When we read terms such as ‘innovative’ or ‘technologically advanced’, we expect to hear them used with reference to the IT or electronics sector where the development of new technology is the lifeblood of the industry.
One would be forgiven for not associating the koi hobby with such dynamic descriptions, particularly in the area of koi nutrition.
Yet as is true for any fast moving industry, new discoveries and competition are the dynamo behind innovative product development, with the latest products available representative of the state of the art and best available. In other words, the nutrition currently available to the koi keeper has never been so comprehensive.
It is interesting to chart the developments in koi nutrition over the last few decades and see how both the understanding of a koi’s nutritional requirements and the manufacturing process involved have changed.
Furthermore, this journey has included a number of milestone discoveries and real leaps in nutritional understanding and advancement but also periods where innovation appears to have been relatively stifled.
Arguably the most significant advance that has lead to a new generation in koi foods has been a fundamental change in approach. Koi food is no longer simply formulated to satisfy a koi’s direct nutritional needs, but has been developed as a functional tool with ‘add-ons’ for achieving other goals and benefits for the koi and koi keeper.
What is functional food?
A useful way of understanding the implications of a functional diet is to regard it as ‘Food Plus’. The ‘plus’ element of the diet is the part that is developed to provide koi and koi keeper with a number of tangible benefits over and above those of fulfilling the basic nutritional need. Functional koi nutrition uses the food as a vehicle by which it carries a number of additives that can enhance further the health, growth or colour of a koi.
What can we put inside the Trojan Horse?
Greek mythology tells of a time when the Greeks offered the Trojan captors of their queen, Helen, a huge wooden horse. Little did the Trojans realise that Greek soldiers were hidden inside and to their cost, the Trojans accepted this gift from the gods, and wheeled it inside their city walls. The rest is history. Functional koi nutrition uses the Trojan Horse principle, but without a sting in its tail. The basic food formulation is the horse, inside which any number of functional additives can be concealed.
Earlier in the series, the many benefits of using an artificial food to feed koi were discussed, with the main advantage being that it offers complete flexibility in formulation. This allows a koi food manufacturer to incorporate a new ingredient into a test diet at varying inclusion rates that can be verified and duplicated if necessary for research purposes. Furthermore, such additives can then be added in bulk runs with guaranteed inclusion rates, something that would just not be possible with a completely fresh diet.
Significant Koi Food Innovations
The majority of ingredients listed on a label of fish food will relate to satisfying a koi’s basic dietary requirements. A little intuitive detective work will allow you to identify some of the key functional additives that have been included to enhance other aspects of the koi’s physiology. As these additives are unlikely to contribute to the bulk of the food (but will nonetheless contribute to a disproportionately large part of the cost of the diet), such additives are likely to be found towards the end of the ingredient list.
Innovative Functional Ingredients
Colour enhancers were probably the first functional additive included in koi foods. Recognising that koi can utilise and manipulate a range of carotenoid pigments, natural pigment sources such as spirulina, krill and paprika have been incorporated into koi diets for many years. More recent research has identified the key pigments that koi incorporate into their tissues to enhance colour, being able to synthesise these pigments from the array of carotenoids supplied in a natural source. Colour enhancement technology has now progressed to supplying koi with the specific carotenoids they require, in the form they can readily utilise. Consequently, faster-acting additives such as astaxanthin and canthaxanthin (the concentrated pigments that are actually utilised by koi) appear in the formulation of koi foods.
Stabilised Vitamin C
Vitamin C is essential in the diet to assist koi resist disease and improve tissue repair. Just over 10 years ago, most koi foods are likely to have been deficient in Vitamin C and nutritional innovation has led to a new form of Vitamin C that is stabilised. Previously, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) would have been denatured during the food manufacturing process due to its reactive properties, making the resultant koi food deficient in vitamin C. A new form of Vitamin C called stabilised vitamin C is stable through the food manufacturing process and available for fish to utilise in the diet. This innovation is now available in koi foods today, promoting better health in koi.
Another innovation that can improve koi health has been the discovery of the effects of a range of compounds that have an immunostimulatory effect. That is, they boost a koi’s ability to fight or protect itself from disease, working in a number of ways. Whenever we scratch or graze our skin, blood immediately gets to work to counter any foreign matter that may opportunistically enter the wound. These could range from viruses, bacteria or fungi, through to dead particulate material. Either way, these foreign bodies must be challenged and the body’s first line of defence is the non-specific immune response. This involve the Pacman-like white blood cells that engulf and digest these foreign bodies. One group of immunostimulants acts to enhance the performance of these white blood cells, thus improving a koi’s response to disease.
Other immunostimulant additives have a different yet complimentary effect on invading organisms, particularly bacteria. One particular immunostimulant group has been shown to directly interfere with the ability of pathogenic bacteria to attach to koi tissues, preventing the onset of infection. Yet again, scientific innovation has transformed koi foods into functional koi nutrition.
Koi have been consuming clay for as long as they have been farmed in clay ponds. Clay offers several benefits for koi nutrition through the minerals it supplies and also by what it can remove via adsorption. In our mission to keep koi in clear water, our ponds do not contain clay and consequently, our koi are forced to eat a clay-free diet – not as nature intended. Recent advances have focussed on incorporating clay in artificial koi foods in an attempt to regain some of the many benefits koi gain from foraging in a natural mud pond.
The majority of innovations in koi nutrition have been transferred from other industries and areas of research, and their characteristics harnessed and utilised in a new area.
A relatively recent innovation in the petroleum industry’s fight against water pollution has been utilised to good effect, where cultured beneficial bacteria are used to breakdown the nutrients that may have accumulated in a water body, causing algae to bloom.
These bacteria are freeze-dried and reactivate in an aquatic environment and have been shown to have a positive effect in reducing nitrates and phosphates in ponds.
Imagine the benefits to the koi and pond water if such bacteria could be incorporated into a food.
Instantly, koi keepers could feed their koi a food laced with beneficial bacteria that would be poised, ready to breakdown the waste that koi produce as a result of feeding on the food.
This would be like a carpet that Hoovers itself clean, a self-emptying bin or a garden that weeds itself. Who knows, in the same way that we have witnessed with stabilised vitamin C, in the next 10 years, such ‘self-cleaning’ benefits may be included in koi foods as standard.
Now that would be innovation!