Is Any Pellet Better Than No Pellet?
October 23, 2013 § 17 Comments
I very frequently get requests to continue working on the Pellet Project, which I discontinued a while back due to just getting very busy. (You can read the only page I left standing from the Pellet Project, on Totally Organics Pellets, here.) I had only gotten through a few pellets anyway, and the work ahead of me was quite staggering. Well, I am toying with the idea of continuing it. Slowly. If you feel strongly that I should or should not, I would appreciate your feedback.
However, today, I wanted to tackle a slightly different question, raised in the title of this post. (It could also be titled, how do I know if my pellet is any good? If any of you remember my work on the Pellet Project, you will notice that this entry is almost a DIY-version of it.) One of the most common and confusing mind sets that I see as quite a pervasive and dominant philosophy in the parrot world is that any pellet must be better than no pellet at all. I’m not quite sure how this started or how people came to believe this so widely and so surely, as if it is fact. But I’d like to question that belief.
If you’re a frequent reader of my blog, you’ve probably already read my entry on my philosophy on pellets, so this discussion will probably be somewhat repetitive. But if you haven’t read it, or if you’re anybody that’s interested in parrots’ diets, or pellets in particular, please do keep reading.
Back on topic: where do we get this notion, that any pellet is better than no pellet? Why do we inherently believe that pellets have some sort of secret, magical nutrition locked away in them? First of all, wildlife researchers and ornithologists or even researchers specializing in avians and exotics don’t know what the daily nutritional profile of most parrot species looks like. We have very little idea of exactly what kind of nutritional breakdown parrots are getting in the wild, so the notion that a pellet company can formulate a diet tailored specifically to pet birds’ needs is a bit ludicrous to me.
And then there’s the fact that these diets are specifically “tailored” to pet birds’ needs, yet the ingredients list of a macaw pellet is so often the same as a budgerigar pellet — that’s right, macaws, a type of parrot that is native to the rain forests of Central and South America, are being fed the same formula as budgies, a type of parrot that is native to the arid lands of Australia. The only difference, in most cases, is size. Something fishy, isn’t there?
I certainly think there is, and I think more parrot owners should, too. I think that one of the most important things we can do as parrot owners is to educate ourselves about diet and nutrition for our birds’ sake. And although I encourage everybody to research the wild diet of their parrots, this information is unavailable in a lot of cases, or rather unhelpful to the captive bird owner in terms of finding readily available local equivalents and substitutes– so at least research the diets that are available to you, and start by reading the ingredients in your pellets.
Pellet ingredient lists are very long and thus can seem quite daunting. But if you know how to pull them apart, and what to look for, you can discern a lot about quality.
Getting Started: Base Ingredients
I like to look at the first five ingredients to get started. These will be what I call the “base” ingredients of the pellet (it may differ from pellet to pellet; some pellets might only have 3 whereas others might have 7 or 8). But usually, the first five or so ingredients will make up the majority of the content of the pellet, since manufacturers must list ingredients ranked in order of how much of the product each ingredient constitutes. Usually, you will see something like wheat, corn, rice, or soy. Because these ingredients will make up most of the pellet, these are very important in revealing the quality of the pellet. As such, you want to see a good variety of healthy grains or seeds. With the pervasiveness of GMO wheat, corn, and soy, I really don’t like to see those three ingredients in a pellet unless they are certified organic. Some parrot owners actually don’t like to see those ingredients all together, because they are three of the most common allergens in birds. Rice tends to be a healthier choice, but brown rice is an even better one. But as someone actually wisely pointed out to me today, even rice has its problems, as it is often found to contain high levels of arsenic.
Furthermore, pay attention to how these ingredients appear. Does it say “whole soybeans,” or does it say “ground soybean meal”? Grain “meals” are often indicators of far lower quality ingredients, often reserved for pet foods only and in some cases not fit for human grade foods.
Remember, these first ingredients will make up the bulk of the pellet, and the rest of the ingredients will typically be flavor enhancers, preservatives, and vitamins. So if you are feeding a majority-pellet diet, think to yourself: would you want to eat corn/wheat/soy/rice every single day, along with a multivitamin? Do you think that’d be healthy? Do you think you’d like it… everyday? What if you had evolved to eat fruits and seeds normally, as many parrots have? Do you think that some “ground corn meal” with a vitamin would be your ideal diet?
Step Two: Look at the Vitamins
After tackling the base ingredients, the next step is to try to discern where the vitamins are coming from. Most of these will be listed under obvious names, like “Vitamin D3 Supplement,” Vitamin E Supplement,” “Calcium Carbonate,” etcetera. Some will be less obvious, such as “Menadione Sodium Bisulfate Complex,” which is a type of Vitamin K. And some will be even less obvious, because they’ll be embedded in other ingredients like carrot powder as a source of all natural Vitamin A. But these are also important to think about. For one, some vitamins are downright dangerous– menadione, for example, is banned from human food and I would not feed it to my birds under any circumstances. (I wrote an entry on it here.) Another thing to consider is that while in synthetic form, some vitamins can be overdosed on. All natural sources of vitamins, however, from whole foods (like carrots, to use the example above) cannot be overdosed on, as the body will use that which it needs and excrete the rest naturally. And finally, some consider the addition of Vitamin D3 to be extremely important for bone density and calcium absorption, in particular for parrots that do not get a lot of exposure to natural sunlight.
Step Three: Everything Else
The rest of the ingredients will likely fall under additives, flavor enhancers, or preservatives. Take a good look at these and make sure you are comfortable with them. Some are positive and/or benign, like fruit juices to add flavor and sometimes even natural color, or herbs to add flavor and health benefits. Some are relatively uncontroversial preservatives like Mixed Tocopherols (unless your parrot has a soy allergy). Some are things you’ve never heard of, and if you looked into, would probably not be happy about. So don’t be complacent, and look into them! Why should your parrot eat Canthaxanthin when you don’t know what it is? Another consideration is peanuts. Many of us also choose not to feed peanuts– but several pellets also contain peanuts.
Step Four: The Labeling
One last thing: is the product certified organic? If so, then you know its ingredients are non-GMO, which for me means a lot. What about human grade? This is another indicator of quality.
Of course, this entire process will likely involve looking up a few things you’ve never heard of, but what’s an hour of research on the internet in comparison to the health of your companion parrot? Once you know the ingredients in your pellet and can understand where the base of the pellet is coming from, what kinds of vitamins it contains, as well as what additives or preservatives, you will be able to develop an informed opinion on the quality of the pellet as well as develop your own opinion as to how comfortable you feel about feeding it. I think that many of us will be surprised to learn that we are not comfortable with many of the pellets on the market. As I’m sure you can tell, I have very strong opinions about food, diet, and nutrition. But I hope that this entry will teach other parrot owners to arrive at their own conclusions, based on educated decisions.
So back to our original question: is any pellet better than no pellet? That’s up for you to decide, but I think that in more cases than not, the answer is no.