Everyone wants to see their fish sporting their best colors and brightening their aquarium. Your fish can have their natural colors enhanced through their food without the use of hormones or other unnatural additives.
A brief Overview of Fish Pigment
We don’t want to drown you in technicalities, but a basic understanding of how coloration/pigment appears in fish will assist you in making your fish food choices.
Fish ‘skin’ has chromatophores, a type of cell that contains color pigments. These pigments utilize carotenoids to bring forth shades of yellow (Xanthophylls), red and orange (Carotenoids), and brown and black (Melanin). Genetics dictate where these colors are, while the diet impacts the actual pigment.
Yellow and Red shades are the two colors most effectively influenced by color enhancing foods, which utilize the chromatophores. However, protein and foods such as seaweed can also work hand & hand with the chromatophores to produce brilliant blues, purples and greens in fish. Combine that with the possibilities opened by layering and you have a virtual rainbow of fish shades.
The main chromatophores found in fish influence coloration as follows:
Melanophores: Black / Brown
Leucophores / Iridophores: Reflective crystals (influence how shiny your fish are)
The Dietary Link to Fish Pigment
Carotenoids are so heavily focused upon because they are most influenced by the diet. Carotenes are a group of Carotenoids, as are Xanthophylls, such as astaxanthin and lutein. Other coloring/shades are affected more indirectly by food, requiring a balanced diet in order to produce pigment in fish. Complimentary foods have also been identified. For example, adding a little coconut oil to homemade fish food could significantly increase the accumulation of carotenoids in tissue. Once the fish have ingested, processed and absorbed Carotenoids or other pigments, they are mixed with oils (lipids) and deposited into the chromatophore cells.
Not all species of aquarium fish utilize color enhancing components in the same way. Some fish must ingest these components because they are unable to convert them within their system. 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?
Color Enhancing Vegetables & Fruits:
Note: Vegetables will have to be slightly cooked for most fish to eat them.
Mixed Seaweed – 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.
Gou Qui Zi (Goji Berry)
Protein Color Enhancers:
Krill (excellent source of astaxanthin)
Note: If you discontinue the diet high in color enhancers, the coloration will return to its ‘normal’ state.
One fact rarely spoken of by companies that manufacture color enhancing fish food is there are limitations as to how much we can influence the color of the fish. Feeding over and above this point is a total waste for the purpose of increasing color. The limits vary amongst fish, but it does indicate that an aquarium diet consisting of only color enhancing foods is not necessary for ultimate coloration, and may even be detrimental if they cause an imbalance.
Fish are far better served by ingesting a complete diet based on their wild feeding habits and known nutritional requirements. Color enhancing foods should not be fed at the expense of other dietary requirements, so choose your food wisely. You do not have to feed the color enhancing fish foods exclusively to obtain results and in fact, the results can be amplified with dietary supplementation (including whole food). Protein, lipid, vitamin and mineral requirements of fish depend upon species, size, stage of sexual maturity, growth rate, environmental conditions, and dietary nutrient interrelations. Supplementing the diet with whole foods that offer both color enhancement and an exceptional nutrition profile (such as seaweed and krill) is always the best choice.
It’s important to be aware that a food bringing out a fish’s color does not necessarily indicate that the fish is healthy. This can interfere with diagnosis or a visual assessment of an aquarium fish’s general well-being. If you are not feeding color enhancing fish foods, it is much easier to assess general health at a glance. I don’t feel that this is a reason to avoid feeding the color enhancing foods, but it is something to be aware of when you judge the overall health of your fish. Using a variety of foods for color enhancement provides other essential vitamins and minerals, which all comes together for a fish that both looks and is healthy. Our fish, aquatic snails and shrimp receive a full array of natural color enhancers and a balanced diet through Bottom Bites fish food.
Note: Commercial color enhancing foods (flakes and pellets) have been known to tint aquarium water. I know an experienced breeder who was perplexed at why his water appeared ‘dirty’ all the time. He called the water supply department, did extra changes, etc, but could not figure it out. Then it hit him, he’d started using color enhancing fish food recently. He cut back on it and his water was clear again.
If you’d like to try your hand at pulling this information together into homemade fish food, please check out our gelatin fish food recipe for fish, snails and shrimp.
What are your favorite color-enhancing fish foods?
Daly, Trevor et al. Carotenoid Content of Commonly Consumed Herbs and Assessment of Their Bioaccessibility Using an In Vitro Digestion Model. 2010.
Brizio, Paola et al. Astaxanthin and Canthaxanthin (Xanthophyll) as Supplements in Rainbow Trout Diet: In Vivo Assessment of Residual Levels and Contributions to Human Health. 2013.
Conlon, L.E. Coconut Oil Enhances Tomato Carotenoid Tissue Accumulation Compared to Safflower Oil in the Mongolian Gerbil ( Meriones unguiculatus ). 2012.
James Sales, Geert. Nutrient requirements of ornamental fish. Aquat. Living Resour. 16 (2003). Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Belgium.
Halver, J.E. Fish Nutrition. Second ed. Academic Press, San Diego, CA, USA. 1989.
Winfree, Robert A. Nutrition and Feeding of Tropical Fish. Aquariology Fish Anatomy, Physiology, and Nutrition. First ed. Tetrapress, Morris Plains, NJ 1992.
Dreyer, Stephan. Feeding Tropical Fishes the Right way. TFH Publications. 1998.
Robert, Helen E. Fundamentals of Ornamental Fish Health. 2009.
✔ You may also be interested in reading:
Natural Prevention and Treatment of Aquarium Fish Parasites
Natural Prevention and Treatment of Constipation / Bloat in Freshwater Fish
The Natural Diet of Omni-Insectivorous Aquarium Fish
Benefits of Montmorillonite Clay for Pond and Aquarium Fish
Double the Power of Seaweed by Mixing Species (Infographic)
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