Making Your Own Fish Food
The first thing I see and read and hear on making your own fish foods is perpetuated by people who probably did not pass high school chemistry or the pet food industry people – With that said, I offer my info considering most commercial food has the needed vitamins and amino acids heat processes out of them and flakes are such a bad idea and lose most crucial vitamin supplements within 30 seconds of hitting the water (Pannevis and Earle, 1994), and are full of fish meal and chicken feathers there is little in doubt that we as betta keepers can do such a better job if we are informed with some basic high school information.
The first question you should be asking your self are the dietary requirements of individual fish species you will feed? This would be as far as you should read if you do not know what kind of fish you are keeping 🙂 There are thousands of identified species of fish in Aquariums around the world, the idea some people have that most have the same dietary requirements is just crazy and for sure backed with little fish knowledge or research on their part. For example, the average carnivore should have 40-50% protein in their diet, with growing carnivores being provided with the upper end of the scale. Bettas have been studied specifically and fell into this range perfectly. However, growing fry are also considered to be omnivorous and require at least 45-50% protein and at least 10% lipid level for optimum utilization or food and nutrients vs growth rate.
So, you now understand you need to really tailor a diet to the specific species in your care, you can begin by studying their wild diet and habitat from either a collector or a breeder. When you can’t find the information, you are looking for on the wild diet of a specific species, you can often find studies about species with similar wild feeding habits in the same location or close to the same area. If all else fails and you are at a loss for info, take an educated guess based on what you know about the habitat area and the species feeding habits combined. Ask yourself if the fish is an ambush predator, a top feeder or a bottom feeder. The more you can think about it the better your formula will be.
The fish’s natural diet is important in not only to determine its nutrient requirements, but also to determine the species’ capability of digesting various dietary items. Feeding a meet eating fish only vegetable matter will kill it and feeding a plant only fish a meat only diet will kill that fish as well. You need to always keep in mind the digestive system evolution of your fish has been solely based upon the food available in its habitat and how those food sources are combined (i.e.: Microorganisms residing in algae like water flea or red mites or mosquito ect.ect.). Many have theorized that food is one of the main issues with some betta who are highly prone to digestion problems and bloat. The digestive system of the same species can even vary according to location from north to south. Another environmental factor when making your fish food is the mineral content, as fish absorb minerals such as calcium from their environment. Freshwater fish absorb most of the water they need through their skin via osmosis by producing dilute urine and actively transport essential mineral ions from the surrounding water to compensate for mineral ions lost via the urine and diffusion from the gills (osmosis is the net movement of water through a selective permeable membrane from a region of low solute potential to a region of high solute potential due to their hyperosmotic environment), NOT through their gills. The gills are for respiration. So, what you cannot provide in the water you need to provide in the foods.
With many fish, long term lack of calcium or minerals can result in the inability of the fish to properly balance and swim correctly due to poor muscle contraction ability or swim bladder gas issues. These symptoms can mimic diseases such as Whirling Disease when in fact there is no actual disease. Unfortunately, sometimes when a fish gets to this point, correcting calcium or minerals in the food or water and other essential mineral or lipid levels is too little, too late.
When formulating your betta fish food, I would make sure to focus on the nutritional content of the native diet and replicate it with what I have available from either online or local markets, keeping in mind what is, or is most likely to be, bio-available to fish in its natural home. Keep in mind there may be obscure requirements that you don’t know about which are found in the wild foods or in some science write up some place either in books or online if you research enough, so you can see it is important to always research your betta fish and simulate the diet as closely as possible.
As some of you know I am well educated in regards to betta fish nutrition and wild habitat, but with other fish, unless I have species-specific details, I am not formulating their food. I think the details of any great betta foods are often in the very observant minds of those most experienced with the species in question as either breeders or keepers of wild fish. So, when we advise you to watch the protein intake of fish meal in bettas or the protien content vs fat to avoid killing your fry, you can very safely assume it is a hard fact. While no hobbyist is above being questioned though, if you are a FB fan the first time you give some a question they will ban you, we soon learn who we can trust for educated opinions, and who just has a wife tail opinion (or is just someone else’s opinion they think is right, but possibly very inaccurate or out of date). We also have to watch for commercial show hype, often disguised as facts and wrapped in big words with trophy’s and shows meant to impress the average hobbyist. Educate yourself and don’t let them intimidate you. If you get banned for asking questions you know they are bad info.
If the individual species requirements aren’t enough to boggle the mind, wait until you factor in a top betta breeders’ objectives & goal! From fry to breeder in only 4 months is normal and fry counts in the hundreds. There are many nutrients that can improve size, finnage, spawn size and colors… just about everything can be impacted by a proper diet in bettas. As collectors and breeders, we also have special concerns with captive fish from the wild, including a metabolism and breeding schedule that is always in high gear. Most of you do not provide climate cycles food changes do to area weather etc. Then for top breeders there’s always things like immunity enhancement, color enhancement, bioavailability (which can vary depending on the species and areas of wild populations) … fish nutrition is a plethora of info that sometimes is hard to figure out for new aquarists.
The following information below will provide you with a kind of basis on which to begin formulating your betta foods.
*Size consideration is crucial when adding any vitamin/mineral supplements and it is the #1 mistakes made by those who make their own fish food. Here we will be focusing on bettas and they are smaller than your finger. So, not only are human supplements from health food stores easily overdosed, but they are also inappropriately balanced for fish use. The risk of hypervitaminosis is based on fat soluble vitamins like, A, D, E and K. Now, while it is not really a huge risk through natural sources, the synthetics can quickly add up when based on human requirements so always keep this in mind when making foods.
So, with a good variety of naturally sourced powdered nutrients provided and a good knowledge of the species in question, supplementation probably isn’t very crucial or needed (with the possible exception of some stabilized vitamin C to help keep the food supplants good for longer times), Liquid supplements like Vita Chem by Boyd is a great addition when ingredients are scarce.
Garlic Should never be used on bettas. It can be overdosed very easily. Garlic can irritate the mucus membranes in labyrinth fish and their digestive system.
Extreme caution should always be used with the addition of any herbs. After 30+ years of experimenting on bettas and herbs, I’m still not comfortable suggesting the use of specific herbs to other people, mostly because there are just too many variables and too much room for error.
Terrestrial plant nutrients are not as bio-available to fish as people tend to think, basically due to cellulose binding and in some vegetables, high starch/carbohydrate content. Avoid or limit high carbohydrate foods such as corn, sweet potato, parsnips and bananas. The most efficiently utilized vegetation is aquatic vegetation, and the most nutritionally complete aquatic vegetation is seaweed/algae like spirulina or kelp. The value is in the bio-availability and most importantly, the complete and concentrated nutrition that algae offers (boasting more bio-available vitamins and minerals than any other class of food, in fact). Individual algae or aquatic plant species have various functions that they excel at, so a variety in either fresh or dehydrated form will cover all bases. Some of seaweed’s medicinal qualities include anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-parasite and anti-inflammatory properties.
Many homemade foods are gelatin-based and I just cannot see a good reason for it, for sure gelatin should be used sparingly. Too much gelatin will fill the fish without providing balanced nutrients. The seaweed extract Agar may be used as a gelatin binder and it doubles as a rich source of calcium. Other binders I use include green pea & other vegetable or best now days is the insect-based flours and sometimes a bit of rice infant cereal.
Organic products offer reassurance we are not adding anything extra that can harm our fish and are relatively easy to find online now days. Sometimes pesticides on cheap products cannot be entirely removed even with washing, so I feel it is a worthy investment on organics.
Excessive amounts of raw seafood may cause a deficiency in Thiamine in bettas. Also, any meat you purchase has passed inspection based on the assumption that the meat will be cooked like beef heart, far removing it from live and freshly killed prey in that respect. But you could cook it I guess, cooking items to the minimum temperatures required to make it safe for consumption doesn’t even compare to the extreme temperatures that ingredients are exposed to repeatedly in commercial fish food processing. One very important note is that eggs should always be precooked or boiled.
Some good books are Nutrient Requirements of Fish (1993) https://www.nap.edu/catalog/2115/nutrient-requirements-of-fish and Marine Aquaculture: Opportunities for Growth and Fish Nutrition https://www.sciencedirect.com/book/9780123196521/fish-nutrition
Sodium (Actually needed in more than trace amounts which is why water from home water softeners should NOT be used): Regulates extra-cellular electrolyte, essential for the transport of nutrients across the cell membranes.
Potassium: Regulates intracellular osmotic pressure, cell membrane potential, and salt excretion.
Phosphorus: Energy metabolism.
Molybdenum: Important for proper skeletal growth (very important in reef aquariums for hard coral growth).
Manganese: Aids enzymes involved in metabolism, growth and maintenance of bone and cartilage.
Iron: Oxygen transport in blood and muscle tissue.
Magnesium: As stated previously, magnesium plays a role in the activity of more than 325 enzymes and aids in the proper assimilation of Calcium.
Sulfates: Also as stated above, improve nutrient absorption and toxin elimination.
Chromium: Important for proper utilization of sugars.
Cobalt: Necessary for Folic Acid synthesis.
Copper (very trace amounts): Co-enzyme for energy metabolism, aids in the protection of the myelin sheath around the nerves, important for iron absorption and utilization.
Fish coloration is determined by three factors:
Genetics—whether the fish has inherited the necessary genetic material to show certain colors
Nervous system and glandular factors— coloration depends on a fish’s mood and general health. All things being equal, a sick fish is probably less colorful than a healthy one. Males also may develop develop strong colors to attract females, and how the color of subordinate males lessens in the presence of dominant males
Dietary factors—nutrients and chemical compounds that the fish eats, which directly or indirectly influence color.
For Red: Astaxanthin is the carotenoid that is probably the most well known and most widely added to fish foods. It’s produced by marine algae and bacteria and is passed up the food chain and accumulates in the shells of shrimp, crabs and lobsters. It is also the principal carotenoid responsible for the red flesh of salmon.
You can order chemically synthesized astaxanthin from online suppliers. Another source is ground, dried shrimp or krill.
Paprika is rich in a number of carotenoids, including beta carotene, capsanthin and capsorubin.
For Yellow: Zeaxanthin and lutein are perhaps the most well-known yellow carotenoids. They’re present in the yellow vegetables like corn (maize) and probably in the yellow variety of snap beans and the yellow form of bell peppers. They’re also found in egg yolk, a binder that’s often used in homemade fish food recipes.
For Blue: Non-carotenoid pigment, phycocyanin, brings out the blue color in fish. Phycocyanin is produced by blue green algae, which are contained in spirulina preparations.
A series of experiments by researchers at Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources http://www.lib.noaa.gov/retiredsites/japan/aquaculture/proceedings/report28/Ako.pdf showed that adding the bacteria, Haematococcus pluvialis, which contains astaxanthin and other carotenoids, to fish food worked to intensified the colors of red velvet swordtails, topaz cichlids, forktail rainbowfish, and, to a lesser degree, 24K mollies and kissing gouramis.
I’d like to say here that I don’t think “color enhancement” is the best term. If you add something to fish food to bring out a fish’s natural colors, you’re adding something that the fish probably had access to in nature (or something a lot like it) to restore the fish’s natural color, color lost in captivity. So, you’re not really enhancing the betta color, you’re more of just restoring it. So “Color restoration” seems like the most accurate description to me.
The main chromatophores found in fish influence coloration as follows:
Melanophores: Black / Brown
Leucophores / Iridophores: Reflective crystals (influence how shiny your fish are)
Many carnivores, for example, must ingest astaxanthin as they are unable to convert other carotenoids within their system in order to complete the process of pigmentation. These capabilities are often identified by the fish’s wild diet. If you are unaware of how your fish feeds in the wild or if you own a wide variety of fish (Carnivores, onminvores, etc), it is best to select a high-quality food which addresses the conversion capabilities of most fish kept in captivity, and/or supplement with foods containing a variety of carotenoids yourself. The astaxanthin, for example, can be supplied by feeding Krill, a standard ingredient in commercial color enhancing foods, and red microalgae.
There are hundreds of carotenoids that have been identified in plants, algae and seafood, yet most are ignored by commercial fish food manufacturers due to their expense or to minimize the number of ingredients. However, when you are dealing with creatures in your aquarium which require these foods anyway, why not utilize natural sources?
Seaweed is one of the few foods that enhance the full spectrum of colors, from red to blue, with each species excelling at one color more than others according to the color of the seaweed species itself. For example, green seaweed excels at blue enhancement and red seaweed enhances red coloration. The same applies to the nutrients each contains, which is why we feed a mix of seaweed flakes.
Spirulina (recommended for blue-green hues)
Red Algae (exceptional source of astaxanthin)
Color Enhancing Herbs:
We find most herbs are more readily accepted by aquarium fish when powdered forms or extracts are mixed into homemade fish food (with the exception of garlic, which should be freshly crushed for full benefits). It’s important to use high quality herbs for maximum impact. We rely on Starwest Botanicals for our dried herbs as they have proven to be reliable for quality and freshness.
Betta Tested Safe herbs are Paprika, Rosehip, Gou Qui Zi (Goji Berry), Nasturtium flowers, Marigold Flowers, Dandelion Flowers, Turmeric, Garlic, Basil, Coriander, Parsley, Saffron.
Protein Color Enhancers:
Krill (excellent source of astaxanthin)
Color Enhancing Vegetables & Fruits:
Spirulina (recommended for blue-green hues), Red Algae (exceptional source of astaxanthin), Bell Peppers, Bok Choy, Kale, Winter Squash, Broccoli, Collards, Pumpkin, Mustard Greens, Swiss Chard, Dill Weed, Romaine Lettuce, Carrots, Peas, Brussels Sprouts, Wild Blueberries, Cantaloupe
Things to Remember:
Rapid growth is not necessarily always healthy growth. Although adding protein can greatly increase growth rates, it must be accompanied by enough other nutrients to maintain the rapid pace of growth and produce a healthy beautiful fish. Excess protein in the bettas diet will also causes lots of extra ammonia into the water column.
It is very important to balance energy sources (i.e.: lipids) and protein for healthy growth. If energy sources are lacking, protein is used for energy which sacrifices the betta growth. If too much dietary energy is supplied it can reduce feeding and result in too little protein being ingested, resulting in an imbalance of nutrients that are stored as fat making your betta sit around and lay around all day.
Many nutrients work together synergistic, and in fact some nutrients cannot work at all without each other.
A water supply that is low in minerals and trace elements results in an increase of dietary requirements for your betta, the reason is that betta fish absorb a portion of what they need from the environment. It has been my experience that bettas respond very well to IAL or banana leaf or chua bark in the tank water.
To avoid waste, small food is the ticket for small fish. Instead of chopped ingredients, pureed and bounded foods will better serve your purpose. You can also use freeze-dried vegetable powders or tofu, highly nutritious ingredients that double as a binder/thickener for your foods. Powdered ingredients like cricket flour or meal worm flour also fill the otherwise nutrient-poor gelatin made foods and can replace gelatin 100% with nutritious foods all in powder form. It won’t foul the water column like the ‘juice’ from whole ingredients will and serves the purpose of sponging up these liquids for the fish to ingest.
Ingredients you may want to avoid/limit due to dietary unsuitability or their potential to quickly foul the environment are fat, oily fish, high food chain fish, foods high in phosphates, fruit, legumes, Blood, oil seeds, raw starch, high-carbohydrate garden vegetables (corn, sweet potato, parsnips, etc.), anything with added salt, dog/cat food, and fruit or vegetable juice.
When formulating you own diets, we should also be aware that there are factors that affect the stability of vitamins in the foods some of them are:
age of ingredients
Presence of metallic ions (such as copper or iron)
Oxidising and reducing agents
Presence of other vitamins
Other components of the food (such as sulphur dioxide)
Combinations of the above
Basic Betta pellet Recipe:
1 bottle of water (soak a few almond leaf’s in it overnight first if you use IAL)
1 cup cricket flour
1 cup Meal worm powder
1/4 cup shrimp powder
1/4 cup spirulina powder
1 egg yolk (boiled and dried and then powdered)
1 teaspoon Boyde Viti-chem or 1/3 teaspoon of chicken multi vitamin
Mix all powders with 1 cup bottled water or more if needed to form a thick dough.
Either use a kid play dough press or chefs pastry bag to make long strings of the paste and place on parchment paper on a cookie sheet or make into a very thin layer on a nonstick pan.
Place into the over at the lowest setting possible with the door 1/2 open and heat till dry. Do not go above 180F. The lower the better. A food dehydrator can also be used. You want the food to be as dry as possible or less than 8%….once the food is dry you can either chop up the dry string or break up the sheets or pour off your screen pellets.
One very good way to make micro pellets is to use a window screen and make the food like play dough consistency and rub it through the screen. Dropping the tiny pellets onto parchment paper or a nonstick pan….
This recipe will produce a nutrient and fiber rich food just for bettas that will float for about 15 minutes and soft very fast when added to the tank water. Over 40% protein, 10% fat, no ash, no ground up fish, no blood or bird feather and with a little practice your pellets will be as good or better than any off the shelf stuff.
Pellets will keep in airtight container for about 1 month or in the same air tight container in your freezer for up to 1 year.