Posted in  Master Your Horse's Environment  on  25 November, 2020 by  Debs Crosoer
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There’s  been a lot of talk about the sugar content of feed lately, but focusing on just the % of sugar in a feed can cause more harm than good. It can feel like every time you think you have it figured out there's another thing to consider and you're back to the drawing board, don’t lose hope just yet, I’m going to try and simplify it.

We all know sugar is bad for us, right? 

Well… erm… no, that’s not right. Sugar is great for us. It’s essential for life. 

Sugar in itself isn’t bad. Refined sugar is bad for us, or too much sugar is bad for us (too much of anything is bad for us really - the clue is in the description).

You can’t judge a feed on it’s sugar percentage alone. It’s very important to be aware of the sugars, but not use that as your only deciding factor. 

Looking for the lowest sugar feed possible will often result in poor quality or inappropriate feed. For instance, beef has 0 sugars in it. 

It’s obvious that beef isn’t a suitable feed for horses but it would fit the bill as a low sugar feed, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to illustrate here. It’s not just about the sugar % on the label. (please don't feed your horse beef 🙂 )

Let's start at the beginning.

A feed is considered low sugar if it’s below 10% combined sugar content. To get that figure you need to add the starch and the sugar together. You want the total to be below 10%

10% is the guideline for EMS horses. There are some conditions that may require a stricter regime, but on the whole, 10% is the number to remember.

The 10% rule is a rough guide and it's reasonable to follow.

But that’s not the whole story

We really need to look more deeply into what we’re feeding and how much we’re feeding.

Let's compare 2 similar feeds that turn out to be very different.

I’ve picked Happy Hoof and Timothy Chop because their nutritional analysis chart on their website is easy to understand and (this was the deciding factor) they list how much a scoop weighs.

Happy Hoof

Timothy Chop

Happy Hoof has a combined sugar and starch of 5.5%

Timothy Chop has a combined sugar and starch of below 12%

Using the 10% rule, this makes it seem like you should avoid the Timothy Chop, but let's not be so hasty…

How much are you feeding?

Happy Hoof

1 stubbs scoop of Happy Hoof weights 500g

5.5% of 500g is 27.5g of carbs

Timothy Chop

1 stubbs scoop of Timothy Chop weights 200g

12% of 200g is 24g of carbs

So, while the Happy Hoof has a lower % of sugar it actually has more sugar in the scoop you put in the bucket for the horse to eat.

(it’s also worth noting that a 20kg bag of Happy Hoof contains 40 scoops where as a 12.5kg bag of Timothy Chop gives you 62.5 scoops so the cheaper one isn’t cheaper)

But wait! There’s even more to consider!

Hang in there…

We also need to consider ingredients. The nutritional analysis only tells part of the story. The real gold is in the ingredients list.

I’m only focusing on sugar here, so I’m not commenting on the rest of the ingredients.

Happy Hoof has molasses in it. 

Not all sugar is made the same. Refined sugar behaves very differently to natural sugar.

Think of an apple vs a mars bar. Roughly the same amount of sugar in them (depending on the size of said apple and mars bar, obvs) but they have a very different effect on the body. That’s why no-one has ever said a mars bar a day keeps the doctor away!

Refined sugar like molasses is metabolised very fast. Particularly when it’s sprayed on the outside of the food as it is in many chaffs. It’s readily available the moment it’s eaten. Great for a blood sugar spike! 

If you have a fibrous plant like Timothy however, it has to be broken down though digestion before it can be absorbed. This will give a much slower release of sugar, and help avoid that pesky blood sugar spike.

And another thing!

Chewing time is also a factor. The Timothy Chop would take longer to chew as it’s a coarser, longer chop, where as Happy Hoof is a short chopped chaff. I doubt it’s hugely significant in a comparison between the 2 feeds due to the small about of feed given, however this post is about sugar, not just those 2 feeds.

The chewing time between a chaff and hay is vastly different. Hay will keep them occupied for much longer, and as a result be a much slower intake of food (and thus sugar).

Chewing time is important to consider in terms of how fast the sugar is going into the body, and as a means of occupying a horse. The main reason we focus on sugar is because we want to restrict the diet in some way. Horses need to be eating both physically and mentally for much of the day.

Chaffs and chops (same thing, different name) are often and suggested as a lower sugar alternative to hay for a restricted diet. As Timothy Chop is essentially a chopped hay (nothing else in there) you can use the above comparison to decide whether feeding a molassed chaff is an effective way of restricting a horse’s diet while considering their physiological needs.

Supplements

We tend to feed supplements in small quantities compared to the amount of feed or forage in a horse’s diet. For this reason, I doubt sugar in supplements makes much of a difference in terms of daily intake amount. 

Again I’d look for refined sugar in the ingredients. I’ve seen some supplements where sugar is the main ingredient. That kind of thing I’d avoid not only due to the sugar spike effect but also a lack of active ingredients.

Key Points

  • Combined sugar and starch should roughly be below 10% 
  • Quantity that is fed needs to be considered when making comparisons
  • Ingredients are important
  • Refined sugar is metabolically challenging
  • Naturally occurring sugars are less stressful to the body
  • Low sugar is good, lower doesn’t necessarily mean better

There are of course other considerations when it comes to selecting a feed, but sugar seems to be the focus for many people. Hopefully that helps makes things a little more clear when you're selecting the best feed for your horse.

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About the author

Debs is a practicing Equine Podiatrist with over 15 years experience, author, and educator. She’s here to show you how to simplify your horse’s management painlessly so you feel in control and have a straightforward system that works for you. When she’s not working you can find her playing with her own horses, watching geeky sci-fi or baking epic cakes.

  • Hi I feed my 15.hh nfx tb mare 1 scoop of honey chop twice a day with a handful of hi fibre nuts and a gastric supplement made by equine edge all natural along with naf biotin . I’ve just added a cup of linseed to each feed aswell as she lost condition due to box rest for 2 weeks ( stress) she also has 16lb of hay at night or more so as lib really .. does linseed have an effect on making them a bit sharp ? She’s bare foot and her hooves look great in the winter but not so good in the summer for some reason .. she’s out all day in at night .. what’s your thoughts please

  • Great illustration on why its important to look at more than just the numbers. Is it not important to calculate as the whole diet? When the two products are fed equal amounts by weight, the sugar+starch in Timothy Chop will be 60 gm.

    • Yes, you’d need to calculate how much you’re feeding your horse.

      I think it’s far more likely that people feed a scoop of chaff, rather than aiming for 500g of chaff. Certainly if you are replacing 1 scoop of the HH with 2.5 scoops of TC then yes, you’ll be getting more sugar with the TC, but then that goes back to the amount of time it takes to consume, and the type of sugar (refined vs natural) that’s going into the body.

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