Now we get to the Big One, where it so often goes badly wrong, 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'm not going to name names, but 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 breakfast pudding.
Trying to be fair, when products like Coca-Cola were created, it may be that they didn’t know just how much obesity and disease their products would cause, but this is no longer the case. Big Food companies are no longer innocent - these days they're active participants. Rather than changing or reinventing their products to be less harmful, Big Food manipulates science and distorts the truth.
So how do we know what’s legit?
As consumers, we have to be hyper-aware. When you see a company touting the health benefits of its products, there’s a good chance that the claim came from a dubious study that was wholly bought and paid for by that food company. Or when you see studies casting doubt on the harmful effects of their products? Hmmm. Before you buy into a headline or the latest study, do the following:
- 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 - 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 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 high or 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 is 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, 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 with is a known lami-risk, yet this is still sold for laminitics!
One thing's for sure - there are good feeds, there are questionable feeds that really don’t nourish the horse at all, and then there are downright pro-inflammatory, bad feeds filled with inappropriate, gut-damaging 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 recognises and knows what to do with, in order to add in the missing nutrient nuts and bolts to make sure we can get them into our horses, for ease of digestion and transit. In other words, a forage-based carrier.
However, 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 sadly many of our well known brands include some or all of these ingredients, and more! Collectively these actively feed the pro-inflammatory, negative 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 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 illness, doing nothing to nourish our horses at all, so I’d definitely recommend you check the ingredients on your feedbags. They’re quite sneaky, our feed brand manufacturers – they don’t tend to list the ingredients on the bag itself; it's all on the analysis which is usually a fairly insignificant scrappy white label sewn into the top of the bag.
Prepare to be shocked - here's a list of the all-too-common yet typical ingredients in (many of our) feedbags today :
- Chaff/Chop - not that this is bad, so this may sound like I'm being pedantic. But ... remember the importance of the size/length of the forage that goes in the mouth to make the 'hay roll'? Basically try to get a chaff/chop with strands ideally 8cm or longer (not common), or less than 5mm for our dentally-challenged horses for easy swallowing.
- Nutritionally Improved Straw (NIS) - straw soaked in caustic soda to soften it for eating. Seriously. Why would anyone knowingly 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. Why the feed companies call it a ‘feed’ is beyond me, as there’s no resemblance to any ‘food’ in these two. To use wheatfeed as an example, Wheatfeed is not ground up whole wheat or wheat bran - it's the major 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. Basically, if the word 'wheat' in any shape forms part of your feedbag composition, dump it.
- 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 is full of residual sugar (25%) and high in pectins, which create an acidic hindgut by encouraging the lactic acid bacteria to make lactic acid. Beet is also well recognised as a highly sprayed (chemical pesticides and herbicides) product 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 full of pectins, yet this is still sold for laminitics! Which is so wrong for our metabolic horses because it tricks the metabolism into thinking sugar is on its way, which causes the body to pump out insulin, remember - insulin's 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 with a Capital W, 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 such a bad ingredient that it has its own page here. However, as a brief intro, soy bean starch can't be digested by the horse in the 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. See our separate page on the perils of soya.
- 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 never feed to our EMS horses! Also, there are lots of 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 feed here.
- 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 apple juice industry. Full of fructose and pectins, which trigger lactic acid bacteria in the hindgut to produce lactic-acid, which leads to hindgut acidosis with a drop in the pH as well as dysbiosis, so always a risk for lami/colic. It's nothing more than a filler for palatability. And yes, there's a risk of confusion here because in humans, apple pectin is beneficial for our own microbiomes, because lactic acid bacteria feature as a prominent microbe, 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. Crazy! Why not just add a spoonful of micronized linseed?
- 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. This is why it’s beyond crazy that feed manufacturers add extra iron in their feeds – worse, synthetic iron! So, check feed labels, and focus on preventing SIBO/leaky gut by maintaining integrity of gut wall, which prevents toxic leakage into the bloodstream instead of being kept in the gut system and metabolised as it should be.
- 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 seriously 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 horribly chemically processed (numerous videos on YouTube) and they're very high in the pro-inflammatoy omega-6, while being extremely 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. So, 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 - why we should never add oil to the feedbowl for the full story.
And finally … all these ingredients, unless stated otherwise (which few of them are), 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, other than Allen&Page who at least claim to steer away from GM foodstuffs but don’t use organically grown product.