Starches and Sugars in Horse Feeds

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Starches and Sugars in Horse Feeds

Frequently, when people ask about “low-carb” diets, they’re really asking about low non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) diets. Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), which include sugars and starches, are useful nutrients because they can be broken down and absorbed in the small intestine and stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. This means they can be accumulated and readily mobilized to provide energy.

  • Nutrena uses the term "controlled" instead of "low" because performance horses require more starch and sugar in their diets in order to recover from exercise.

Controlling NSC intake is vital for the well-being and performance of horses. Starches and sugars are required for energy and glycogen repletion. However, overloading the digestive system with NSC can result in metabolic disturbances, which may lead to problems such as colic, laminitis (founder), obesity, or developmental orthopedic disease.

Because performance horses require sustained energy, low-carbohydrate diets are unsuitable. However, controlling starch and sugar intake can be beneficial depending on age, breed, activity, metabolic conditions and physical state.

Nutrena’s nutrient-focused approach allows horse owners to provide a controlled glycemic response while maintaining appropriate levels of starches and sugars.

The Benefits of a Controlled Starch Formula

Starch is a great energy source for most horses, but excess starch can cause metabolic disturbances, such as colic or laminitis in horses. When fed properly, a controlled starch product ensures that specific starch fractions are digested throughout the intestinal tract, which provides the energy a horse needs without the risk of excess starch leaking into the hindgut.

What makes up NSC and why is it important?

NSC stands for ‘non-structural carbohydrates’ and is typically the combination of starch and sugar. Horses with metabolic concerns, such as Cushing’s disease, laminitis or Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) require reduced levels of NSC to support their activity levels. Fructan is also included in NSC, but is typically found in forage products, such as grass or hay.
Starches and sugars (NSC) are broken down in the small intestine. Sugars and some starches are digested rapidly, while other starches may digest more slowly because of the plant’s structure they are derived from. Because horses cannot tolerate large intakes of NSC in one meal, they must be controlled in the diet.

Low Starch Feeds

Most horses do great with a moderate level of starch in their feed however some horses have metabolic conditions, such as EMS, Insulin resistance or laminitis, which require a reduced starch level in the total diet. SafeChoice®  Special Care is considered a low-starch feed with a maximum starch level of 11%. To truly provide a low starch and sugar diet, it is important to take into consideration the starch and sugar levels of the forage in the diet.

What does the starch % mean to my horse?

The percentage of starch only tells half the story. When comparing starch intake for horses, it is important to factor in the recommended feeding rate.

% of Starch * Feeding Rate(in pounds) * 454 grams/pound = Grams starch/meal

For example:

A). Feed A has 10% starch and a feeding rate of 6 pounds per day: (0.10 * 6 * 454) = 272.4 grams of starch per meal
B). Feed B has 11% starch and a feeding rate of 3 pounds per day: (0.11 * 3 * 454) = 149.82 grams of starch per meal

In this example, the feed with the higher starch percentage on the tag actually delivers less starch per meal, when fed to the feeding directions.

The Components of Carbohydrates

All components are important to equine diets, but perform different functions. 

  • Fiber is a major source of energy for the horse and is primarily digested in the cecum and large intestine.
  • Starches and sugars (NSC) are broken down in the small intestine.
    • ´╗┐Sugars and some starches are digested rapidly, while other starches may digest more slowly because of the plant structure they are derived from.
    • Because horses cannot handle large intakes of NSC in one meal, they must be controlled in the diet.

NSC and Colic

If too much starch is consumed in one meal, undigested portions can pass to the hindgut where they ferment, contributing to gas colic and metabolic problems. If too little starch and sugar is consumed in the total diet, an equine athlete may not recover as rapidly after exercise.

 

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