What Constitutes a "Whole Food," and Does That Make it Superior?

The "whole food" claim is being used to market some feeds and supplements for horses but what is a whole food and are these products really superior?

Does this look like whole food to you?

The term whole food is not currently regulated so it can mean anything the company using it wants it to mean. "Whole food" was originally coined in the 1940s and referred to produce "without subtraction, addition or alteration", harvested and eaten fresh, raised without pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers - in other words, both unprocessed and organic.

Whole food in horse products is definitely not the same as organic. If you don't see the USDA seal of certification, it's not organic. Non-GMO is not the same thing as organic either and no guarantee the product does not contain chemicals even far more dangerous than glyphosate.

If you don't see the USDA seal, it's not organic.

Whole food is supposed to mean not processed in any way - like eating an apple or peach. Reference might be made to minimal necessary processing. This should include things like peeling a banana to eat it, rinsing dirt off a carrot or cracking open a nut. However, in one prominent feed that plays the whole food card the only actual whole food in it is oats. Everything else has been ground, skinned, pelletized, dried, heat dehydrated (and possibly preserved with sulfur dioxide), dehulled, cleaned, exposed to strong magnetic fields, steamed (split peas), polished, or solvent extracted.

The reality is that very few whole foods will escape rotting inside a feed bag without processing or preservatives. Even drying and grinding leads to loss of some vitamins and fragile fatty acids. What starts out as a whole food loses some critical portions of its nutrition by the time it goes into a bag and really isn't a whole food any longer.

Whole food supplements have another problem. In addition to not really being whole foods after they are processed into a powder or bar, the levels of nutrients they provide falls far, far short of being helpful. For example, one "multi" type whole food supplement made from fruits, vegetables, nuts (and some most definitely not whole foods like oils, bran and processed yeast) provides the following amounts of nutrients per daily serving:

  • Protein: 6.2 grams versus requirement of 630 grams (500 kg horse at maintenance)
  • Calcium: 0.8 grams versus requirement of 20 grams
  • Copper: 0.4 mg versus requirement of 100 mg
  • Zinc: 1.35 mg versus requirement of 450 mg

Those are only the rock bottom bare minimum requirements in health. Actual optimal requirements can be much higher. Are these numbers misleading because nutrients in foods are much more bioavailable?  No. That's a myth. In fact, research has shown minerals in foods are far less bioavailable than minerals in supplements, including inorganic minerals from rock.

There's nothing wrong with the ingredients that go into these feeds and supplements but the suggestion they are superior to other products does not stand up to scrutiny. For example, I would much rather feed processed wheat bran with its high protein, minerals and vitamin-packed wheat germ intact than the whole wheat grain which is loaded with high glycemic index starch/flour.  The supplements have nice ingredients and are yummy but they're treats, not supplements.

As much as I favor whole foods like whole oats, it's not the answer to optimal nutrition for the management scenario of today's domesticated horse.

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