What is sugar?
Sugars are carbohydrates and can be broadly categorised according the number of 'units' they contain:
- Monosaccharides or 'simple sugars' consist of just one unit and include glucose, fructose (fruit sugar) and galactose
- Disaccharides consist of two units and include sucrose (the table sugar that goes in your tea!), lactose (milk sugar) and maltose (which makes maltesers taste so good!)
- Oligosaccharides consist of multiple units and includes fructo-oligosacchradies found in vegetables and forages
- Water Soluble Carbohydrate (WSC)
The term 'water soluble carbohydrates' simply refers to carbohydrates that are soluble in water and is the sum of sugar plus fructan, the storage form of sugar in grass and other forages. Forage for laminitics should contain less than 10% WSC (dry matter) although levels in hay, haylage and grazing can easily exceed this. In fact, grass contains up to 50% WSC and levels in both hay and haylage can easily reach 20% (or above!).
- Is sugar unhealthy or unnatural for horses?
Sugar, like any other nutrient, plays an important role in the diet for any horse or pony. Horse's evolved to consume grass which produces sucrose as its primary fuel source, which means they are actually well adapted to digesting and utilising sugar. Therefore in healthy, exercised horses in ideal body condition, sugar shouldn't cause a problem. However, there are undoubtedly some horses and ponies that do need a low sugar (not sugar free) diet, particularly those prone to laminitis. In these cases, start by trying to reduce the sugar in the horse/ pony's forage ration.
- Can horses be allergic to sugar?
No! Glucose is the primary energy source utilised by body cells, including the brain thus making it is impossible for horses to be allergic to sugar. If low levels of sugar are consumed through the diet, the horse will convert other nutrients in order to meet the demand for glucose.
- Can high levels of sugar cause excitability?
Yes, although compound and fibre feeds contribute very little sugar to the total diet, even if they contain molasses. In reality, behavioural changes 'diagnosed' as an intolerance to sugar are most commonly caused by feeding higher levels of cereal starch. Grass on the other hand may contain up to 50% WSC (dry matter) and the same amount of energy as a racing feed on kilo for kilo basis, so turning out on lush pasture may certainly put a spring in your horse's step!
- Sources of sugar
Many owners are surprised to learn that forage is the largest source of sugar in any horse or pony's diet, even in those without access to grazing. Compound and fibre feeds typically contain 2.5-7% sugar and given that they are eaten in relatively small quantities, generally contribute a negligible level of sugar to the diet. The recommended ration of high energy (calorie) mix for a 500kg horse would typically contain 150-300g of sugar, whilst 24 hours grazing for the same horse could contain up to 12.5kg of sugar! Even horses stabled on hay alone could consume 2kg of WSC (or more) from forage alone.
Molasses has become somewhat of a dirty word in recent years when in truth, the fear factor is certainly unjustified. Molasses and its variants such as molglo and molaferm contain 30-54% sugar and are typically added to feeds at 10-15%, thus contributing just 2-4% to the finished feed. For horses/ ponies prone to conditions such as laminitis or excitability, it is the total amount of sugar in the diet and not the inclusion of individual ingredients such as molasses that is important. Provided they are low in starch and sugar, feeds containing molasses can safely be incorporated into the diet. However, many feed companies now offer molasses free alternatives for owners that would prefer to avoid molasses completely.
- Low Sugar vs. Sugar Free
Sugar has a role to play although those prone to conditions such as laminitis do need a low sugar diet. It is virtually impossible to find a sugar free feed, even if it is molasses free as many of the raw materials (ingredients) will contain a natural source of sugar. Horses and ponies prone to conditions such as laminitis do not need 'sugar free' feeds and in fact, there is some evidence to suggest that a little sugar in the diet maintains the body's ability to handle it.
- Carrots & Treats
Carrots consist of approximately 85% water which means on an 'as fed' basis, each carrot actually contains a negligible level of sugar and calories. Although in percentage terms treats may seem high in sugar, the quantity in which they are fed again means they contribute very little sugar to the total diet. Feeding a few carrots or treats will not cause any harm, just don't be tempted to feed them by the bucketful - everything in moderation!
- Tips for reducing sugar intake from forage
- Soaking hay for 12-16 hours in tepid water can reduce WSC by up to 50% although remember this not guarantee suitability for laminitics
- Consider feeding a hay replacer approved by The Laminitis Trust
- Consider turning out at night when fructan levels are lower (provided the soil temperature is consist above 5°C)
- Avoid turning out grass that has been exposed to cold temperatures in conjunction with bright sunlight i.e. sunny frosty mornings
- Avoid turning out on stubble field - the stem may be high in fructan
- Note that pasture stressed by drought or over-grazing may be deceptively high in fructan
- How much sugar is in…?
- 24 hours grazing (7.5% sugar) = 1.3kg for a 350kg pony - almost 1 ½ bags!
- 1 slice (2kg) of hay (20% WSC) = 400g of WSC
- 3kg of low energy mix/ cube (5%) = 150g - 12.5 tablespoons
- 3kg of high energy mix/ cube (6%) = 180g - 15 tablespoons
- 500g of balancer (5%) = 25g - approximately 2 tablespoons
- 1 carrot (100g) = 7g - just under 2 teaspoons
- 1 apple = 12g - 3 teaspoons
- 1 SPILLERS® treat = 1.4g - less than ½ a teaspoon