Last night while I was watching TV, a commercial for Ensure came on that showed a man bowling and woman walking on the beach while sipping a chocolate elixir. It’s not uncommon to see athletes using drinks like these as meal-replacers when cutting weight or even post weigh-ins. And just looking at the label, you might be inclined to think that’s a good idea: 9 grams of protein, 200 calories, and 26 different vitamins and minerals.
Ready to drink meal replacement drinks are common. But let’s look a little closer to see if the smaller print actually delivers on the promise of a healthy meal-replacement drink.
99.5% of everything in the bottle comes from eight ingredients: water, corn maltodextrin, sugar, milk protein concentrate, canola oil, soy protein isolate, cocoa powder (processed with alkali), and corn oil.
Unfortunately, these ingredients are some to most damaging foods we can eat. They negatively impact our gut microbiota biota, hormone levels, digestion and immune system.
We’re not off to good start.
There are 200 calories in each bottle of Ensure. This is a reasonable amount for a snack or very low-calorie meal. But in addition, we need to know the source for each of those calories and understand how they may impact the body.
The nutrition facts panel lists calories from fat as 50. This is strange because there are 6 grams of fat on the label. A gram of fat contains 9 calories, which would come out to 54 total calories from fat, not 50. But close enough.
The nutrition facts panel only tells part of the story. The ingredients list is where we find exactly what foods contribute these fats. In this case, two sources of fat are listed: canola and corn oil. Unfortunately, these highly processed fats are devoid of nutrients and are among some of the most destructive foods in modern diets.
Processed seed oils have only been around for a hundred years or so. These refined oils contain an excessive amount of omega-6 fatty acids. Diets high in omega-6 and low in omega-3 fatty acids help set the stage for a host of inflammatory diseases that appear in people eating a typical Western diet — things like cardiovascular disease, arthritis, depression, and even cancer.
According to the nutrition facts label, there are 9 grams of protein in each serving. Again, this doesn’t give us the info we really need. What is this protein and where did it come from? Once we look at the ingredients list, we see the answer is milk protein concentrate and soy protein isolate.
Have you ever experienced “unexplained” cramps, bloating, flatulence, or diarrhea? All of these things can be the result of a milk protein allergy or intolerance. These reactions to traditional protein supplements are common and often go undiagnosed. In addition, both casein and whey, the two proteins found in milk, often create excessive inflammatory immune responses. A telltale sign is mucous production, including blocked airways, stuffy noses, and thick throats.
When it comes to soy, research is mixed. Some of the claims made for soy were based on preliminary evidence, and some showed benefits, while others did not. If you tolerate soy protein it may be a good option.
Carbs are the new fat. But this time, there’s science to back up the claims. Excessive sugar is the single most destructive aspect of the modern diet. Ensure lists 15 grams of sugar among the 33 grams of total carbs.
Total carbs = starches + sugar + fiber
Moving from the nutritional facts panel to the ingredients list, we see corn maltodextrin as the first ingredient after water. This common food additive is used to add sweetness like table sugar and to increase the viscosity of the beverage making it more enjoyable to drink.
Due to weird food labeling laws, maltodextrin is not technically considered a sugar and manufacturers are not required to list it in the sugars section on the nutritional facts panel.
Instead, it’s allowed to go into the carbohydrate section, giving the appearance that there is more than 50% less sugar than there really is.
But your body knows the difference.
Maltodextrin causes a spike in blood sugar levels similar to sugar and contributes to changes in the composition of your gut bacteria. In 2012, a study found that maltodextrin increased bacterial adhesion to cells located in the intestine. This bacterial adhesion is commonly associated with autoimmune disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23251695
Maltodextrin may promote the survival of salmonella, which may be responsible for a broad range of chronic inflammatory diseases. And a study conducted at the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center in Boston demonstrated that maltodextrin impairs cellular antibacterial responses and suppresses intestinal antimicrobial defense mechanisms. This can lead to inflammatory bowel disease and other conditions that arise from an inappropriate immune response to bacteria.
But the sports nutrition and health food industries love maltodextrin. It’s inexpensive and allows them to legally misrepresent the nutritional value of their products for stronger marketing campaigns and sales.
In practical terms, 8oz of Ensure contains 32 grams of sugar. That’s more sugar ounce versus ounce than soda.
Bell Chem, a leading distributor of maltodextrin confirms all this on their website:
"Many soft drinks and other flavored beverages contain maltodextrin in their formulas so that they can have a lower amount of sugar on their nutrition facts labels. On the nutrition label, maltodextrin is included under the “Total Carbohydrate” heading, instead of the “sugars” label."
Vitamins & Minerals
The remaining .5% of the ingredients are synthetic vitamins and minerals. These micronutrients need to be added to the drink because each highly processed ingredient has had most of its nutrition stripped during manufacturing.
The percentage of these added vitamins and minerals that make it into your bloodstream is up for debate. There is something about nutrients delivered in their natural form that is hard to replicate in a lab. And even worse, eating these highly processed ingredients may actually leach valuable vitamins and minerals from your body during the digestion process.
Again, Bell Chem explains it best:
"In order to assist the body with converting complex carbohydrates into energy, most naturally occurring complex carbohydrates often contain some vitamins and minerals that help with easier digestion and absorption into the body. However, maltodextrin contains almost no vitamins and minerals to assist with turning carbohydrates into energy. Therefore, consuming maltodextrin may actually reduce the amount of vitamins and minerals in the body because it uses more vitamins and minerals than it brings into the body. Over time, this can lead to a net decrease in a person’s vitamin and mineral levels."
You don’t have to look far to find the toxic impact sugar has had on our health. From obesity to heart disease, it’s killing us - https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/is-sugar-really-toxic-sifting-through-the-evidence/ttp:.
Not only do these foods you eat effect your performance, they also …So pay attention to the ingredients, not just the marketing claims on the front of a label or the supposed nutritional “facts” panel. Dig deeper and think for yourself.
If you are trying to lose weight, for your overall health or cutting weight for a fight, take the time to read labels. Making a better choice is easy. With just a little prep work you can easily create a healthy alternative that will support you as you work towards your goals.
Here’s a healthy high-protein coffee smoothie that won’t spike your blood sugar and will deliver healthy fats and carbs to support you until your next meal.
- 1 cup cold brew coffee
- 1 cup unsweetened nut milk
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 2 scoops chocolate protein powder
- 2 tsp chia seeds
- Blend for 30 seconds.
- Drink and enjoy!