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Unravelling the conundrum of tannins in animal nutrition and health


  • Irene Mueller-Harvey

    Corresponding author
    1. NSRU Chemistry & Biochemistry Laboratory, Agriculture Department, Reading University, PO Box 236, Reading RG6 6AT, UK
    • NSRU Chemistry & Biochemistry Laboratory, Agriculture Department, Reading University, PO Box 236, Reading RG6 6AT, UK
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  • This review is based in part on a keynote lecture presented at the XXII International Conference on Polyphenols, Helsinki, Finland, 25–28 August 2004


This paper examines the nutritional and veterinary effects of tannins on ruminants and makes some comparisons with non-ruminants. Tannin chemistry per se is not covered and readers are referred to several excellent reviews instead: (a) Okuda T et al.Heterocycles 30:1195–1218 (1990); (b) Ferreira D and Slade D. Nat Prod Rep 19:517–541 (2002); (c) Yoshida T et al. In Studies in Natural Product Chemistry. Elsevier Science, Amsterdam, pp. 395–453 (2000); (d) Khanbabaee K and van Ree T. Nat Prod Rep 18:641–649 (2001); (e) Okuda et al.Phytochemistry 55:513–529 (2000). The effects of tannins on rumen micro-organisms are also not reviewed, as these have been addressed by others: (a) McSweeney CS et al.Anim Feed Sci Technol 91:83–93 (2001); (b) Smith AH and Mackie RI. Appl Environ Microbiol 70:1104–1115 (2004). This paper deals first with the nutritional effects of tannins in animal feeds, their qualitative and quantitative diversity, and the implications of tannin–protein complexation. It then summarises the known physiological and harmful effects and discusses the equivocal evidence of the bioavailability of tannins. Issues concerning tannin metabolism and systemic effects are also considered. Opportunities are presented on how to treat feeds with high tannin contents, and some lesser-known but successful feeding strategies are highlighted. Recent research has explored the use of tannins for preventing animal deaths from bloat, for reducing intestinal parasites and for lowering gaseous ammonia and methane emissions. Finally, several tannin assays and a hypothesis are discussed that merit further investigation in order to assess their suitability for predicting animal responses. The aim is to provoke discussion and spur readers into new approaches. An attempt is made to synthesise the emerging information for relating tannin structures with their activities. Although many plants with high levels of tannins produce negative effects and require treatments, others are very useful animal feeds. Our ability to predict whether tannin-containing feeds confer positive or negative effects will depend on interdisciplinary research between animal nutritionists and plant chemists. The elucidation of tannin structure–activity relationships presents exciting opportunities for future feeding strategies that will benefit ruminants and the environment within the contexts of extensive, semi-intensive and some intensive agricultural systems. Copyright © 2006 Society of Chemical Industry