When you've got "ultra-processed food mostly made from commodity crops - wheat, corn, soya, turned into food-like products that bear little resemblance to our evolutionary diet, these addictive, nutrient-depleted foods not only make us sick but drive us to crave more and more more food-like substances, as our body desperately looks for the missing nutrients."
So wrote Dr Mark Hyman, Americal physician, NY Times best selling author, founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Centre. Okay, so he was talking about our human food industry, but he could easily have been talking about the equine food industry, because the message is exactly the same.
Now we get to the Big One, because of course, nothing’s going to balance a system and sustain health if we’re feeding all this nutrition into a feedbowl full of donuts. However, there's a lot of opinion out there, a lot of spin by the feed manufacturers, and a lot of misinformation.
Once upon a time I thought that science was a beautiful, pristine field full of integrity and truth, but with my EquiNatural hat on, as I’ve paid closer attention to feeds over the last decade-plus, I’ve discovered that many of the feed industries' nutrition studies are, well, shall we say, not always 'true' - many producers buy loyalty from a wide range of prominent organisations we believe to be credible and independent sources of advice.
I can give you examples in human health, i.e. a certain heart association gets money from cereal makers to put its seal of approval on the packages and receives hundreds of thousands of £'s for each 'endorsement'. There's a breakfast food out there that is apparently heart-healthy according to this association, right along with the 7-teaspoons of sugar per serving. It shouldn’t be called breakfast; it should be called early morning pudding.
Trying to be fair, when products like Coca-Cola were created, it may be that they didn’t know just how much diabesity their products would cause, but this is no longer the case. Some BigFood companies are no longer innocent - these days they're active participants. Rather than changing or reinventing their products to be less harmful, BigFood has been known to manipulate science and distort the truth.
So how do we know what’s legit?
As consumers, we have to be hyper-aware, and this absolutely goes for our horse feed as well as our own food. When you see a feed company touting the health benefits of its products, how do we know that the claim didn't come from a dubious study that was wholly bought and paid for by that food company. Or when we see other studies casting doubt on the harmful effects of other companies products? Hmmm. Before you buy into a headline or the latest study, here's some tips on how to check what's real ...
- Read the fine print. Who paid for the study? For example, if it’s a study on breakfast cereal and weight gain, did the National Institute of Health (NIH) fund it or did Kellogg’s? To quote from Vana Hari's book 'Feeding You Lies', “You wouldn’t believe a study on cigarettes that was funded by Philip Morris, and you probably shouldn’t believe a study on cereal paid for by a company whose bottom line depends on Froot Loops and Frosties.”
- Dig a little deeper. If a study says it's funded by the International Life Sciences Institute, you may feel relieved. Sounds legit, but google them - see who's behind it. Turns out that ILSI is a front group founded by a Coca-Cola executive; its sponsors include Kellogg’s, McDonald’s, Merck & Co., Nestlé & PepsiCo.
- What kind of study it is? An observational study or randomised controlled trial? The purpose of observational studies is quite simple: to generate hypotheses for future research, and to assess whether correlations are real or just noise. They never prove cause and effect, simply collecting observations for a hypothesis. Randomised are better - they're large controlled trials, true experiments, where scientists manipulate one variable, i.e. sugar intake, and then assign people to different groups where they're exposed to different levels of sugar. Researchers then follow them and measure things like changes in body weight, cardiovascular biomarkers, and appetite levels. This is how good science is done. A randomised controlled trial can prove cause and effect - an observational study doesn't. Observational studies are weak and easily manipulated - it was observational studies which gave us humans the disastrous advice to eat low-fat diets and up to eleven servings of bread, rice, cereal, and pasta every day!
- Remember that replication is good science. One study that claims that soft drinks are not linked to weight gain should not distract you from the fact that dozens of independent studies have found otherwise. If one sensational new study contradicts a large body of research and sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. If a study reveals a new finding, it can often pay to see what other research comes out to confirm or deny it.
The fine print reveals who's funding a study and how the data might be manipulated for profit rather than for health, and certainly In our horse world, there are many brands out there with many 'Approved by' stamps. For example, and back to our horse feeds, there are 'molasses-free' beet feeds out there that claim to be lower in sugar but still contain up to 7% residual sugar in the pulp, full of pectins which create lactic-acid in the hindgut which a known lami-risk, yet they're still promoted as safe for laminitics ...
"Anything that's going on in the digestive tract is influenced by what you put in the digestive tract! You put the wrong petrol in a Ferrari and we know what's going to happen there."
Dr Tom O'Brien, Big Bold Health
One thing's for sure - there are good feeds, there are questionable feeds, and then there are downright pro-inflammatory, gut-damaging feeds filled with inappropriate fillers and by-products.
We're talking about that base feed carrier in the feedbowl, and contrary to what the spin might have you believe, you don’t need much - just something simple, healthy and - one of my favourite words - species-appropriate, that the equine gut small intestinal receptors recognise and know what to do with, in order to provide the essential missing dietary nutrient nuts and bolts for our horses, for ease of digestion and transit. In other words, a grass forage-only carrier.
Sadly the feedbowl is where it so often goes very wrong, because all those shiny bags at our local agri-merchants make it very confusing, promising allsorts yet often delivering very little, if anything.
As if it wasn’t confusing enough, as important as what to feed is also what NOT to feed, especially for the gut-sensitive or metabolic equine, which sadly so many of our domesticated horses are these days. For example, no grains, no by-products or fillers, no salt blocks (they weather with weather and denature, as well as creating a haven for moulds and bacteria), and obviously no molasses, although you’d be amazed at how many feeds still list some form of molasses as an ingredient; even some practitioners still think it's okay to feed molasses!
Back to general feeds, and you'll find many of our well known brands include some of these ingredients. Collectively these actively feed the pro-inflammatory pathogen intestinal bacteria who thrive on carbs and sugar, so they multiply in their trillions, which in turn kill off the friendly, beneficial flora and the gut lining, through which undigested toxins leak into the bloodstream, wreaking havoc on the body, creating all kinds of autoimmune responses, and wrecking homeostasis. All covered in our Gut System page.
It’s a downward spiral to ill-health, but there's an easy way round it - simply check the ingredients on your feedbags, usually listed on the analysis which tends to be a white label sewn into the top of the bag.
- Chaff/Chop - not that this is bad, although of course it depends on what it's been 'lightly sprayed' with, and of course the forage source, i.e. alfalfa, which doesn't suit all horses. A grass forage is what the equine gut is evolved to digest, not a legume forage.
- Nutritionally Improved Straw (NIS) - straw soaked in caustic soda to soften it for eating. Seriously. Why would anyone knowingly want to feed caustic soda to their horse?
- Wheatfeed / Oatfeed – both by-products, simply fillers that serve no nutritional purpose at all, basically the dusty remains after the nutritional part of the grain has been extracted. To use wheatfeed as an example, it's not ground up whole wheat or wheat bran - it's the milling waste by-product of flour production. It's fragments of the outer skins and particles of the grain, course middlings and fine middlings, the outer husk and hull, and once processed it's used to bind particles together, using chemicals such as lignosulphonate. Now to it's chemical treatment, and on top of the seed receiving an ammonium nitrate fertiliser, wheat grown in the UK receives on average 3 treatments of fungicides, 3 herbicides, 2 growth regulators and 1 insecticide. Wheat grain may then be dusted, sprayed or gassed with pesticides in farm grain stores, followed by another possible dust, gas or spray of pesticides in commercial grain storage. The fabric of the stores may also be sprayed with pesticides. Wheatfeed is primarily the outer parts of the wheat grain that have been in direct contact with these chemical cocktails, and contain concentrated dust, dirt, mould spores and mycotoxins during the milling process, plus weedkiller from desiccation treatments. The legislation governing safe levels of mycotoxins in human food is not applicable for animal feeds – only recommended levels are made and not enforced. Edited 3.11.18 - new data on the health perils of wheat - see our Wheat - the beginning of today's disease-culture page.
- Anything 'corn' - it's highly sprayed, high in starch and can lead to increased blood sugar.
- Molasses – a byproduct of sugar beet, renowned for raising blood glucose levels because molasses are pure sugar. And remember – sugar is the best feed for pathogen gut bacteria, so feeding molasses risks a bacterial breeding ground which risks SIBO/dysbiosis. They're also commonly used to bind the dust to make pellets.
- Sugar beet/beet pulp - a waste product from the sugar industry, and like grass and apple pectin/pomace, beet as a feed contains residual sugar (up to 25%) and it's high in pectins, which create an acidic hindgut by encouraging the lactic acid bacteria to make lactic acid. Beet is also a highly sprayed product (pesticides and herbicides) during the growth period. There's also 'molasses-free' which is lower in sugar but still contains up to 7% residual sugar in the pulp, and still pectin-rich, yet this is still sold for laminitics. Not ideal for our metabolic horses because it tricks the metabolism into thinking sugar is on its way, which causes the body to pump out insulin, the fat storage hormone, which lays down belly fat, leaving the body hungrier and craving even more sugar and starchy carbs. Something that tastes sweet but says it's 'low sugar' may sound like the perfect cure for sugar addiction, but it’s not, because normally, when something sweet is eaten, it’s accompanied by lots of calories but when it’s ‘low sugar’ yet tastes sweet, this confuses the brain. It senses that the taste of sugar without the accompanying calories from glucose and fructose is Wrong, and it tries to correct the imbalance by making the body hungrier. Cue the beginnings of leptin resistance. Not only that, but it also confuses the metabolism so slows it down, so less calories are burned each day. Bottom line - there is no free ride with beet-related ‘low sugar’ or hidden molasses. Beet increases cravings, weight gain, IR and EMS. And it's addictive.
- Soya – here’s a product I could write a book on about the perils of its effects, not only on horses health but humans as well - it’s so wrong for horses that it has its own page here. It's not only plentiful in the horse feed industry but now in processed meat replacements for us human – all made with GMO soy, which is low in nutrients, relies heavily on industrial soil-killing agriculture and chemicals such as glyphosate; it also contains 110 times the amount of glyphosate needed to damage the human microbiome. For our horses, soya bean starch can't be digested by the horse's small intestine which leads to gas build-up; it has the wrong amino acid pattern for horses, leading to water retention in the muscle tissue, not protein-enhanced muscle tissue. It's also rich in long-chain fatty acids containing predominantly polyunsaturated, pro-inflammatory fatty acids. As if this isn't enough to make you want to avoid it, there's the eco/carbon-neutral argument because it's shipped half-way round the world from S.America where the forests are destroyed to make room for GMO soya bean crops.
- Rice bran - what no-one tells us is that rice bran is 30% starch residue from rice – oats are 40% – that's a lot of starch so best avoided for our EMS horses. Also, it's treated to synthetic preservatives because it can get rancid, and if you're eco/carbon-neutral minded, it's shipped to us all the way from Asia. We don't need rice bran – there's plenty of other more appropriate feed out there.
- Pellets – many feeds come in pellet form, or include pellets, which means that unless it’s stated that they’re ‘mechanically pressed’, means they’ll be stuck together with cane molasses to form the pellet.
- Apple pectin/pomace – a byproduct of the apple juice industry. Includes fructose and pectins, which trigger lactic-acid bacteria in the hindgut to produce lactic-acid, which leads to the hindgut acidosis/dysbiosis (SIBO)/leaky gut domino effect, so always a risk for lami/colic. It's nothing more than a filler for palatability. And yes, it's confusing because in humans, apple pectin is beneficial for our human microbiomes, because lactic-acid bacteria feature as a prominent microbe in the human microbiome, hence why many human probiotic supplements include different variations of the Lactobacillus live bacteria.
- Expelled Linseed – the waste from the 1st pressing of linseed for linseed oil production. What's left is mixed with alcoholic detergents to degrade it, followed by a 2nd pressing, then washed, filtered, mixed with preservatives and sold to the feed industry as a bit of fibre and linseed proteins. It's nothing more than a filler to show some protein value. Why not just add a spoonful of actual micronized linseed?
- Prebiotics, aka Fructo-oligosaccharides/Mannan-oligosaccharides - Updated 2021 - For at least the last decade, if not longer, we’ve thought we’ve been helping the whole digestive process along by feeding yeasts into the feedbowl, alongside prebiotics commonly seen in horse feeds and equine gut supplements, i.e. fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS prebiotic) and mannan-oligosaccharides (MOS prebiotic), to help those commensal biome microbe colonies along. So, a quick explanation - ‘Oligosaccharides’ literally means ‘a few sugars’ and ‘fructo’ and ‘mannan’ indicates where the sugars come from - mannan referring to … yeast. The current thinking is now about feeding more ‘probiotically’ - provided the appropriate prebiotic diet is fed to our horse (cellulose/hemi-cellulose fibre from stemmy hay), there's no need to feed either a prebiotic or probiotic 'supplement. At least that’s what the scientists are saying, so I hope that made sense 😉
- Vitamin & Mineral Premix - many compound feeds also tend to have a very low, almost token measure of synthetic vitamins and minerals which don’t come anywhere close to balancing the deficiencies in our UK grazing. Thing is, these nutrients aren’t the real thing - they’re manufactured forms that mimic natural vitamins and minerals, so unless you see the words ‘naturally occurring’, they’re going to be made-in-a-lab synthetic, and they’re definitely synthetic if you see the word ‘premix’. So fake, not real. Just like a spray-on tan. And just for the record, we don't use any synthetic minerals in our EquiVita range.
- Iron & Manganese - many feed companies also add in iron and manganese, neither of which should ever be added to equine feedstuffs as they’re both already way too high in our UK grasslands to near-toxic levels, acting as antagonists which prevent the uptake of the important micronutrients the equine body needs. Hay/soil tests these days show our UK grass is overly high in iron, full of chlorophyll that contains a lot of iron (hence why feeding a hay diet is better), but the good news is that evolution has made horses really good at regulating their iron uptake in the gut, so they’re used to sorting it out. Despite this, iron can’t be excreted; it heads to the liver so we need to be mindful of any extra iron added to the diet as too high levels can be liver-toxic. Note - we don't add any iron into our EquiVita/VitaComplete balancers.
- Calcium carbonate/dicalcium-phosphate - our UK forage is already overly high in calcium, yet you’ll probably see these two appear on the ingredients list; too much calcium offsets the magnesium ratio, causing our horses to become fizzy like Tigger, but not in a good way.
- Vegetable oils - you may have been told by your vet to add oil to your horse's feedbowl for 'energy' or 'calories'. You'll often see various vegetable oils listed as ingredients, i.e. 'lightly sprayed with xxx oil'. Now here's the rub - these vegetable oils, and especially soybean oil, have been chemically processed (numerous videos on YouTube) and they're high in the pro-inflammatoy omega-6, while being low in the non-inflammatory omega-3. And to make matters worse, horses haven’t evolved to digest huge amounts of fat, just the low EFA (essential fatty acid, aka the omegas) content in grass forage. Unlike us humans or dogs, they don’t have a gall bladder, the primary function of which releases sufficient 'emulsifier', aka ‘bile’ - a bit like our washing up liquid poured over a pile of greasy pans - to degrade fat to fatty acids, which can then be absorbed through the small intestine so the liver can make body fat. It's the horse's liver which produces a 'trickle' of bile, to match the trickle feeding-style of the horse. See our separate page - Oil - for more information.
- Genetically Modified/GM - GM food has high levels of glyphosate residues that alter the microbial community of the gut, which can cause an increase in the bad gut bacteria linked to inflammation, dysbiosis and discomfort, and a decrease in the beneficial bacteria that protect against inflammation, dysbiosis and gastric discomfort. A high proportion of good gut bacteria have been found to be moderately to highly susceptible to being killed off by glyphosate residues.
And finally … all these ingredients, unless stated otherwise, are chemically sprayed during the growth period, usually with a final treatment of chemical mould-inhibitor post-harvest before packaging, to stop the feed getting mouldy. In other words, there’s a cocktail of toxic chemicals included in the feedbag, as well as the majority of the ingredients grown as GMO.
And if you’re a bit eco-minded ...
How we grow, produce, and distribute our food, including all those ingredients in our feedbags, has tremendous implications not just for health but also for our planet. Nearly every country and scientist outlines a bleak picture for humanity if we don’t address this crisis, yet few are linking it to our food system.
When we fill a scoop from our feedbags, or we eat a burger, or even drink a green smoothie, it’s hard to imagine the vast web that produced that food, and its potential to heal or harm the environment. Who thinks about agricultural practices, or climate change – even the potential for the extinction of our species – when we watch our beloved Ned chow down on his feedbowl? Where was it grown? How was it grown? What resources were used to grow it?
Our food system is responsible for almost half of all greenhouse gas emissions – from deforestation, destructive agricultural practices, and the fossil fuels used for processing, packaging, refrigeration and finally to food waste. One-fifth of fossil fuels are used for agriculture and our food system - that’s more than all transportation from cars, planes, and ships combined.
And then there's the sorry state of our factory-farmed cattle, who release 220-pounds of methane per animal into the atmosphere, which happens to be 28 times more powerful at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (the biggest offender emitted from vehicles). No one would deny that factory-farmed meat is bad not only for the animal ☹ but for the planet too.