Fish Food 101 (and 102!): Navigating Nutrition & New Legislation

Published on February 24, 2017

fish food for koi

One of the greatest pleasures you and your customers can have with a pond is throwing a handful of fish food into it and watching the fish chase around, eagerly consuming it. As a pond owner myself, I still enjoy sitting and watching this activity, sometimes for hours. You might not have given much thought about a fish-food pellet beyond this point, but there is more that goes into making a quality fish diet than you might think.

Fish feed can be made from a wide variety of ingredients. Some companies have a specific formula they follow very carefully, while others use a least-cost formulator program that helps select the cheapest group of ingredients possible to achieve the nutrient profile they need. To any person outside the food-making facility, it can be difficult to determine the specific amounts of any individual ingredient that might be found in a product. The list of ingredients that are used is quite vast.

The following is a basis of some of the main components of fish food.

Animal Proteins and Fishmeal

Proteins and amino acids build muscle and tissue and are absolute musts. Think or the muscle-building powders found at health stores. Like human beings, each species of fish has a specific protein and amino acid profile that it requires for optimum health and growth.

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 To date, fishmeal remains a very important source of nutrients that has not been able to be replaced by plant-based materials, such as soybeans. They balance the amino acid and vitamin deficiencies found in cereal and grain products. They are also typically the most expensive. There are many types and grades of fishmeal. Menhaden meal and anchovy meal rank near the top of the list in quality ingredients and routinely cost more than $1 per pound due to increasing demand and the health benefits it offers humans — think omega-3 fish oil pills. Lesser-quality fishmeal is also available, including those made from the leftover portions of carcasses of tilapia or catfish from processing houses. In short, not all fishmeal is derived from the same source or have the same quality. Scrutinizing a label that lists fishmeal in the first few ingredients tells you very little. Other ingredients that are generally acceptable include shrimp meal, crab meal, dried milk products and poultry meals.

Other less conventional ingredients, such as silkworm pupae, are sometimes utilized as an animal protein ingredient; however, consistent availability and the possibility of spoilage from longer-term storage require the use of higher levels of preservatives or the reduction of the feed’s shelf life.

Plant Proteins

Also an important part of fish diets, plant proteins add to the protein and fat content of fish food. Starches derived from plant proteins also play an important role in increasing the water stability of the feed pellet. When balanced with animal protein products, a nutritionally complete diet can be achieved. Common ingredients include products made from wheat, soybeans, rice, corn, cottonseed meal and types of yeast. In some diets using a least-cost formulation, the label may only state “plant-protein products.” This allows the inclusion of any combination of plant products without being specific.

animal protein for koi
Prized menhaden supplies quality fishmeal as animal protein.

Other important additives include vitamins and minerals. Even though most individual ingredients already have vitamins and minerals in them, some are lost or degraded during the extrusion or pelleting procedure due to the heat applied. Additional amounts may be added to compensate for losses.

Fats and Lipids

Essentially, fat is energy. Lipids contain more energy per unit weight than any other dietary component. The amount of energy needed for a fish depends on how much energy the fish requires. Cold-blooded fish do not maintain a body temperature much above their surroundings, and thus, in cooler water, they require less energy, especially during colder times of the year.

If too much fat is given to a fish, the fish could express disease or illness-related issues. If a fish gets too little fat, it can get unhealthily skinny. In fish foods, fat is typically applied after the pellet has been made or is included in the mix before extrusion or pelleting.

Species-Specific Diets

Just as humans and cows are both animals but eat different foods in order to thrive, the same is true for different species of fish. Koi and goldfish are different from catfish and trout, and thus, their diets should be tailored to their specific needs.

fish food manufacturing
Menhaden oil supplies needed energy and highly unsaturated fatty acids.

In many instances, diets produced for another species are marked and sold for a species that are not correct, especially in the case of koi and goldfish. Many times this is due to the high costs associated with custom diets, or possibly just a company’s ignorance or disregard for doing what is correct. The effects may not show in the fish in the short term, but long-term effects include lower disease resistance, poor growth, tumors or deformations.

Fiber comes from the cereal plant portions of the diet. All cereals contain some portion of cellulose fibers. This is a non-digestible portion that aids in binding the pellets together and moderating the passage of food through the gut. It is not desirable to have more than 8 percent fiber in a diet, because it would be replacing more desirable nutrients in the diet.

Ash is also an under-utilized portion of the feed that comes from a mixed group of ingredients, including silica or sand grains. A simple rule: the lower the ash, the better the diet.

How It’s Made

Floating and sinking fish feeds are predominantly made using temperatures higher than 212 degrees Fahrenheit, producing steam. The steam acts in three ways. First, it essentially melts the starches in the diet and makes them sticky. Second, it puffs the pellet, inducing air that makes it float. Finally, the most important part is that it adds a “kill step” to the feed. This eliminates unwanted organisms and somewhat sterilizes the feed. After the feed is made, it is fairly hot and somewhat wet and must be immediately cooled and dried. At this point, it’s ready to be bagged, tagged and shipped.

New Regulations

fish pellet production
Intricate parts of this pelleting operation work together at Aquatic Nutrition

As of Jan. 1, 2017, treating fish with antibiotic feeds requires a veterinarian feed directive, or VFD. It is now illegal to use medications, antibiotics and medicated feeds that are considered “medically important.” This includes most commonly used compounds. A veterinarian is required to write a VFD, and compounds can only be given for prevention, treatment and control of a specifically identified disease. Until this year, there were medications available in over-the-counter feeds that were available to koi shops and their hobbyist customers. This change in the regulation is to prevent the misuse of antibiotics and the possibility of the development of resistance to the currently available antibiotics. In most cases, the VFD antibiotics would be directed to be used over a duration of around 10 days, always under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Under a VFD, you must establish a relationship with a veterinarian specializing in fish. A list of these can be found at The qualified veterinarian will evaluate and write a VFD that is specific for the treatment of the diagnosed disease. This paperwork is sent to a feed company registered to make or distribute medicated feeds. Only then will you be able to purchase the product.

Unfortunately, the time required to obtain a VFD and get the necessary antibiotics may not be short, and condition of the fish could quickly deteriorate. There is no magic bullet that can instantly fix bacterial diseases. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. Preventing aggressive bacterial organisms from taking hold is a lot easier than treating a fish that is already infected and severely weakened.
An approach that is being developed in cooperation between Aquatic Nutrition and Blackwater Creek Koi Farms in central and northwestern Florida includes a group of natural ingredients that help fish heal quickly from injuries they may incur from a variety of sources, ranging from parasites to breeding to other environmental hazards. This new fish food is currently being manufactured at Aquatic Nutrition, and the hope is to make it available for the upcoming pond season. Testing at Blackwater Koi Farms has shown a lot of promise, and because it is not an antibiotic and thus lacks restrictions and side effects, it may be used continuously.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) represents the first material changes to hit the pet food market since 1938. It is comprised of new laws that require animal foods to closely follow many of the regulations already in place for human foods. According to the FDA website, it “aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.”

fish pellets nutrition
Finished pellets provide bites of optimum nutrition.

The oversight of the FSMA includes the ingredients used, the traceability of each ingredient, manufacturing practices and the traceability of finished products. Fortunately, the majority of pet food companies have already been in compliance. But unfortunately, some foreign countries have historically cut corners, possibly to save money and lower costs. The end result of these actions cost many pet owners their beloved pets and directly led to these costly regulations for pet food producers. It is estimated that the cost of compliance to the new regulations is at least $40,000 per year for each company. Companies that wish to produce pet foods must bear this expense and pass it on to the consumer as an increase in pricing.

The Future of Fish Foods

In my opinion, probably the biggest benefit that the internet has brought us is the availability of a wealth of information at our fingertips. The ability to access research, source ingredients and communicate among professionals has allowed the industry to grow and improve rapidly. New feed ingredients are being tested throughout the world. Substitutions for hard-to-get ingredients such as high-quality fishmeal are getting much closer to reality. Our fish and feed manufacturers have benefited greatly from this information, and so will the end user. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. In the fish feed world, this is very true. We as pond keepers need safe, affordable, wholesome feeds so we may enjoy our wet pets for many years to come.

Kloubec Koi Farm

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