What is nutrient ramping and why is it important?
When considering the food that we and our pets should eat, we initially think of raw ingredients. Meat,vegetables,fruits,grains and pulses and their like are typical of the foods that spring to mind as being suitable ingredients for a balanced diet, but the science of nutrition goes a lot further than just considering food groups.
Nutritional research over the years has determined that nutritious foods are made up of specific nutrients, and it is these nutrients that actually feed the body. So, the nutritionists job is not to put together a meal based on ingredients, but rather a meal based on the nutrients contained in the ingredients. Whilst we have all commonly heard statements such as “dogs do better on meat”, it is not the meat that makes the difference, but the nutrients contained in the meat, and the ease with which the animal can digest and absorb those nutrients.
When a nutritionist talks about nutrients, the conversation becomes quite specific. General terms such as protein or fat are replaced with the names of the actual nutrient components of protein or fat. This is because protein (the actual name is “crude protein”) for example, is a collection of substances called amino acids, and these amino acids are commonly referred to as the building blocks of cells. Furthermore, in dog and cat nutrition, ten of the amino acids are classified as being essential, whilst the balance is classified as being non-essential, with the difference between the two classifications being that essential amino acids must be present in the food if the nutritional needs of the animal are to be met, whereas the non-essential amino acids can be synthesised in the body from other amino acids.
An example of how this complex relationship works within the body can be demonstrated by looking at taurine, a common additive to some dog foods and almost always an additive in cat foods. Taurine is sometimes incorrectly labelled as an amino acid due to its chemical structure being similar to that of an amino acid, but the relevance of taurine is that it is a key nutrient for many functions within the body, and a key nutrient involved in maintaining eyesight in cats. Taurine’s other relevance is that it contains sulphur within its chemical structure and it is synthesised in the body from the sulphur amino acids. There are only two amino acids that contain sulphur, methionine (an essential amino acid), and cysteine (a non-essential amino acid), and the process goes something like this: if there is insufficient taurine in the food, it will be synthesised by the body from cysteine. If there is not enough cysteine in the food, it in turn will be synthesised from methionine. If there is not enough methionine in the diet to meet the needs for methionine, cysteine and taurine, then a state of malnutrition will exist.
This example of the processes involved and the competing interests in meeting the nutrient needs of our dog or cat may appear simple, but is a key factor in understanding the effectiveness of nutrient ramping. Taurine, the nutrient used in the above example is just one in a long list of nutrients that are essential for growth, health and wellbeing.
The second key factor in understanding the science of nutrient ramping is knowing that all the nutrient interactions such as that described in the above example of taurine, are inter-related, and these relationships are precise. Furthermore, these relationships are not just confined to amino acids or their metabolites, but include the same considerations in respect of fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Research has demonstrated there is a direct link or ratio requirement between all of the required nutrients, but the actual quantity the body needs differs from one essential nutrient to the other. Put simply, if the body requires one teaspoon of one essential nutrient, it could require a dash of another, a tad of a third, a pinch of a fourth, and so on. Fortunately, research over the years has allowed us to understand these complex interrelations, with the nutritionist then being able to structure the diet with the essential nutrients being present in the correct ratio to one another.
The third key factor in understanding nutrient ramping is that these nutrients are then utilised in the body relative to the current rate of energy being used in the body. In simple terms, if your dog is running around like a mad thing he may burn a cup of energy in five minutes. In the course of his madness, he will also use aset quantity of nutrients; a teaspoon of one, a dash of another, a tad of a third, a pinch of the fourth, and so on. If our now puffed dog then sits down and rests in the shade, it may take an hour before his body burns another cup of energy. This means it will now take an hour to use the next teaspoon of one nutrient, a dash of the second, a tad of the third, a pinch of the fourth, and so on.
All very simple you could be forgiven for thinking, but whilst it is easy to understand that nutrients are used in precise ratios to one another, and that the ratios are fixed proportionally to the rate of energy use, there is a further complicating factor.
The fourth key factor requires us to think of this collection of nutrients in ratio to one another (the teaspoon, the dash, the tad, the pinch and the so on) as a block of nutrients. The complicating factor is that blocks of nutrients are required in different proportions to energy consumption depending on the physiological age of the animal. For example, a young pup may require two blocks of nutrients per cup of energy, an adolescent may require 1.5 blocks of nutrients to a cup of energy, whilst an active adult may only require one block of nutrients in ratio for every cup of energy burnt. In other words, a food that is nutrient ramped is specific to a particular life stage, but this does not mean for one moment that a life stage food is necessarily nutrient ramped.
Nutrient ramping is a specific and precise method of formulating performance foods. Any food that has been formulated using this advanced scientific method will no doubt be labelled accordingly for a number of reasons, but it firstly is important to understand the distinction between nutrient ramped diets and conventionally formulated foods.
The traditional method used to formulate foods is to combine ingredients in such a manner that the minimum amount of any essential nutrient is present at a level that equals or exceeds the animal’s daily recommended allowance for that nutrient. Well, that’s the text book definition. In reality, we see vastly different minimum nutrient levels in many of the foods sold commercially, with the general rule being that foods in a higher price category generally provide higher minimum nutrient levels. Whilst this is what you would expect, it is unfortunately not always the case, and the old adage of “buyer beware” must always be remembered when making a purchasing decision.
As we discussed earlier, nutrients are used in specific ratios to one another and in proportion to the energy usage of the animal. The major drawback to formulating by recommended daily allowance (RDA) is that there is no consideration in respect of the ratio of nutrients within the food, and this is the major disadvantage of RDA formulating. When nutrients are present in the food in the correct ratios and relative to energy, very little work is required by the body to integrate the nutrients. This subsequent reduction in effort has a twofold effect; first through a reduction in nutritional stress, and secondly an increase in the efficiency of food utilisation. When nutrients are combined in the food without consideration of the required ratios (as with RDA formulating), the animal has to sort out each nutrient to create the required ratios, and depending on the disparity between nutrients, the level of nutritional stress is always higher than that experienced when feeding a low stress, nutrient ramped food.
The primary cause of the stress is the process of sorting out the nutrients. Where excessive nutrients are present (a common problem in many of the high-profile super premium diets now available), the body must decide which portion of the nutrients it must discard, which portion it must use, and which portion it may store for future use. Unfortunately, most of what is stored is converted to fat, which means it can only be re-used as an energy source at some later date. One of the more significant risks is associated with the extremely high protein levels that are being promoted in some pet foods. Unless the protein is offset with the specific requirement of energy, long term kidney damage can result. Recent research in this field has demonstrated irreversible kidney damage from foods where the protein/energy ratio is out of balance.
Conversely, nutrient ramped foods solve this problem simply by maintaining the correct ratios and balance. It is quite common to see an immediate drop in daily food intake thanks to the inherent efficiency of the nutrient ramping, followed by a continued, longer term and more gradual reduction in intake as blood nutrient levels stabilise in the animal. This process of nutrient stabilisation occurs over a period of approximately three months following the change to a nutrient ramped food.
You could be excused for thinking this is the end of the nutrient ramping discussion, but there are a couple more points that are worthy of consideration. Firstly, creating the nutrient ramp or nutrient ratios, requires the nutritionist to understand the quantity, quality and availability of the nutrients contained in the raw ingredients being used. Unfortunately, there is no single ingredient that contains the perfect nutrient profile or ramp. Meat is a good ingredient for both dogs and cats, but the actual ramp of the nutrients in meat is a long way short of the perfect profile required when creating a nutrient block. Secondly, nutrient ramping demonstrates once and for all that there is no such thing as single nutrient therapy; nutrients are always used in the body in ratio to one another, and the act of adding additional amounts of any one nutrient simply throws the ratios out of balance, which in turn reduces the efficiency of the food as well as adding stress to the animal.
Thus, it is beholden on the nutritionist to only use ingredients that are sympathetic to the animal for which he or she is formulating. The use of an ingredient such as feather meal (a dry powder made from hydrolysed chicken feathers) is a classic example. Feather meal contains an extremely high level of crude protein, of which a large quantity is the essential amino acid methionine. Unfortunately, dogs can only digest somewhere between 0% and 40% of the feather meal, depending on the quality of the manufacturing used when processing the feathers, so the inclusion of this type of ingredient does little to assist in the construction of the nutrient block. Another good example of this is the widespread practice of including tomato in the food (as tomato pomace), which is the residue of skins and seeds remaining once the fruit has been crushed and the juice extracted.
Similarly, the inclusion of specialised ingredients that are excessively rich in only one or two nutrients may well add some marketing weight to the label claims on the bag, but in reality make the nutritionist’s job even more difficult by taking valuable space in the kilogram of food to the exclusion of an ingredient containing a more comprehensive cross section of essential nutrients.
The final consideration in the story of nutrient ramping and the reasons for its superiority as a formulating technique in the science of nutrition, is due to the depth of analysis the nutritionist must take when mixing and matching ingredients to achieve the desired nutrient profile. This close examination of the structure of the ingredients places greater emphasis on the actual ingredients being used and provides an opportunity to promote the health and viability of the animal’s microbiome.
Recent research into the role played by the microbiome and its contribution to health and wellbeing is only just being fully explored, but it is now well documented that the microbiome plays a pivotal role in the efficiency and effectiveness of the animal’s nutritional treatment. In other words, nutritional efficiency and effectiveness in the host animal is preceded by, and dependent on, a healthy and optimised microbiome. Many researchers are now advocating the microbiome be recognised as an “organ” in its own right, with specific actions in relation to feed formulating being undertaken with the aim of increasing the effectiveness and health of the microbiome.
The correct balance of the many species that make up the microbiome is critical to the health of the host animal, and this balance is directly affected and modified by the ingredients and the nutrients that are contained in the food. An elevation in the numbers of undesirable bacteria has been shown to produce low level inflammation, which is the primary cause ofmany of the common disease conditions we see in our pets. Skin sensitivity issues, arthritis, and digestive problems, to name just a few, can all be traced to microbiota imbalances in the gut. Hippocrates had a point when he claimed, over 2000 years ago, that all disease comes from the gut!
To summarise, the advantages of nutrient ramping are profound. Not only is digestive health and feeding efficiency maximised, but feeding costs and nutritional stress are reduced, with our pets enjoying heightened levels of wellbeing, disease resistance, and are ultimately able to live a happier, longer life. Whilst this may seem to be a utopian result (achieving more for less has always been viewed with scepticism), the benefits and advantages of nutrient ramped diets are beyond debate, and the files are thick with anecdotes from grateful owners whose beloved pets have enjoyed a new lease of life thanks to this stunning technology. If you would like to see how this works for yourself, simply follow this link to take advantage of our stunning introductory offer.