Teacher: Class, does anyone know what “all-natural” means?
<Courtney and Elissa raise their hands>
Teacher: Anyone besides Courtney and Elissa?
Teacher: Fine. Go ahead…
Courtney: Anyone who knows their way around a grocery store can tell you what “all natural” means (hint: basically nothing). Unlike certified organic foods, which are strictly regulated by the USDA, there is little regulation that determines what can be included in foods labeled “all-natural.”
Elissa: By the USDA’s standards, items deemed “natural” should be minimally processed and without artificial ingredients or preservatives. However, antibiotics, growth hormones, and mystery chemicals are fair game, and there are no inspections to legitimize product claims. Interestingly, the term “all-natural” technically isn’t regulated by the USDA at all.
Teacher: Right. Reading the nutrient information on human foods has become pretty commonplace, but some label lookie loos who are interested in keeping their own diets so-fresh-and-so-clean are beginning to keep an eye on what goes into the feed of their animals, as well. Does anyone know what it means to feed a horse a truly all-natural diet?
<Courtney and Elissa stare at their feet>
<Dr. Clair Thunes raises her hand>
What exactly does all-natural mean as it pertains to horses, and is it safe?
As a term, all-natural does not mean anything specific, as the term is not recognized or regulated by the USDA. When we think about this term in relation to feeding horses, most would probably agree that it means feeding them a diet as close as possible to the type of diet that they evolved to eat, which means a forage-first diet.
Some commercial feed brands are making an effort toward more natural ingredients, or less processed techniques. What do you currently see being done, and is it a good start?
For a number of years now, the major feed manufacturers have been reducing the starch and NSC content of their feeds, relying more heavily on sources of fermentable fiber and fats as energy sources. While the natural diet of the horse is not particularly high in fat, they do digest fat well and it is a safer way to feed them extra calories when needed than relying on starch. More recently, some manufacturers have started to offer feeds with non-GMO ingredients.
Does a more natural diet mean a DIY preparation of meals, or a combination of commercial options with supplements?
A more natural diet means starting with good, clean forage and relying on this as the foundation of your nutrition program. From there it is a matter of adding what is missing from that diet, depending on each individual horse’s needs. This might mean the addition of a higher calorie feed if the horse is struggling to maintain condition on a purely forage diet, or it might mean just adding a source of vitamins and minerals that are commonly missing in the forage. Some owners will prefer to achieve this in a more DIY fashion, and until recently, if you wanted to follow the more natural approach, that was really your main option. However, with major feed manufacturers starting to embrace more natural approaches such as non-GMO and the availability of USDA certified organic feeds, there are now more options for those who want a little more convenience.
When reading labels, what are some of the “least attractive” ingredients of which we should be mindful in commercial feeds today?
Some of the ingredients that are perceived as unattractive are in fact misunderstood. Those who subscribe to feeding “all-natural” tend to be anti-by-products, as these ingredients are the result of processing a commodity for some other purpose. For example, beet pulp is a by-product of the sugar beet industry. While it is a by-product, it has a very useful purpose as a fermentable fiber in feed, providing calories in a form that requires microbial fermentation in the horse’s hindgut, a process that honors the horse’s digestive anatomy and physiology. Including beet pulp in feed allows feeds to reduce starch, creating a diet that relies more heavily on fiber, which is a good thing.
Another example is wheat middlings. Often considered to be the sweepings off the mill floor, they are in fact the by-product from the milling of wheat for flour. As the demand for lower starch feeds has increased, feed manufacturers have had to turn to ingredients that have lower starch but that still maintain the overall calorie intake of the feed. This is where wheat middlings come in, because they have a starch content in the low 20 percent range, whereas straight grains have starch values of over 40 percent. So while processing of ingredients is often frowned upon by those who want to feed all-natural diets, processing can be a very good thing.
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