Beet pulp is a by-product of sugar production but for some reason there is more negative and inaccurate information floating around on the internet about beet pulp than any equine feed ingredient you can name.
Beet pulp is the fibrous portion of the sugar beet below ground root which remains after it has been soaked in hot water to remove the sugar. It has a calorie yield similar to oats but because it is fermented like hay does not produce a blood sugar spike like grains do. Even if the pulp has high residual sugar or had molasses added to it, careful thorough rinsing, soaking and rinsing again can remove that to make it safe even for horses prone to elevated insulin responses.
Beet pulp can absorb 4 times its dry weight in water, which results in a high volume but low calorie meal and a good way to get extra water and supplements into the horse. It has good protein levels of 9 to 10% and high calcium. It can help substitute for hay as a fiber source during periods of shortage.
Those are the facts. Here are some of the unsubstantiated claims.
Myth: Beets are treated with a chemical defoliant to kill the top leaves before they are harvested. Completely untrue. The leaves are removed mechanically.
Myth: Beet pulp also contains the leaves and can cause oxalate poisoning. False. There are no leaves in beet pulp and oxalate levels are very low.
Myth: Production of the pulp involves many harsh chemicals. Nope. No chemicals are used in the production of the pulp, which is what remains after hot water soaking of the beet roots. The only chemicals involved are low levels of antimicrobials/biocides to control bacterial growth in the sugar water. The most common is hydrogen sulfide, which is also the biocide used to preserve wines.
Myth: Beet pulp causes hind end weakness and muscle loss. This doesn’t even make any sense. The person claiming this tries to claim it is because oxalate in beet pulp (see above) ties up calcium and causes the horse to not be able to digest/absorb nutrients properly. Again, this is science fiction. Oxalate toxicity is a real thing, but not from beet pulp, and oxalate only ties up calcium. Beet pulp is actually a very good source of calcium.
Myth: Beet pulp is high in insoluble fiber and poorly digestible. Exactly the opposite is true. It is lower in insoluble fiber than grass/hay, high in soluble fiber and very easily digested in the large intestine by fermentation. Because of this high soluble fiber content, beet pulp is also an excellent prebiotic.
Another criticism is that much beet pulp is now from GMO plants so will be high in glyphosate (Round Up). However, glyphosate/Roundup residues in sugar made from GMO beets is zero – undetectable. Levels I have seen for the pulp are also extremely low, less than 1 ppm. This is not surprising considering that glyphosate is water soluble and the beets undergo extensive washing and soaking.
There will always be horses that do not do well on particular feed ingredients but there is no reason to universally condemn beet pulp. It is an excellent diet addition for most horses.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD