My Philosophy on Pellets

June 3, 2011 § 8 Comments

Probably the most baffling and intimidating part of being a parrot owner for me is feeding my parrots.  There is so little research on what our parrots are actually eating in the wild, and even less so on what are the necessary or appropriate nutritional profiles of their meals.  With some parrots, you can find basic information– Cape Parrots, for example, normally feed almost exclusively off of the fruit of the yellowwood tree (although due to habitat destruction they now also feed off of pecan trees, plum trees, and some other crops, but this is not believed to be an ideal diet and may also be one of the contributing factors to the widespread PBFD outbreaks among the wild populations).  Budgies, of course, feed mostly off of grasses, sprouted or germinated seeds, and the occasional wheat crop; Hyacinth Macaws predominantly feed off of two species of palm nuts.  But what is the nutritional content of these foods, and what kinds of protein and fat and sugar levels are we looking at?  That information is nearly impossible to find, which makes it exceedingly difficult to design an appropriate diet in captivity, being that we have no access to their natural diets nor to the nutritional makeup of them.

For me, this is the number one argument against any pellet-based or majority pellet diet.  (No, I don’t believe in seed-based either; that’s an entirely different story.)  I don’t care what it says on the package– formulated specifically for macaws, or formulated with lower protein levels for birds prone to gout– the fact of the matter is, if our wildlife conservationists and avian nutrition researchers cannot figure out exactly what type of nutritional profile is appropriate for a bird in the wild let alone a bird in captivity, then corporate pet food manufacturers certainly can’t.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a single formula pellet in different sizes or species-specific pellet; there is no be all end all recipe.

Besides, if you look at the vast majority of pellets on the market, you’ll see that the main ingredients are corn, soy, and wheat, then a bunch of synthetic vitamins.  These companies fool bird owners into thinking that they are providing a “complete diet” because they’ve injected an artificial multivitamin into their pellet.  Well, let’s apply this logic to our own bodies: if we ate corn on the cob and pasta everyday as the majority of our diet for the rest of our lives but took a daily “complete” multivitamin… what kind of state of health do you think we’d be in?  Not so good.  Not so good at all.

What about the fact that I switched my bird to almost exclusively pellets and his feathers have never looked better?  Well, in the short term, pellets can dramatically increase health.  If you switched your parrot from a seed diet to a pellet diet, of course you’d probably see a dramatic change.  Why?  Well let’s apply the same logic to our own bodies.  If we ate fatty nuts and seeds all day, exclusively, for an extended period of time, then began taking a multivitamin and some corn and wheat, wouldn’t you expect to see some great changes?  The increase in diversity of diet alone would help, as would the decreased fat and oil content, and the synthetic vitamins would surely help in the short term.  Notice that the pellet manufacturers that make claims about nutrition will only show photos of “six months later!” or studies that have been conducted in the short term.

It’s the long term, however, that I’m worried about.  Over time, those synthetic vitamins can build up and cause potential problems with vitamin toxicity, and the daily diet of simply corn/soy/wheat will take its toll.  There are several long term studies that show that in small birds, namely budgies, cockatiels, parrotlets, and even lovebirds, a long term all pellet or majority pellet diet is incredibly tough on their liver and leads to gout and other problems.  I suspect– and obviously this is simply my own theory, not backed by any evidence or experimentation– that the only reason we hear about these problems only in small birds is because their life spans are short enough that we have actually been able to do these types of studies.  I would venture to guess that we’d see these problems arise in most species of parrots, if we had the ability to see how they affect the health of the longer lived parrots as well.

Do I think that pellets, then, are inherently bad?  Well, it’s complicated.  I do believe that if you feed a high quality pellet, then pellets can very well be a part of a complete and healthy diet.  But that statement is complicated, because I honestly feel that there are very few high quality pellets on the market.  To me, a high quality pellet is at minimum human grade– which knocks out nearly all of them, including Zupreem and Roudybush despite their reputations as superior for whatever reason.  These pellets all contain menadione, a synthetic form of Vitamin K that I feel is very dangerous (you can read more about it here), and otherwise they are all simply some concoction of corn/soy/wheat/synthetic vitamins, which to me does not sound healthful by any means.  The only three human grade pellets are Harrison’s, Goldn’obles, and Totally Organics.  But are they high quality?  I feel somewhat unsure about Harrison’s since it is also mostly corn, soy, and wheat, as well as peanuts which I choose not to feed; I feel similarly about Goldn’obles, which contain corn and soy, and also two sources of added sugar if I am not mistaken.  (Somebody I know, in fact, tasted them and said they do indeed taste rather sweet.)

I feel the absolute safest using Totally Organics and it is currently the only pellet I’d feed my flock.  The ingredients list is spectacular and I do not feel unsure about a single ingredient on it.  Even still, my flock’s pellet intake is only about 10-20% of their daily diet, and we often have entirely pellet-free days when I am able to be home to keep their food offerings fresh.  I am often asked, which pellet would I feed if TOPs went off the market?  Well, the answer would probably be none, to be honest.  I do not feel that it is right as a parrot owner to “settle” when I know that I could do better.

So, that’s my take on pellets, finally all written up in one entry.  I know that the natural follow up question is, well, what is the other 80-90% of their diet?  (And no, it is not seed.)  That, however, I will have to tackle another day.  But I’ll leave you with a hint.

This week's lovely fresh produce offerings for the birds and for me

A Gift from Totally Organics!

April 26, 2011 § 13 Comments

I came home to an unidentified package, yesterday, and was VERY pleased upon opening it!  Gudrun, the owner of Totally Organics, was nice enough to send me a free sample of their new, smaller-size pellet, the Crumplet! And it wasn’t just a few ounces… it was this massive bag, along with a pound of the Totally Organics Napoleon’s Seed Mix, because she knows that my little guys just love it!  Thank you so much, Gudrun!!

My lovely gift from Totally Organics!

As some of you might know, I believe that Totally Organics makes the best pellet on the market.  You won’t find any artificial colors or flavors, any preservatives, any synthetic vitamins, or even any corn or soy in these high quality pellets.  They are 100% organic, and their healthy combination of vitamins and minerals comes from natural sources– alfalfa for natural Vitamin K rather than menadione, or carrot powder for beta carotene rather than synthetic Vitamin A.  Even Charles, my budgie, loved and used to be able to eat these excellent quality pellets in the normal size, because they are nice and crumbly.  You see, TOPs doesn’t cook or bake their pellets, but rather cold presses them, so that there is minimal nutrient loss in the process.  When he had his beak accident, however, he was no longer able to chew them because they are too big for the poor guy.  That is why I was so excited for these little Crumplets — they are the perfect size for him!

The normal size TOPs next to the Crumplets for a size comparison

According to their labels, the two of them share the same formula and excellent ingredients list.  There were, however, a few visual differences.  First is, obviously, size — the Crumplets are much easier to manage for the little ones, and much less likely to be picked up and dropped all over the cage, resulting in a lot of waste.  The little ones, at least in this package, also seemed to be more green in color.  The difference isn’t all that clear in the photo, but the smaller ones definitely have more of a deep green coloration.  Finally, they also smell much more vegetable-y (leafy green-y, to be exact), if that makes sense.

I served a small amount to Charles, to let him be the actual judge, and he happily chomped them down!!  He really loved his TOPs before, and I’m glad that he can finally have them again, in a more beak-friendly size.  Of course, Sabrina followed suit and happily gobbled them up as soon as she saw Charles eating them.  Yay!

Charles, Sabrina, and I highly recommend these pellets for the little guys.  Delicious!!  Thank you, Gudrun!!

Vitamin K and Menadione

April 22, 2011 § 4 Comments

Menadione.  If you buy any sort of fortified pellet or seed mix, you’ve probably offered this ingredient to your parrots.  Nearly all pellets– Roudybush, Zupreem, Lafeber’s, Pretty Bird, etc.– all contain this ingredient.  If you own a dog or a cat, it’s probably in his or her food as well.  It is a widely used ingredient that appears under a multitude of long and scientific-sounding names: menadione sodium bisulfite/bisulfate complex, menadione dimethylprimidinol bisulfite/sulfite/sulfate, dimethylprimidinol bisulfite/sulfite/sulfate, or simply “Vitamin K supplement” or “a source of Vitamin K activity.”  Phew– it’s just a vitamin!  Carry on.  Right?  Wrong.

To understand what menadione is, we have to understand a bit about Vitamin K first.  Vitamin K, a fat soluble vitamin, is named as such because it comes from the German word “koagulation,” and, appropriately, it is necessary to the body for blood coagulation (clotting) among other processes.  It comes in various forms: Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone, phytomenadione, or phytonadione), Vitamin K2 (menaquinone or menatetrenone), and Vitamin K3 (menadione).  (There are actually five forms of Vitamin K, two more synthetic forms K4 and K5, but for our purposes, we will only be discussing these three.)  But there are a few crucial differences between these different types of Vitamin K.

Vitamin K1, as the prefixes “phyllo” and “phyto” indicate, is a naturally occuring vitamin that is produced in a variety of leafy green vegetables.  Raw swiss chard, collard greens, kale, broccoli, and spinach, for example, are all excellent sources of Vitamin K, and aid in the production of prothombin in the liver, necessary for proper blood coagulation.  Vitamin K2, like Vitamin K1, is also a naturally occuring vitamin, and is produced in the body by bacteria in the large intestine.  Vitamin K2 is vital to calcium use, aiding in bone growth and strength, as well as cardiovascular health.

Vitamin K3, on the other hand, is a synthetic form of vitamin K, meaning that it does not occur in nature but rather is a man-made chemical form of the vitamin.  Synthetic vitamins, although they can have some very healthful uses, all have one common flaw: although they are designed to mimic the effects of a single, naturally occuring vitamin, they cannot mimic all of the actions or the pathways that these vitamins take in the body.  Many vitamins, as you may have noticed, are part of vitamin families.  Vitamins B, C, and E, for example, are part of vitamin “complexes,” which act synergistically in accordance with each other.  So, in an isolated setting (like a controlled laboratory), a single vitamin may appear to perfectly mimic the effects of the natural one.  But, when put in an actual body, which works synergistically as a whole and complex unit (and not like a lab with a single experiment happening at once), it can act very differently.  One of the most common differences is that whereas we cannot “overdose” on most natural vitamins, synthetic vitamins are not expelled from the body in the same way, and instead build up, eventually causing vitamin toxicity (too much of one vitamin stored in the body).  This is the reason why so many pellet manufacturers call their products a “complete diet” and warn against feeding both a pelleted diet and any sort of vitamin supplementation.

Despite the possibility of vitamin toxicity, many people still take vitamin supplements and do just fine on them.  In fact, many doctors recommend a multivitamin.  So Vitamin K3 is just fine then, right?  No.  Unlike many other synthetic vitamins, Vitamin K3 poses more than just vitamin toxicity: it is linked to a whole set of different types of toxicities.  In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration found all of its effects in the body so alarming that it banned the use of menadione from all human grade foods under the Kefauver Harris Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1962.  Studies show that menadione can interfere with the function of glutathione, a natural antioxidant in the body, resulting in damage to cell membranes, especially over time.  Menadione also causes toxic reactions in liver cells, weakens the immune system, may cause allergic reactions, causes the abnormal breakdown of red blood sells, as well as results in cytotoxicity (the death of a cell) in yeast cells in various studies.  Some people argue that there is probably such a small amount of menadione in pellets and fortified foods that it cannot be doing that much damage.  But please understand that all of these effects occur as a result of exposure– in some studies, even minimal exposure– over timeOne chemical manufacturer even warns that menadione is “toxic to kidneys, lungs, liver, muscuous membranes.  Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organ damage.”  Clearly, the effects of menadione are alarming and have been banned from human grade foods for several good reasons.

Why, then, is menadione still so widely used in the pet food industry?  Well, unfortunately, the FDA does not regulate its use in pet grade foods, only in human grade foods.  And because menadione is such an inexpensvie way of supplementing foods with Vitamin K, it is highly favored over other alternatives.  The pet food industry bets that despite the fact that this long and scientific-sounding name appears on its ingredients lists, consumers will be comforted by the fact that it says “source of Vitamin K” afterward and won’t bother to look up this additive and its effects.  Sadly, they are very correct in many cases.  We cannot simply trust that the pet food industry will put out good quality products– there are so many cases of pet food recalls all the time because of the low level of regulation in this industry, especially among parrot foods.  In order to see change, we must demand it– we as consumers must refuse to buy foods that use this toxic ingredient and demand better quality products.

The truth is, there are far better alternatives that are readily available and provide great sources of natural Vitamin K.  The most commonly used one in parrot foods, for example, is alfalfa, a wonderful source of phylloquinone (K1).  Totally Organics Pellets, Harrison’s, and Goldenfeast Goldn’obles all use alfalfa.  (Goldenfeast’s Goldn’obles also uses parsley, another excellent source of Vitamin K1.)  At the time of writing, these are the only three brands on the market that produce pellets without menadione.  If these companies can produce better quality products on a large scale, there is no reason that other parrot food companies should not follow suit and stop using the toxic, synthetic additive menadione.

[The links provided in this post aim to link you to primary sources and studies dealing with menadione.  There is, however, an entire body of information available on the web in the form of secondary sources, in particular in relation to dog food.  The Dog Food Project, for example, has an excellent page on menadione that I highly recommend for anybody interested in more information on the topic.]

[This entry has been imported, with some edits, from my previous blog.]

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