Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bananas for Electrolytes?

As you know, I'm always looking at ways to use real food to supplement Nimo's diet.  Something I've been interested in for awhile is looking at ways to provide electrolytes through food rather than the commercial electrolyte mixes available.  Luckily, I'm not in a situation with Nimo where he has demonstrated a specific need for a particular electrolyte mix (although that could change over time), so I can research and experiment a bit.

One food that I've been thinking about a lot is the humble banana.  Both my husband and my daughter eat a lot of bananas, so we always have some sitting on the counter.  Also, bananas in this area are definitely one of the cheaper fruits, even when we buy organic.  At $0.49/lb for regular bananas and $0.69/lb for organic bananas, the price rivals that of commercial horse feed.

So what is in a banana in terms of nutrition?  I used the USDA Food Composition Database to find out.  Here are the values for a pound (about 454 grams) of bananas (which would be about 3-4 medium to large whole bananas or 2 cups mashed):

Energy: 404 kcal
Protein: 5 g
Fat: 1.5 g
Carbohydrates: 104 g
Fiber: 12 g
Sugar: 55 g
Calcium: 22.7 mg
Iron: 1.2 mg
Magnesium: 122 mg
Phosphorus: 99.8 mg
Potassium: 1,623.9 mg
Sodium: 4.5 mg
Zinc: .7 mg
Vitamin C: 39.5 mg
Thiamin: .1 mg
Riboflavin: .3 mg
Niacin: 3 mg
B-6: 1.7 mg
Folate: 90.7 ug
B-12: 0 ug
Vitamin A: 290 IU
Vitamin E: .5 mg
Vitamin D: 0 IU
Vitamin K: 2.3 ug

While I haven't covered all of the vitamin and mineral requirements for horses in my nutrition series, let me just say that there isn't anything too exciting about the values above, except for the potassium, which is considered an electrolyte (along with sodium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium).  A typical pound of Nimo's regular feed (Triple Crown Growth) provides about 500 mg of potassium whereas the banana provides 1,624 mg (or 1.6 g), which is actually a significant amount.

To figure out if the potassium provided by a banana is close to what a commercial electrolyte mix would offer, I looked up the values for some commonly-used e-lyte mixes.

Buckeye Perform 'N Win: 910 mg potassium per oz
Adeptus Persevere Low Sugar: 1,928 mg potassium per oz
Kentucky Performance Enduro-Max: 3,657 mg per oz

I should note that different electrolyte mixes include different amounts and ratios of electrolytes and most endurance riders I know end up experimenting with different products to find the one that seems to best fit their horse's needs.  The reason is likely because electrolyte supplementation is still poorly understood.  There are no simple formulas for what endurance horses (or other performance horses) really need despite a lot of research on the topic.  Endurance vets can often see a horse come into a vet check with an issue like a hanging heart rate when everything else seems OK and will diagnose a specific treatment like a dose of potassium.  But messing around with large doses of electrolytes can really get your horse in trouble if you don't know what you are doing (and even if you do!) and can't closely monitor the horse.  Which is one of the biggest reasons why I would rather use food whenever possible.  Because food is less likely to stop a horse's heart (which an overdose of potassium can do).

So, from my point of view, it is at least theoretically possible to come close to the supplementation of potassium provided by commercial electrolyte mixes through the use of bananas.  Obviously there is still salt and calcium and magnesium to worry about, but Nimo will usually eat a banana even if he doesn't want a mash after a ride, so I think there is real value in having a food source that is particularly tempting for a horse that may need an extra boost of e-lytes for recovery, but who may be tired and not want to eat well.

You can, of course, force feed electrolytes through a syringe, but that can come with a price too.  You may overdose your horse on something he doesn't need.  The horse may also experience digestive upset or even burning in his mouth if the e-lytes aren't diluted enough, which can lead to some additional problems.

On the other hand, bananas generally make horses (and people!) happy, so I think they are at least worthwhile to have around, even if you choose to use a commercial mix.  You could even choose a mix like Perform 'N Win that has a lower amount of potassium per oz and supplement with the bananas when you feel like extra potassium could serve a purpose.

I am, of course, neither a vet nor an equine nutritionist, so this post is just me speculating and thinking and researching an alternate way to get decent amounts of potassium into Nimo in the event that I think he needs it.


  1. This is an interesting concept and I love that you did the research on the numbers. I use bananas for myself during rides so it would make sense to use them for horses too. Unfortunately, I have only met a handful of horses who willingly eat bananas. One horse I know likes banana flavor, but not banana texture. Couple that with a horse who doesn't want to eat at a ride because he needs more of X vitamin/mineral and suddenly syringing seems like the easiest and most effective method.

    1. I didn't even realize there were horses who wouldn't eat bananas, Dom. Nimo adores them and every other horse I've tried feeding them to (which admittedly is a small sample of probably less than 10) loves them too. They definitely wouldn't help if the horse doesn't eat them!:)

  2. I would be concerned about the amount of sugar in the bananas. It's why I don't let my horses eat unlimited carrots at rides either (some riders do that as a natural form of electrolyting).

    1. I can see why you'd have that concern, Mel. I wondered about it as well and I know there is some debate about whether the commercial elyte mixes should have sugar and if so, how much. I will say that I don't worry about sugar as much when Nimo is in moderate to heavy work because I feel like it is probably utilized better than it would be if he is a couch potato. I wouldn't give unlimited bananas or carrots or anything else, though, except for hay.