Nutraceuticals, Nutrigenomics, Functional Foods, Probiotics - making sense of the jargon.
For centuries, people have known how to modify their food, through preservation techniques such as fermentation - adding bacteria to make cheese or yoghurt or yeasts to make beer and wine. They have known in the past and more recently that different feeds will produce varying effects in their livestock; feeding beer and yeast to wagyu cattle, chestnuts to pigs to flavour the meat, high levels of Vitamin E and selenium to chickens to produce selenised eggs, high levels of palm kernel to dairy cattle affecting the processing of milk and our animals may need extra vitamins or minerals to reproduce, grow or work to their full potential.
Many of these things have been discovered by accident or trail & error, but it has only been since the era of modern science, and in particular the last 30 – 40 years that the sciences have come together to look at how our health and that of our animals can be actively managed through nutrition.
In the late 70’s, early 80’s work was being done into the interaction of nutrition (food) and health and its ability to prevent disease. The term “nutraceutical” was coined in 1989 as a combination of nutrition and pharmaceutical to describe foods that had a medicinal affect. Since then the term has been applied to a whole range of different foods and supplements from “bio” yoghurts to vitamin supplements to fortified breakfast cereals. Many of these are described as “functional foods” as they are designed to address a specific issue. So, the term “nutraceutical” or “functional food” can be one and the same.
In the animal world, one of the first products was the commercialisation of brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, when it was demonstrated that feeding S cerevisiae improved gut health, helped reduce the effects of gut borne disease and helped improve the immune function. Since then, work has shown that some of these effects are due to specific parts of the yeast rather than the whole yeast cell and that other strains of yeast can have similar effects. This early work has led to a range of products that we now call “pre and probiotics”.
Probiotics now include a wide range of bacteria and yeasts that through their feeding actively manage the digestive health of the gastrointestinal tract. By feeding “good bugs” the ability of bad or pathogenic bacteria in the digestive system to take hold and cause disease is reduced. Prebiotics are foods or compounds that feed the good bacteria or cause certain beneficial changes in the existing gut biome.
The latest evolution in the field of nutraceuticals is the discovery that the feeding of certain probiotics or functional foods work by affecting the animal at a genetic level. With the development of techniques to look at the genetic makeup of the animal, it is now possible see which genes are being switched on or off depending on what the animal is eating. Research has shown that the feeding of certain probiotics to cattle can switch on or off almost 11,000 genes involved in the immune function.
This latest field of research is known as “Nutrigenomics” and looks at how nutrition interacts with the switching on or off of certain genes and the affect it can have on the animal’s health. The genetic makeup of the animal is known as its genome which is the complete set of DNA including all its genes. The horse genome was sequenced in 2006 with 2.7 billion DNA base pairs being mapped, making it larger than a dog but slightly smaller than a human or cow.
This ability to look at gene expression from a nutritional perspective is giving a new window on how food can affect health, growth and well-being. With genes determining how, when and what cells are grown and replaced, and with the entire gut lining being replaced every 3 days, the ability to manage health through the digestive tract with targeted foods or compounds is the next step forward.
Looking beyond genes at their own makeup is also happening. Genes are made of DNA, which in turn is made of nucleotides. Nucleotides are the building blocks of DNA /RNA which create new cells, repair damaged tissue, facilitate the immune function and reduce cellular destruction in addition to a myriad of other functions. Some trials have demonstrated that the feeding of nucleotides have resulted in the increase in maturity and growth of gut villi, the cells lining the intestine, which are responsible for nutrient uptake and pathogen defence. For horses with compromised or immature digestive systems, such as older animals, foals and yearlings or animals with digestive upset, feeding nucleotides could be beneficial.
Companies and marketing people throw the terms nutraceuticals, probiotics, nutrigenomics etc around almost as if they are interchangeable as a means of getting your attention, and sometimes they are, but it is useful to know what they actually mean.
The science of nutrition has come a long way in the last 50 years with many developments still to come and it is now recognised that the old saying of “trust your gut” has a basis in fact. Certainly, we know that for people and it is probably true for our horses too.