Feed Tags, Food Labels and Tunnel Vision

Ask many horse-people what they feed their horse and you will likely get answers such as “a 12% pellet” or “a 14% sweet feed”. Ask the same people what are they feeding themselves and the answer is likely to be something along the lines of “whatever is fast and easy.” Equestrians are busy people. Being so busy often leads to taking shortcuts and sometimes even tunnel vision when it comes to what we eat and what we feed our horses.

Case in point: the issue of “a 12% pellet”… The 12% mentioned here is simply referring to the minimum amount of crude protein guaranteed to be in the feed. By law, this 12% pellet could actually contain 14, 16 or even 20% or more crude protein because 12% is just a guaranteed minimum. You see, that number actually represents a measurement of nitrogen in the feed which is used to estimate the amount of protein. Chicken feathers are high in nitrogen and some feed companies will add them to a feed formula to increase the crude protein measurement but this is not a protein source that is available to horses. The assumption, by the person buying the feed, is that there is 12% digestible, usable, protein in the feed; but that may not be the case. The protein must be rich in a variety of amino acids and from a source that the horse is capable of utilizing. Relax, most reputable feed companies do not put chicken feathers in horse feeds (more often in cattle feed) and it is cheapest for them to keep the protein level as close to the guaranteed minimum as possible so there is no need to panic at this point.

There are two things I want you to take away from the previous paragraph. The first is that there are a multitude of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fats, amino acids, digestive aids, etc.) in a commercially prepared horse feed. Why would you focus on just one (the protein)? The second is that what you see isn’t always what you get. The same can be said for what you feed yourself. One of my nutrition professors had the best piece of advice about food packages. He said “Never, ever, believe anything written on the front of any food package… EVER!” The regulations regarding what can be written on the front of a food package are very loose. “Natural” implies that the food has nothing artificial in it but in many cases, there are chemical preservatives or high-fructose corn syrup present. Buying a food because it says “Natural” on the front is like buying a feed because it says “12% pellet”. There’s a tiny bit of information there but you need a lot more information in order to know if this is something you really want to buy and eat.