to understand. This is misleading because feeding a horse is not rocket science. The fact is, horses have thrived for thousands of years without processed food and synthetic additives.
In its most fundamental essence, equine nutrition is simply: fiber, protein, fats, and carbohydrates; vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.Reading a label on a feed bag can be a little overwhelming; there are more unpronounceable ingredients than there are food ingredients! What we horse owners do understand are the percentages of protein, fiber and fat that are printed on the label. For some of us the percentages are the rule of thumb — the basis by which to purchase a product. Unless an owner has a dictionary handy at the feed store, or their laptop or smartphone, how is one to know what ingredients like pyridoxine-HCl, thiamin mononitrate, and L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate are? In many ways, packages of commercial processed feed have become simply large bags of synthetic additives with some food and sweeteners thrown in for good measure and palatability.
The Benefits of a Whole Food Feed ProgramUnprocessed or minimally processed whole food provides more than nutrients, fiber, protein, carbohydrates and fat; it provides one of the keys to digestion: enzymes.
Heavily processed feed and pelletized forms lack the enzymes that live in all plants and seeds. The processing has killed the enzymes. If we consider the equine digestive system as the gateway to nutrient delivery, we can also see the equine digestive system as the gateway to tissue repair and tissue renewal. Proper digestion provides fuel and energy to all body organs and systems. The nutritive fuel of digestion nourishes the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. These in turn play essential roles in the chemical breakdown of food.
Food enzymes initiate the process of digestion in the mouth and stomach. Food enzymes reduce the body’s need to increase production of digestive enzymes. As horses age, the ability to produce more digestive enzymes lessens. Food enzymes help the horse predigest the food so that the digestive system is less taxed and stressed. Whole food also provides the body with nutrients that are in a matrix within the food. All these nutrients work together for the body to use with maximum efficiency.
Since the digestive system is the foundation of the nutrient delivery system, what foods we provide our horses with is hugely important. The ramifications of feeding food products, and not whole food, extend to the entire body system at large, from the blood and plasma to the tissues and cells.
Whole foods do not increase stress on the GI tract as processed feeds do. This is particularly important for ulcer horses, EPM horses, and Lyme horses.
The result is a healthier horse, who can live longer and perform to the fullest.
The Foundations of a Whole Food Diet
The core principle of a whole-food feed program is using foods that have been minimally processed. The fundamental components of a whole-food diet are easily listed and understood:
Fiber: Forage and hay provide high amounts of fiber. Horses need to eat 20 hours per day, particularly ulcer horses and metabolic horses. (Note that it is essential to provide free-choice hay and/or grazing, and best to feed 3-4 meals a day instead of two large ones.) Additional fiber comes from alfalfa pellets or cubes (look for GMO-free sources), or timothy pellets. Alfalfa is high in calcium, helping to balance the calcium:phosphorus ratio. Commercial beet pulp is another source of fiber, but keep in mind that only Speedi-Beet from England is GMO-free.
Protein: Alfalfa pellets or cubes are 15-17% protein, and also provide essential amino acids including lysine. Timothy pellets or cubes are 8-10% protein, but provide no lysine. Both alfalfa and timothy provide calcium. Alfalfa hay is up to 26% protein, which for some horses is more protein than their bodies can handle; the excess protein is converted to energy, which results in a horse that's a little "high". Alfalfa pellets or cubes, with their lower protein content, won't cause that jumping-out-of-his-skin reaction in your horse. Alfalfa pellets and cubes are also low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), making them a good choice for metabolic horses. Another protein source is organic peas — 23% protein, with an amino acid profile similar to alfalfa. Peas are high in NSC, and so are not the best choice for a metabolic horse. And, some picky eaters don’t like the taste.
Fat: Flax seeds (whole or stabilized) or chia seeds provide essential fatty acids. Other fat sources include coconut oil, hemp seed oil (with its anti-inflammatory GLA), and flax seed oil (with its high omega-3 content). Rice bran oil is a popular choice, although BioStar recommends only the GMO-free kind from California due to the high arsenic levels found in other batches. Coconut meal (which also provides protein, fiber, and low NSC) is an excellent source of medium-chain triglycerides. These are used by the body for muscle and organ energy, and are safe to feed metabolic horses. Sources for coconut meal include Cool Stance and Renew Gold.
Carbohydrates: Non-metabolic horses with increased energy needs can benefit from grain carbohydrates: oats and/or barley. Oats are 12% protein, have a high phosphorus content, and provide more calories for horses in training. Oats are not recommended for metabolic horses. Barley is 14% protein, contains high phosphorus and provides more caloric energy than oats, but less than corn. Not recommended for metabolic horses.
Multivitamin / mineral: Vitamins in equine supplements and feed are either made from the byproducts of the petrochemical industry, or are 100% synthetic. Vitamin E is commonly sourced from palm oil processed with hexane, a neurotoxin. It can also be synthetically produced. Minerals common in equine supplements and feeds are inorganic compounds — oxides, carbonates, etc. Inorganic minerals have a low bioavailability of only up to 10%. Look for multivitamin/mineral formulas that are from whole food, meaning the nutrients are derived from foods and plants. Whole food multi vitamin/mineral complexes provide high bioavailability — up to 80%.
Commercially Processed Feed
There is no question that commercially processed feeds have provided a convenience for horse and barn owners. It’s easy to rip open feed bags and pour it in the bucket. Many feed companies maintain that there is no need to add more vitamins and minerals to their complete feed formulas. In addition, feed companies provide many different formulas, giving horse owners a choice of which formula to feed each horse.
THE DISADVANTAGES OF COMMERCIAL PROCESSED FEED
GMO's: Since 1997, genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified organism (GMO) versions of corn and soy have been in commercial equine feed. While the scientific community continues to debate the safety of GE and GMO food, one consequence is undeniable: the increased amount of pesticides and herbicides used to grow GMO and GE crops. While some of these crops have an herbicide-tolerant gene inserted in them, the result has been that the weeds for which the farmers are spraying are simply becoming more herbicide resistant, resulting in an increase in herbicide and pesticide use. GM crops also accelerate the decline of seed diversity and intensify existing soil erosion problems.
Environmental Impact: Feed formulas that use corn and or soy, and are not labeled as GE-free or non-GMO, do not help us move to a greener, more eco-friendly environment. In the US, most of our grains (corn, soy, oats, wheat) are funneled into commercial channels for processing — unlike Canada and some of the EU nations, who rely more on systems of local feed mills, or farms that sell grains directly to other farmers for livestock feed. The advantage of a local feed mill / farmer arrangement is the emphasis on quality of grains rather than quantity, and the reduction in fossil fuel consumption for long-distance shipping of grains to processors.
Synthetics: Grains are sorted and graded at the processing plant. Superior-graded grains go to human consumption. Lower-graded grains go to animal consumption. Byproducts of the processing (soy hulls, wheat middlings, etc.) become inexpensive fillers for horse feed. Because the grains for animals are nutritionally inferior to the human-graded grains, feed companies must add synthetic additives to provide missing nutrients. These synthetic additives (including vitamins) are made from coal tar derivatives, petroleum extracts, acetone, formaldehyde and, in the case of vitamin D, irradiated cattle brains. The processing of the grains themselves can expose them to 450-degree temperatures and above. Enzymes and other nutrients can’t survive in temperatures exceeding 145 degrees.
Sweeteners: Sugar in the form of molasses is often added not only as a binder, but for palatability. Molasses is made from sugar cane, and sulfur dioxide is used during processing to lighten up the color of the molasses and extend its shelf life. Sulfur dioxide is a primary component of acid rain and is a pollutant of enormous concern to environmental scientists.
Corn syrups are also used as sweeteners in commercial horse feeds. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can contain as much as 80% fructose and only 20% glucose. In fruit the ratio is usually 50:50. And, unlike the fructose in fruit, the HFCS version is absorbed very quickly. Fruit also contains fiber which slows down the metabolism of fructose and other sugars.
Over-Processing: Commercial feed companies rely on further processing after the grains are mixed with the sweeteners, additives, and preservatives to produce pellets, or extruded or texturized feeds. After this further processing, what began as food has now become a "food product".
“The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food." - Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.
When we read the labeled contents of most commercial processed feeds, we see a lot of additives — synthetic nutrients and inorganic minerals — and not much food. There is of course some food, but it’s low-grade, and in many cases has been further refined. Horse feed, which once upon a time was simply whole grains, is now a processed convenience food product. The idea behind using isolated nutrients and processed foods comes from the ideology known as Nutritionism.
“Nutritionism” is a term used by George Scrinis (Globalism Institute at RMIT University, Melbourne), referring to the concept that the nutritional value of any food can be found by simply adding up the values of its individual nutrients. To be clear, nutrition is very different from nutritionism. Nutrients in food provide a complex of important biological cofactors, including fiber, amino acids, antioxidants, and enzymes which are critical to health and well-being. The nutritionist mindset is essentially the opposite of the whole food approach to nutrition. Scrinis points out that, “Instead of worrying about nutrients we need to simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of an industry than of nature.”
Why Not Use Corn Oil, Vegetable Oil, or Soy Oil?
These oils are from seeds that have been genetically modified, and are highly processed oils. In addition, the production of these oils includes high heat, which destroys the nutrients and enzymes. Hexane, a neurotoxin, is used as a solvent in the extraction process. Testing in Switzerland and the US has shown that hexane residue is present in oils processed with hexane. While these oils are used as fat sources in feeds and as supplements, they cannot be considered whole-food sources of fat because of their highly processed nature.
While soy has a long history in China, it was originally used as a nitrogen fixer to balance the soil. Soy needs fermentation in order to be digested. The fermentation process reduces the phytate content, where soybeans have a higher phytate content than any other grain or legume that has been studied.
Soy protein isolate, sometimes found in commercial processed feeds and supplements, is made by grinding soybeans and subjecting them to high temperature and solvent extraction to remove the oils. The resulting defatted meal is then mixed with an alkaline solution and sugars in a separation process to remove fiber. Then it is precipitated and separated using an acid wash. Finally, the resulting curds are neutralized in an alkaline solution and spray dried at high temperatures to produce the powder. This is a highly refined product, not a whole-food source.
Almost all commercially-grown corn in the U.S. is genetically modified.
High levels of arsenic are often present in rice bran. The following states are known to produce high-arsenic-content rice: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri. California, however, has low arsenic levels and we can recommend rice bran sourced from there. It is important to check with your supplier on the origin of the rice bran you purchase.
Customizing a Feed Program for Your Horse
If you need assistance customizing a whole food feed program for your horses, please contact us through email, phone, or our online consultation form, and one of our whole food nutritional consultants will be happy to help you.
Daniel, Kaayla. 2005. The Whole Soy Story. New Trends Publishing.
El Tiney, A.H. 1989. Proximate Composition of Mineral and Phytate Contents of Legumes Grown in Sudan; Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, v.2, pp. 67-78