Chia or Flax: Which is Better for My Horse?

Discover the differences between these two trendy, omega-3-packed seeds that can be used to supplement equine diets.

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Chia or Flax: Which is Better for My Horse
Flax or linseed meal, the end product after fat extraction, has long been used in livestock feeds as a protein source. | Photo: The Horse Staff
Q: I would like to see someone do a nutritional comparison between flax seed and chia seed supplementation in horses. Is one better than the other, is it a matter of preference, or do they offer the horse different benefits? — Cindy Bean, via Facebook

A: Chia and flax are typically added to equine diets as supplemental sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Both are rich in linolenic acid (ALA), which is a precursor to the longer chain fatty acids: ecosapentaenoic acid (or EPA) and decosahexaenoic acid (or DHA). Flax or linseed meal, the end product after fat extraction, has long been used in livestock feeds as a protein source. But more recently interest has built around the whole flax seed due to its potential impact of inflammatory conditions. Equine research has shown potential benefits in improving short-term insulin sensitivity, as well as reducing sensitivity to biting fly allergy. Other benefits might exist in mediating a number of inflammatory conditions.

A 2012 study by Ciftci et al published in the European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology showed that while whole flax seeds contained more total fat than chia (about 45% vs. 35%), the difference in omega-3 fatty acid content was small, with about 58% of the total fat being ALA in flax and 60% in chia. These percentages might appear higher than you see on product labels as products may express omega-3 and -6 as a percentage of the total product rather than as a percentage of the total fat. Chia had slightly higher omega-6 fatty acid content compared to flax (20.37% vs. 15.3%), giving chia an omega-6 to 3 ratio of 0.35:1 versus 0.27:1 for flax. This ratio is significantly lower than other common sources of fat in the equine diet, such as rice bran oil (21:1), soybean oil (7:1), canola oil (2:1), and corn oil (46:1).

What does this mean in real world terms? It means that every 100 grams of flax provides approximately 45 grams of total fat, 26 grams of ALA omega-3, and 6.8 grams of omega-6, whereas 100 grams of chia provides approximately 35 grams of total fat, 21 grams of ALA omega-3, and 7 grams of omega-6. Remember that these values will vary with cultivar (a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding) and growing conditions. While the fatty acid composition is where much of the attention is for these two seeds, they have other potential benefits, as well

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Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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