Keeping Our Furry Friends Healthy Too - PulseResearch
April 24, 2017
Research finds pulse-based foods healthy for animals
Pet owners in North America are spending more and more on their furry friends.
According to 2014 data from market research group Packaged Facts, Canadians spend approximately $6.6 billion a year on their animals, while that number is closer to $61 billion in the United States, according to the American Pet Products Association.
Further data from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada shows that Canadian pet owners are becoming increasingly focused on feeding their pets natural, high-quality foods made from ingredients they recognize.
What does all this have to do with pulse growers in Saskatchewan?
Pulses represent a relatively unexplored but huge opportunity for the North American pet food industry. Research is showing that pulse starch can be a healthy and cost-effective alternative ingredient to corn and rice starch in pet food, says Dr. Lisette Mascarenhas, Director of Research and Development at Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG).
“We are seeing more and more research that speaks to the health benefits of pulses in pet food and animal feed,” she says. “All of this is contributing to people looking to pulses as a viable source of resistant starches for pet food.”
Beyond just cat and dog food, research also indicates pulses hold potential as a healthy and sustainable ingredient for aquaculture and livestock feed as well.
This is why SPG has placed some emphasis in this emerging area, Mascarenhas says. Not only does this strategy hold great potential for increasing the demand for pulses in North America, it would also help diversify markets for Canadian pulses, which is key to managing market-related risks.
Because this is a newer area of research compared to agronomy and plant breeding, SPG is careful to choose projects for funding which hold potential payoff for growers.
“We must see value or a premium in the end product for the grower,” Mascarenhas says.
Another major goal of supporting this research is to fill in the knowledge gaps in terms of flavour and formulations for major pet food companies, as they consider pulses as a pet food ingredient.
“Through research we are learning how these foods should be formulated for pets so they accept foods with pulses,” Mascarenhas says. “So what the research is focused on is trying to develop flavour combinations and various approaches that would impart a favourable taste for pets, so that they would eat them.”
Pulses as Pet Food
Dr. Lynn Weber, a Researcher and Associate Professor in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, has been studying how and why to include pulse starches in cat and dog food for many years, with funding from SPG.
So far her research has shown that pea, lentil, and faba bean starches are a valuable alternative to the commonly-used corn starch, as they are able to lower the glycemic index and insulin levels in these animals, and have fewer adverse side effects.
In her most recent research she has also observed that the animals she studies — particularly the cats — seem to have more gut and digestion problems with the corn starch than the pulse starch-based foods.
“It definitely seemed that the cats had a lot of gut problems with the corn diet,” she says. “They did not like eating it at all and some refused. One of the reasons they refused to eat it was because their stomachs hurt. Those observations were qualitative but we definitely noticed they had gut problems on the corn diet, and the pulses seemed to make it better.”
But just as kids do not like to eat their vegetables, cats and dogs do not like the taste of pulse-based foods as much, so the challenge at this point is making the pulse-based foods more palatable, Dr. Weber says.
For her next project she is going to try fermenting the pea starch with yeast, which is often used as a flavour enhancer in pet food.
“It has a meaty taste that cats, dogs, and even fish like,” she says. “The fermented yeast may also have beneficial effects in the gut — it seems to reduce gut inflammation.”
As an added benefit to this research, Dr. Weber hopes that some of her takeaway on palatability may also be usable in human diets.
Since she began her research in the area, Dr. Weber has seen a lot of pickup from the pet food industry.
“Anything that is grain-free these days on the market has pulses in it, and at least a quarter of the regular pet food is grain-free, while about half of the high-end food is grain-free,” she says.
“The big companies are taking our information which is exactly what we wanted, and this is benefitting Saskatchewan pulse growers.”
Pulses as Aquaculture Feed
Dr. Weber has also done research, supported by SPG, to translate her knowledge of pulses in cat and dog food into aquaculture feed, which she feels is the next big market to crack.
Currently, the primary ingredient in aquaculture feed is fishmeal, but this is not sustainable, Dr. Weber says.
“Not only are we facing a major ecological disaster because we are getting rid of these small-course fish that feed the larger fish, but the overfishing of the larger fish is made worse because the little ones are being overused to make fishmeal,” she says.
Using pulses as an alternative to fishmeal would be beneficial for many reasons. Not only would they offer relief from the overused fishmeal ingredient, causing big cost breaks, preliminary research has also suggested that pulses have similar or better effects on the end quality of the fish as fishmeal.
“With fish you want ingredients that are cheap and help them grow fast,” she says. “We found that you can actually replace up to 30 per cent of the aquaculture diet very safely with any of the pulse starches and the fish subsequently grow just as well or maybe a little bit better.”
Other SPG-funded research in the area of pulses and pet food focuses on how to best process and prepare pulses for inclusion in pet food and aquaculture, as well as the use of canola, peas, and flax fractions in aquafeeds.
Pulses as Feed
Another research area of increasing interest to pulse growers is that of pulses as feed ingredients for livestock.
This idea is nothing new for Dr. Vern Anderson, Beef Research Project Leader at the Carrington Research Extension Center in North Dakota.
Dr. Anderson has 34 years of experience in beef cow-calf and feedlot research and recently led a study, funded by SPG, focused on the effects of including field peas in beef finishing diets and how this influenced beef palatability attributes.
The major conclusion of this research was that peas offer a multitude of benefits as feed.
“Peas are nutrient dense, containing very high levels of energy and protein, and they are highly palatable and very digestible,” he says. “They also improve pellet quality in manufactured feeds, and depending on the scenario, they can improve animal performance or feed efficiency while increasing or assuring high values for juiciness, tenderness, and flavour in beef steaks.”
But Dr. Anderson says his results were not a shock, as there is already lots of evidence pointing to the fact that peas are extremely beneficial to feed diets, including those of sheep, swine, horses, and even bison. Now the challenge is ensuring steady prices and supply and communicating these benefits to cattle farmers.
“There is a dramatic need to continue education regarding the use of peas as feed throughout the pulse growing regions of the world,” he says. “Past research seems to fade but peas are as valuable as a feed today or in 20 years as they were 10 or 20 years ago. New growers, new livestock producers, and new feed manufacturers need continual education.”
The next steps for this research will focus on using peas in beef diets for cattle known to be less than tender, and determining and understanding the biological mechanism of how peas improve tenderness and flavour. More research is also needed on the use of peas as a forage, grazed cover crop, dry hay, mixed hay or silages, as well as the effects of pea on nutrients, animal performance, and beef eating attributes, Dr. Anderson says.
But overall he believes so strongly in his research that he is part of what he describes as a cultlike following of pea-fed beef advocates.
“I am sold on pea-fed beef, and purchase beef from a known source,” he says. “My wife and I enjoyed a ribeye steak last weekend from a pea-fed steer that was fantastic off the grill.”
Other SPG-funded research on the topic of peas as feed has focused on using various techniques to develop superior pea varieties for feed, studying the effects of saponins in peas on palatability in pigs, and looking at nutrient parameters.
SPG has also funded research specific to lentils, exploring the economic value of cull lentils in swine diets, and faba beans, looking at the effect of zero-tannin faba beans on the growing and finishing performance of pork, as well as carcass and quality traits.
For more information on ongoing research in this area, download the magazine.