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Metabolic Syndrome in Horses: Use of Sweeteners StudiedBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · April 5, 2017

Despite best efforts by owners to follow strict diet recommendations for horses with metabolic syndrome, some feeds and medications contain sweeteners, including certain medications used to counteract equine metabolic syndrome (EMS).

Horses with EMS are insensitive to the effects of insulin, typically overweight, and may suffer chronic bouts of potentially life-threatening laminitis.

“Standard recommendations for managing horses with EMS include limited consumption of forages and feeds high in nonstructural carbohydrates such as those found in lush pastures and early-cut hay, using grazing muzzles when appropriate, having hay analyzed and soaking hay when needed to remove excess carbohydrates, dietary restriction, and others,” advised Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

According to researchers from Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky, “Stevioside, a glycoside [form of carbohydrate or sugar] derived from the leaves of the stevia plant, has been increasingly used as a sweetener for both horses and humans. Stevioside appears to be safe for human consumption, including humans with insulin dysregulation.”

In horses, however, the safety of stevioside remains unknown, regardless of whether the horse has EMS or not.

To assess how well horses tolerate stevioside, the research team recruited horses either diagnosed with EMS or age-matched healthy controls. All horses underwent the standard oral glucose sugar test (used to either diagnose EMS or monitor response to treatment) using either corn syrup or stevioside. The goal was to determine if stevioside elicited similar responses as the high-sugar corn syrup in this challenge.

The study results showed that stevioside was well tolerated in EMS horses because the plant-derived sweetener did not induce the same metabolic responses as the corn-syrup challenge.

The authors concluded, that “stevioside may be a possible candidate as a nonglycemic sugar replacer in horses with insulin dysregulation.”

“In addition to the plethora of recommendations mentioned above, horses with EMS can also benefit from supplementation with a hindgut buffer such as EquiShure to help maintain a healthy population of microorganisms in the hindgut,” recommended Crandell.

*Elzinga, S.E., B. Rohleder, B. Schanbacher, et al. Metabolic and inflammatory responses to the common sweetener stevioside and a glycemic challenge in horses with equine metabolic syndrome. Domestic Animal Endocrinology. In press.