Molasses seems to have become somewhat of a swear word and during the last year, the number of enquiries that I receive about molasses certainly seems to be increasing. So, what is the truth about molasses and should we really be fearful of it?
Molasses is a by-product taken from the refining of sugar beet or sugar cane and contrary to popular belief, contains approximately 55% sugar. Molasses or alternatives such as Molaferm and Molgo (made from a blend of molasses and oil) are used by the majority of feed manufactures and therefore very few feeds are molasses free. However, this does not automatically deem feeds ‘unsafe’ or ‘unnatural’ as commonly thought.
Many people fear that sugar is unnatural to the horse but in fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Horses evolved to consume a forage only diet and therefore are well adapted to digesting and absorbing sugar. In fact, the sugar in molasses is largely sucrose, the same sugar found in grass! Horses cannot be ‘allergic’ to sugar and all horses, even those prone to conditions such as laminitis, need some sugar to stay healthy (see previous blogs on allergies and sugar). Having said this, problems can occur when overweight, under-exercised horses/ ponies are fed high levels of sugar and there are undoubtedly some that need a low sugar diet. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that feeds containing molasses are unsuitable.
Firstly, ‘molasses free’ does not mean sugar free and feeds containing molasses are not automatically high in sugar. If your horse needs to be on low sugar diet it is the total amount of sugar in the diet and not just the inclusion of individual ingredients such as molasses that should be of concern. In fact, many feeds suitable for laminitics and excitable horses do contain some molasses. Molasses or molasses and oil blends are typically added at 5-10% and therefore may contribute as little as 2% sugar. In total, mixes, cubes and chaffs typically contain 4-6% sugar and when you consider the quantities, in which they are eaten in comparison to forage, actually account for a very small proportion of the total sugar consumed. In fact, forage is the largest contributor sugar in the horses’ diet (including hay) and a 500kg horse living out at grass can easily consume up to 1.9kg of sugar per day from glass alone (compared to approximately 120-180g in 3kg of ‘hard’ feed).
The term ‘everything in moderation’ is often accepted as good advice for humans and in the case of molasses, is perhaps something that should be applied to our horses. In truth, the facts often do not justify the fears and molasses is certainly not something that must be avoided at all costs.