Identifying Unhealthy Horse Feed and Supplement Ingredients

Q: Can you please address the many unhealthy ingredients found in some supplements? Sugar, for example, is too plentiful, and can be the first ingredient in some prebiotics. My horse’s nutritionist has been teaching me now to read labels, but many people don’t know how. This same issue exists with human food and supplements; slick marketing carries the day.

—Lisa Daigle, via Facebook

A: There are definitely times when an ingredient is present in inappropriate quantities in horse feeds and/or supplements.

I personally have not come across any prebiotics with sugar as the first ingredient; however I have seen this in some electrolytes, which is inappropriate if you are wanting to use the electrolyte to replace sweat losses. Typically if sugar is the first ingredient in an electrolyte it means that the amount of space left in the product for the electrolytes you need (sodium, chloride, and potassium) is unlikely to be great enough to insure that they are provided in quantities large enough to do the job you want.

There is a current trend for certain ingredients to be labeled as “bad” when in fact they have many benefits. Often this information is coming from competing companies that wish to market their own products as more healthful. This creates a very confusing landscape for horse owners to navigate. Many such ingredients are byproducts such as sugar beet pulp, wheat mill run, and distillers dried grains.

Some horse owners mistakenly believe sugar beet pulp is high in sugar when it’s not. Rather, beet pulp is what’s left after the sugar has been removed, and what’s left is a highly digestible form of complex carbohydrate that provides a very good calorie source.

Wheat mill run and wheat middlings often appear in feeds that provide lower starch levels than more traditional sweet feeds. There’s sometimes the misconception that these are sweepings off the mill floor, but this is far from accurate. Both are created from the commercial milling of wheat for flour and are the endosperm—the bran and germ—remaining from that process. These parts of the wheat grain are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals, making them a valuable ingredient for horse feeds. They provide comparable calories to the original grain while providing only half the starch. For some horses these byproducts could have many potential health benefits.

Distillers dried grains is another increasingly common byproduct included in horse feeds. These are the grain fractions remaining after fermentation with yeast for the creation of alcohol. They are high in energy and highly palatable and they provide a good source of fermentable fiber as well as B vitamins. One concern with the use of distillers dried grain, especially those coming from corn, is the potential for mycotoxins, which are potentially toxic molds. Corn is generally at greater risk of mycotoxin contamination than other grains and risk varies year to year, depending on the weather. Reputable feed companies screen all corn products before entry into their feed mills and reject any contaminated deliveries. As a consumer, it’s worth asking your feed company what quality control measures they have in place to protect feed from mycotoxin contamination.

I strongly advocate for consumers learn how to read a feed/supplement label and to not only familiarize themselves with the various ingredients and forms of ingredients, but also to understand the units used on the guaranteed analysis. This is especially true for supplements where the analysis might be given on a “per 1 ounce” serving size basis and yet lists trace minerals using the units “ppm.” This is misleading to consumers because ppm stands for parts per million or milligrams per kilogram. This means that that if you feed 1 kilogram of the product you will be providing the amount stated, for example, 200 milligrams. But at fed at 1 ounce, this would only provide 5.6 milligrams!

Supplements displaying the National Animal Supplement Council seal (NASC) have had their labels reviewed to insure that they’re not misleading to consumers. NASC-member companies also register all product ingredients in a massive database and are required to report any adverse events brought to their attention by consumers feeding their products. This enables NASC to monitor ingredients and determine whether any particular ingredient might be causing negative health effects. NASC members also go through very thorough plant and product audits to insure industry compliance and that guaranteed analysis claims are accurate. Therefore purchasing supplements displaying the NASC seal gives consumers peace of mind that they are purchasing a quality product.

Something else that can make deciphering feed labels difficult is the use of “collective terms,” which is allowed in some states and not in others. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which oversees feed, a collective term recognizes a general classification of ingredients by origin. These ingredients might perform a similar function, but do necessarily have equivalent nutritional value. For example wheat mill run, wheat middlings, and distillers dried grains all fall under the collective term “processed grain byproducts.” Therefore, feeds sold in states that allow collective terms could be labeled with processed grain byproducts on the ingredient list and include any of these three ingredients—or one of the 34 others that fall into this collective term. It does not mean that unhealthful ingredients are being used, but it does mean that, as a consumer, you don’t know exactly what ingredients are making up the the feed you are purchasing.

By educating yourself on common ingredients and how to read a label you are more able to make informed decisions on which products to buy. You are also less susceptible to fear-based marketing strategies and able to objectively determine which products are right for your horse’s individual needs.


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