Meal Replacement Drinks – the Bad, The Worse and The Plain Ugly
This post is the second in a series of lengthy posts exposing the reality behind the lucrative market for diet and health supplements.
The first post in this series can be read here: Beware of health and wellness industry rip offs
For the last year I have been gathering my thoughts about MEAL REPLACEMENT and weight loss shakes. In this post, I will expose what I think is wrong with liquid meal replacement diets, I will look briefly at the companies selling these solutions to a confused public, and one by one, we will look at the ingredients and nutritional composition of several of the best known brands on the market.
If you don’t want to read this lengthy blog, then I’ll summarize it all for you here in simple bullet points.
- They are all fake, synthetic formulas. Synthetic vitamins and other nutrients do not give your body the same benefits that natural nutrients do when consumed in whole fresh foods
- Heavily processed powders full of synthetic ingredients, artificial sweeteners and chemically processed sugars have NO PLACE in a healthy lifestyle, in my opinion. Many of these shakes contain soy, rice, sugars, dairy (whey protein) and ‘fillers’, cheap sugary carbs to pack the product out and give it enough calories to fill you up
- Meal replacement shakes, when taken as a weight-loss strategy, are not sustainable for the long-term. Any temporary behaviour can have a temporary effect. However, it requires long-term, permanent lifestyle change to effect long-term, permanent health and body changes. If you want to lose weight permanently, change your lifestyle, don’t resort to some powdered supplement as a quick-fix, short-term solution
- You should be aware that many of the most popular meal replacement shakes and weight loss shakes, are sold under MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) schemes (what we used to call pyramid selling schemes but for some reason we are not allowed to call them that any more). These companies are not set up to help make you healthy, they are set up to make their founders and senior staff very rich. Pyramid schemes only work while people keep buying the product, so the goal is to get you in, get you on the program and keep you buying – your health and weight loss has nothing to do with it
- The list of ingredients should be scrutinized rigorously – look for sugar, sugar and more sugar
- The list of vitamins and minerals that the can, tub or packet claims the shake will deliver, cannot be taken as a definitive guide to what your body might absorb and use. You need to understand how synthetic nutrients are absorbed differently to nutrients delivered in real whole food, in order to understand why this is so
- Meal replacement shakes are expensive, and that is money that you could spend on high quality, real, organic food. I never understood why people fall for these marketing tricks of the ‘diet food’ industry. I see it this way: if you are overweight, it’s extremely likely that you have either been eating too much food, or too much cheap, low-nutrient, high-sugar, junk food. Either way, just eat less, and eat real, plain, simple food. Think about it – SAVE money, just eat less. The solution to losing weight isn’t “go out and buy loads of extremely expensive powder to mix with some milk or water and spend half the day feeling hungry” – surely, the solution ought to be “eat less”. See, a solution that saves money, not one that costs more. Common sense thinking
Introduction and background
I read a lot about health and nutrition, so I appreciate that my inbox and my news feed may be biased and may contain a lot of ‘news’ that you don’t see, but for the last year or so I have seen a massive increase in the prevalence of these meal replacement shakes promoted by the ‘diet industry’. I have been asked for my opinion of these products many times, and over many months I have been gathering my thoughts. There are loads of these products available, plastic tubs and cans full of promises that you’ll have a “sexy lean body” or “rock hard muscle” or “the body you have always wanted” and I just don’t think these products should be allowed to advertise such claims.
Common sense thinking should overrule false advertising claims. If you are fat and out of shape because you eat junk food and never take any exercise, simply dropping 1 or 2 meals per day and taking a sugary milk drink instead might help you lose a little of your excess weight (for as long as you stick to the program) but it is not going to give you a “sexy lean body of your dreams”. Only a consistent commitment to healthy living, clean eating, whole foods and regular, varied exercise, will lead to achieving permanent, lasting change. Most of these products include some small print somewhere that says words to the effect of ‘works to AID with weight loss as part of an active lifestyle and a calorie controlled diet’ – in other words “Don’t believe the bulls**t in our advertising, you won’t really achieve the body of your dreams JUST by drinking this stuff, you have to eat clean food, cut out the junk and get some exercise too.”
Well, as far as I am concerned, if most overweight people ate clean, real food, cut out the junk and exercised regularly, they would lose their excess weight and look and feel better any way. The damn meal replacement drink has little to do with it – it’s just a way for a bunch of people ‘high up the pyramid’ to made a boat load of money.
The market is crowded and competitive, in the US alone, consumers spend a staggering $66 BILLION US Dollars annually on weight loss products, and these meal replacement drinks make up a huge chunk of that spending. There are too many to mention:
- Shakeology (Team Beachbody)
- Body by Vi – ViSalus – Vi shakes
- Forever Lite
- Celebrity Slim
- Boot Camp Body
There are many, many more. I find myself troubled by how many businesses and individuals seem - to my mind - to make a mockery of the ‘health and diet industry’. Over the last year or two, I have been exposed again and again to these fad diets, most of which operate as MLM schemes, and it disturbs me that the diet industry seems to have no regard for the health industry.
In short, I think these shakes are garbage, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and I appreciate and understand the psychology behind why people take them. If they work for some people, and those people lose weight and feel great, then good for them, but personally I think that it will always be a temporary change unless the underlying behaviour behind the original excess weight is addressed. Don’t be fooled by the marketing. Every one of these MLM schemes show web-pages full of testimonials, smiling slim people who used to be overweight, boasting about how much weight they lost while using this product. It is important to understand who they are and why they are giving such a glowing testimonial.
- They are almost always representatives, selling the product ‘down line/stream’ to their own friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbours
- In almost every case, they have lost weight by cutting out junk food, getting regular exercise, eating better REAL food, AND drinking these shakes. Logically, I know that the exercise and cutting the junk form their diet, are the foundations of their success. I think to myself ‘Why are you giving all the credit to XX product? Why are you not shouting “I did this! Me…not the shake, ME, I changed, look at me!!” but instead you are saying “Look what XX drink did for me” and you are not taking credit yourself for lifestyle change?’
- The answer is, they are giving credit to the drink because they are writing testimonials in a marketing brochure for a product they are selling to you, so they can make money
What gets me is that these companies make so many billions of dollars. There are SO MANY people buying in to the idea that if they spend 50 quid a week on these shakes, they will lose weight…but there is no real focus on long-term good health.
It’s ‘quick fix mentality’, and sadly, very sadly, it seems to be what most people want. Or maybe it’s not what they want, maybe it’s just ‘the only thing on offer’. These companies are making a boat load of money, so they can afford to advertise their products aggressively. There isn’t much money to be made from pushing ‘real health solutions’ because those solutions don’t involve buying anything. The route to good health is generally to give up a lot of the junk of modern living, cut back, eat less, stick to natural foods, drink water and get outside and reconnect with Mother Nature. It’s hard to earn millions selling that to people, because it’s all quite intangible. Meal replacement shakes offer ‘a solution in a can’, a quick-fix in glossy packaging. Wrapped up in slick marketing, these solutions appeal to so many people who are lost, confused, searching for answers.
MotherNaturesDiet is the opposite. I don’t have a ‘quick fix solution’ to sell. And if I fail to make a viable business out of MND, if I go broke trying, so be it, I’ll stick to blogging as a hobby and get a job for someone else…but I will never back down on writing the truth, and you will never find me selling MND weight loss shakes!!! Guaranteed!!!
Time and priorities
I hear people say they ‘don’t have time to cook’, or they take these shakes because ‘they don’t have time to learn about healthy eating and to prepare all that real food’.
Well if that is why people are spending billions on weight loss shakes, then that becomes a broader discussion on people, lifestyles, choices between health and convenience and so on. If people are saying “I take a shake as a supplement, I’m so busy that I don’t have time to cook, and a shake is better than living on junk food and crap snacks.” Sure, a shake is marginally better than a burger, but I would still argue two points.
- People should stop putting work, Facebook and TV viewing ahead of their health. Watching their favourite TV show won’t seem so clever when they are fat and sick
- If you take the time to learn how to eat properly, then healthy eating/cooking doesn’t have to be time consuming, there are plenty of quick, healthy options
If we use ‘busy life’ as an excuse not to cook, then we are effectively saying we place the importance of our earnings over our health. I have issue with this. I think a lot of people are ‘busy, but not achieving very much’. I think we can all make time for that which is important to us, and that includes cooking, eating and regular exercise. I can make breakfast, consisting of organic free range eggs, wild picked dandelion greens (more protein than spinach) scrambled and served with a fresh tomato, in 4 minutes. 4 more to eat, 2 to wash up. Anyone who can’t find 10 minutes for breakfast, needs help sorting out their life priorities, in my opinion. My breakfast is natural, Eco, animal friendly, nutritious and delicious - it ticks all the boxes.
I personally believe we should eat real food for optimum good health. I don’t think shakes deliver the nutrients to our body in the best possible way. As a supplement to solid food, even taken daily, then a liquid nutrient-rich drink is fine, but the vast majority of our nutrition should still come from solid food. I believe there are many ways to fit in healthy natural food. If I had such a busy day ahead that a ten minute breakfast was not possible, and I had no option to get up ten minutes earlier to make it possible, I would grab 2 apples and a bag of Brazil nuts on my way out the door and snack on those while I walk or drive to work, there are vitamins, minerals, protein, soluble fibre, natural juices and sugars, it’s all there in 2 apples and a bag of nuts. It takes zero time to prepare. No excuses.
Something to chew on: What’s wrong with liquid meals
Based on my knowledge, experience and research, there are several fundamental problems with these liquid, meal-replacement shakes:
- They always contain artificial sweeteners, sugars, chemicals and other processed ingredients, because they are not real food, they are synthetic powders made in a factory. They are the epitome of processed food, yet masquerading as ‘health supplements’ – in my opinion, heavily processed powders full of synthetic ingredients, artificial sweeteners and chemically processed sugars have NO PLACE in a healthy lifestyle.
- For someone trying to lose weight, removing chewing from mealtimes is a mistake. The physical action of chewing stimulates saliva production. Saliva contains enzymes which, as they travel into your digestive system, send signals to your appestat (an appetite-control gland in your primeval brain) to say that you are eating real food, so hunger is over, you can relax and stop worrying about starving to death, you can stop that feeling we call hunger. When we consume calories without chewing, we bypass that mechanism, so shakes fail to control hunger in ‘dieters’. The stomach fills, but the hunger is not properly switched off.
- The hunger problem is usually compounded by the shakes being sweet flavoured (chocolate, vanilla, banana, strawberry, summer berries) which only exacerbates the desire for sweet food. People fighting with weight loss should stop eating sweet tasting foods. It’s quite simple, the modern food supply, all those thousands of pre-packaged foods lining our supermarket shelves, are loaded with sugar, artificial flavourings and chemical preservatives. Over time, the vast majority of people have developed a familiarity for the sweeter taste of processed food – our palates have forgotten what NATURAL food tastes like, because ‘everything’ has been enhanced and made sweeter (to drive demand, to make us want it more). I have written about this before, at https://mothernaturesdiet.me/2013/02/24/over-coming-a-sweet-tooth/ Even seemingly natural foods have been made sweeter. Most notably fruit, almost all fruit, as we know it today, is far larger and sweeter than it was just a few hundred years ago. I promote eating ‘Mother Natures’ food, but the sad reality is, that we have long since left Mother Nature behind. Unfortunately, virtually nothing on Earth remains the same as it was over a thousand years ago. In reality, most of the things we all eat every day, didn’t exist as we know them now, 1000, or 5000, or 10,000 years ago. Until 500 years ago, bananas were a third the size that they are today, they were green, bitter and so full of indigestible seeds that they were more seed than flesh. The modern, curved, soft, all-flesh no-seed, yellow thing we eat, is a completely man-made product. Apples are almost all selectively bred modern creations. In caveman’s day, apples were small, bitter and far less plentiful. Broccoli is bred so far from its natural origin that it is essential man-made. We eat the flower of the plant before it ripens, but again it has been selective bred by farmers to be big and tasty. 350 years ago, an ear of sweetcorn was far less sweet, and the size of your thumb. Now it’s nearer the size of your forearm. We humans have selectively bred everything. There are virtually NO plants left that are still the same now as they were 5000 years ago. The endless fat round starchy white potatoes that form such a staple of Western diets, look little like the more natural varieties of potatoes shown in this picture from Peru.
Whatever romantic notions we may like to imagine, caveman didn’t live on foraged bananas and broccoli any more than McDonalds and Pizza Hut. The world has changed, we have changed, everything has changed. Fruit is the food we should exercise the most caution over today, because of fructose, the sugar found in fruit. I spoke about this here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUR1ESblOWg While fruit is a fairly natural, healthy type of food, there is no doubt that a diet very high in fruit, especially fruit juices separated from the flesh/pulp/fibre, contributes to the unhealthy balance of too much sugar in modern diets.
4) These diet shakes are made of SYNTHETIC nutrients. Synthetic nutrients, even those that are supposedly made or extracted from organic real plant sources, are not the same as eating nutrients bound up in real fresh food. Let me give you an example.
- A grapefruit is rich in Vitamin C. The grapefruit consists of the thick outer skin, the white pith, then the flesh and inside the flesh there are seeds.
- Now some people think they can squeeze the grapefruit so that the juice comes out, and then drink the juice to get all the vitamin C. To some extent that is true, however, the white pith contains lots of bioflavonoids, which have a host of uses in our bodies, from being powerful antioxidants, to acting as anti-inflammatories and helping our blood circulation. Crucially, citrus bioflavonoids radically enhance Vitamin C absorption, and without them, that absorption is massively reduced. So simply squeezing the juice from a grapefruit and drinking the juice, you retain most of the Vitamin C, but absorb little of it. Simply, you will drink it, but pee most of it out later, your body will not absorb it, so it all goes to waste.
- Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom and complexity, designed foods to be consumed whole. This example illustrates how grapefruit (and oranges, lemons and limes are all the same) are best consumed whole, and fresh - the effectiveness of bioflavonoids goes off over time, fresh is best!
- So cartons of orange juice or grapefruit juice on the shelves of the supermarkets boasting of high Vitamin C content are not the healthy drink that many people think they are. The extracted juice is rich in Vitamin C, but your body can’t make much use of it. However, the juice is also very high in fructose, the sugar in fruit, and your body DOES use that. So supermarket fruit juices in cartons contain all the calories, all the sugar, all the insulin-response stimulation and stress to the pancreas, but little of the nutritional value of eating fruit – no fibre and no bioflavonoids.
- Equally close-to-useless, in my opinion, are synthetic vitamin pills.
- If you have ever taken a high-strength Vitamin C pill, you may likely have noticed (gents may notice this more easily than ladies) that your pee is quite a deep yellow/orange colour about an hour later. Most high-strength multi-vitamin pills have this effect too. That is because the vitamins being supplied are synthetic, delivered to your digestive system in a huge quantity, and without any fibre to slow their passing through your body. The synthetic vitamins are not bound up with their attendant bioflavonoids, and so absorption is low, and without the fibre to slow their passing, as the pill dissolves inside your gut, most of it passes quickly through and is flushed down the toilet as waste within a few hours of you swallowing it. Given the price of those big bottles of high strength multi-vitamin pills, that’s very expensive urine!
- When you buy that bottle of pills, it lists the % of RDA that each pill will deliver, and it’s true, but you don’t actually end up with those vitamins being used in your body, you tend to only absorb perhaps a third of the total, and two thirds go to waste. I estimate one third…some other bloggers and researchers estimate as low as 10% of synthetic vitamins and minerals are actually used by the body. The Vitamin C in most synthetic products – pills and many of the meal replacement shakes discussed in this article – comes from ascorbic acid, a particularly cheap and particularly useless form of Vitamin C that delivers little effective benefit to your body.
- Mother Nature designed real, whole, fresh, natural foods to be consumed whole, and synthetic vitamin pills and meal replacement shakes made from synthetic ingredients in a factory, do not deliver the same usable health benefits that real, whole food delivers.
I understand why body builders and strength athletes have protein shakes every day, because it’s an efficient way to boost daily calorie intake without the effort of eating yet more food. Try weight training hard for an hour and eating 7000 calories a day in steak, eggs, chicken, broccoli, potatoes…it’s hard and it makes you feel sick! So I understand why they take those shakes, but remember, most of those guys are huge, but not particularly healthy! They take all kinds of drugs, steroids, supplements and eat junk food (many of them, not all, some are drug-free and eat clean) so they are not typical examples of the average customer for meal replacement, weight-loss shakes.
But the nutrition habits of body builders is not what this post is about. MotherNaturesDiet is all about being healthy, not having huge muscles, and personally, I find no scientific evidence or common sense logic in consuming multiple daily shakes as part of a genuine healthy lifestyle. I truly think that people fighting to achieve weight loss should stop eating sweet tasting foods, and stick to natural whole foods – vegetables, meat, fish, fruits, eggs, nuts and seeds. Eat real food. Drink water. Move your body. Good health the MND way – simple, common sense based thinking.
Fake food. The market place
I will now go through a few of the leading brands on the market, in no particular order, just the ones I hear the most noise about, and we’ll take a closer look at each product in turn. There is a bit of science-geek language in here, but I shall attempt to un-pick it all and put it in plain English for you as much as I can.
#1. The classic health food store ‘muscle’ brand supplements: Maxitone Sculptress / Maximuscle Progain Extreme
I’m going to pick on the brand Maximuscle. I’m only going to quote facts, so I don’t think I am writing anything here they can take me to court over…but in case they do see this and want to take action against me, I would say that to be fair to Maximuscle, I could run this same product analysis for just about every one of their competitors and they would ALL come out the same – USN, SlimFast, MetRx, Boossh, PhD Nutrition, EAS, Naturade, WalkerDiet, Vyomax, OptiSlim, Boot Camp Body and a hundred other supplement companies.
Maxitone Scultress is a diet product made by Maximuscle. It is advertised as a “Weight Loss System” and on the can itself, it says “Meal and snack replacement shake” - (You can click on any image to see an enlarged version to help you read it…I hope that helps, Karl, MND):
The product promises weight loss and body confidence.
Here is the ingredients list for this product:
I love how you will apparently get BEST results if you mix it in a Maxitone shaker. FFS, it’s a plastic bottle! Surely for BEST results, blending it in my blender would be awesome. But no, really, I should buy the $5 dollar plastic bottle to shake my shake…oh dear Lord give me strength.
And here is the promised nutrient content (but remember, taken as synthetics, in liquid form, you’ll pee half of this down the loo in under 3 hours):
As you can see, approximately half of the product, by weight (46.4gms per 100grams of product) is carbohydrate – basically, sugars. They can pretend that it’s a blend of complex carbs if they like, but broken down to easily digestible powdered form, drunk down fast as a liquid, not bound up with any fibre the way carbs are in fruits and vegetables…they all become simple sugars once they are inside your body.
So let’s look at another product.
Also from Maximuscle, we have Progain Extreme. This is advertised as a “weight gain shake” according to their own words as printed on the tub itself:
Now let’s look at the ingredients of Progain Extreme:
Slightly easier to read (sorry for the low quality images - these things are not always easy to find!):
So these are 2 products, from one company – one is a “weight LOSS system” in a pink tub, clearly targeted at female gym goers, and the other is a “weight gain shake” in blue and grey packaging, predominantly targeted at male gym goers.
Let’s analyse the ingredients list of both.
In case you need any help learning how to read food labels, you might like to read this: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm064880.htm
As these guidelines state, the Ingredients List is written in descending order by weight, thus:
To save you going over the pictures above, I’ve re-written them side-by-side for you – thus:
Is it just me, or do these appear to be, well, basically, the same product?
I’m confused…one is meant to help ladies lose weight…and the other is meant to help men gain weight…right?
But they seem to be the same, the only major difference is, what, the pink tub or the blue tub?
Ingredient 1, in both, is maltodextrin. Just in case you have forgotten what that is –
It’s sugar, with a fancy name ‘polysaccharide’. It’s a starch, a carbohydrate…but not a terribly complex carb, like eating sweet potatoes, no, it’s “as rapidly absorbed as glucose” –
So glucose is a monosaccharide, I.E. a simple sugar (mono = one), but maltodextrin is a polysaccharide, a ‘complex’ sugar (poly = many) – complex sugars should absorb more slowly, but our friend maltodextrin famously, doesn’t. Instead, it burns as fast as glucose, so forget the notion that these supplements (bodybuilders note: all those weight gain shakes guys…they are NOT full of “complex carbs”) offer slow-release energy, they don’t. Maltodextrin is widely used in sodas and candy and processed foods. It’s a cheap bulky carb – it stimulates an insulin response from your pancreas just like every other carb. It becomes addictive, just like every other insulin-response carb does.
Maltodextrin is typically made by taking corn, wheat, potato or barley starch, and boiling it down to a pulp, then using acids and enzymes, they break it down even further to a fine powder. It’s cheap starch people, a complex sugar reduced down to a fairly simple sugar. So after all that, it’s just a type of sugar people, it’s just sugar, cheap industrial sugar, hollow calories with no nutritional value. It’s the building blocks of cola, chocolate, biscuits and crappy processed food. Yet these meal replacement shakes cost a fortune…for cheap sugar? Ummm…go up and down this article and look at the ingredients list for every meal replacement product covered, they are pretty much ALL made up of about 50% maltodextrin. Oh yes, every time…same sh*t, different brand.
Now remember, the first item listed, is the ingredient that there is the most of. Conveniently, in Maximuscle Progain Extreme, they have told us that item #2 on the ingredient list, makes up 39% of the product. Therefore, we can be fairly certain that item #1 on the list, maltodextrin, must make up more than 40% of the total product by weight. My guess would be 45% to 50% of BOTH Maxitone Sculptress, and Maximuscle Progain are maltodextrin, then 39% to 40% of both are whey protein – as listed.
Item #2: Whey protein blends – they come under numerous names, but basically, it’s powdered milk.
Item #3 lists soya in both, then they differ slightly – the weight GAIN product packs more sugar (under fancy names) and some fats (MCT’s which are pretty decent fats, to be fair) to boost up the calories, and it includes creatine monohydrate, a popular bodybuilding supplement, whereas the weight LOSS product opts for skim milk and a bunch of minerals and vitamins (essentially, think of a multi-vitamin-and-mineral pill, powdered) and then both contain the same artificial flavouring, colourant and sweetener of choice, sucralose.
For anyone who has forgotten about the chemical horror show that is sucralose, it’s hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar and if you search online you will find hundreds of pages about the negative side effects of this man made rot.
The final ingredient in the weight loss product, is green tea extract – but listed last means there is only a miniscule amount of it in the product. I am sure that if you want green tea, just buy some tea bags and have a cup each day. Despite the fact that 90% or more of the product is cheap carbs/sugar and powdered milk, and only a fraction of a percent is green tea extract, the front of the tub advertises that it contains green tea extract. Funny that the tub does not promote the ingredients found at the top of the list, which account for most of the contents.
So, we have a weight loss product, and weight gain product, and as far as I can tell, 90% or more of the contents of both are EXACTLY the same. Nutritionally, you could eat a potato, drink a glass of milk and take a multivit, and you’ve consumed roughly the same nutrients as either product will offer your body, and probably in a form that will be more fully absorbed (not the multivit!). They put the weight GAIN in a blue can and sell it in 2 kilo tubs, and suggest you make big serving sizes, to gain weight, drinking these drinks in additional to your meals. They put the weight loss powder in a pink tub and sell it in only 700 gram tubs, and suggest mixing smaller servings, to lose weight, drinking one of these each day as a meal replacement. Otherwise, it’s all the same stuff.
- It’s near-enough all one powder, they just put it in a pink tub or a blue tub. They use skimmed milk powder to reduce the calories per serving in the pink version. They use full fat milk powder, plus extra sugar and fats to increase the calories per serving in the blue version
- They are playing to the media stereotypes
- They put the weight loss powder in a pink tub, aimed at ladies always trying to lose weight, because the images these people print in their adverts make those ladies feel fat
- They put the weight gain powder in a blue tub, aimed at men who are trying to build bigger muscles, because the images these people print in their adverts make those men feel weedy and inadequate
- I don’t know about you, but I think that’s all a big con
Honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up if you paid me to, it’s all such a big, fat lie. Marketing bull****, ripping off millions of people, in my opinion, it’s an utter disgrace.
And, it’s more than 3 times the price of organic broccoli. WOW! I think, if you want a weight loss product, the organic broccoli would be a LOT better for you, and far more nutrient dense. As I have written before, here Beware of health and wellness industry rip offsand processed milk powder and cheap bulk sugar. You know why the powdered garbage is so expensive? To pay for those hot looking models in all the adverts, to make you feel like you are not good enough.
It’s a business people, designed not to make you thin, or muscly, but to make you spend your money.
The answer to weight loss, and to muscle gain, is a clean natural diet and the right type of exercise. The secrets to success are not powdered, in a tub, and lined up on the shelves of the local ‘health food’ store.
#2. The classic MLM scheme: Herbalife
Let’s take a look at Herbalife next, simply because the company has been around for a long time and is one of the most established players in the industry. Herbalife has been around for more than 30 years now, it makes over $4 billion US Dollars annual sales operating as an MLM (a multi-level marketing company) and it’s registered to the Cayman Islands.
Ah yes, there’s nothing like a giant pyramid marketing scheme with its bank account tucked away in a well-known tax haven to create a feeling of trust and confidence in a company’s products.
Let’s take a look at what they are selling.
According to the Herbalife website, their core products are going to nourish your body at a cellular level, so you can achieve optimum health.
The #1 product appears to be a meal replacement shake called Formula 1, which comes in about a dozen sweet delicious flavours, such as Dutch Chocolate, Cookies and Cream, Vanilla, Wild Berry and so on.
Here is the product label from Formula 1, Dutch Chocolate flavour:
So they claim it’s a ‘healthy meal’ and they claim it ‘provides an ideal balance of protein and nutrition to help satisfy your hunger and give you lasting energy’.
They state that you should consult your doctor, engage in regular exercise, count calories and replace 2 meals per day with this product.
Let’s see the ingredients list next – Formula 1, Dutch Chocolate flavour:
While we are at it, here is the ingredients for Formula 1, Cookies and Cream flavour too:
The ingredients start out with most of the usual suspects, under various names. To make life easier, I have listed the ingredients of both, and ‘translated’ what it all means to me:
It’s funny you know. The company logo is green, and shows a picture of a leaf. It is called Herbalife. Maybe it’s just me being the ‘common sense caveman’ again, but I look at those ingredients lists and I don’t see much that sounds like a herb, or a leaf, or a green plant, or anything “alive” or “giving life” – all I see is skimmed milk powder, a bunch of sugars of one type or another, and some strange chemical compounds. Add to it all, artificial colours, flavours, preservatives, stabilisers and emulsifiers, and throw in a synthetic vitamin pill for good measure. There are a few ‘natural’ sounding ingredients in the list, some powders roots used for vitamins and minerals, but it’s limited.
You can drink what you like, but I won’t be signing up for Herbalife any time soon.
#3. Cheap and nasty weight-loss promises from the ‘sugar pushers’ of the Fortune 500: SlimFast
SlimFast is a weight loss meal replacement brand, offering powders, snack bars and pre-made shakes.
SlimFast powder comes in a can, and the can says that if you replace one or two meals each day with this powdered garbage, plus drink lots of water, have one small meal and walk your dog every day, providing your are not pregnant, and if you don’t want to lose more than 20% of your body weight, and if you are not sick, adolescent or breast feeding, oh and IF YOU MAINTAIN AN ACTIVE LIFESTYLE and COUNT CALORIES then you’ll get slim, fast. Jeez, nothing too specific there then!!!
Here is the list of ingredients –
So for starters, it’s basically a glass of skimmed milk, with sugar and synthetic vitamins added.
Next up, we have sugar, followed by maltodextrin, a scientific word for “sugar”, followed by fructose, a clever word for “sugar”. Then they add vegetable oil…ummm nice, cheapest oil going. Then we have inulin, another type of sugar, but a slightly better, more fibrous one this time, then we have some lovely thickening gum, then lactose (more milk, essentially) and then more sugar (cellulose), then more milk and some chemicals. Yum, tasty!
So this is basically sugared milk.
As with most ‘old school’ diet products, they sucked all the fat out, and then put sugar in so it tastes nice.
SlimFast, as near as I can tell, is near identical to Herbalife, but for the UK market.
SlimFast is made by Unilever, presently Ranked 135th largest corporation on Earth, according to the 2013 Fortune 500 list.
Unilever makes lots of things that will have some impact on your weight and your health and the size of your waistline.
Unilever makes Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. (Principle ingredients – milk, yoghurt, sugar…at least they recently issued a corporate statement to eliminate GMO ingredients)
Unilever makes Wall’s ice cream. (Look up the ingredients of a Cornetto – top two? Skimmed milk powder and sugar…who knew?)
Unilever makes Hellmann’s mayonnaise. (Main ingredients – water, oil, vinegar, sugar)
I shall say no more, this post is no place for me to start on ranting about that group of large food manufacturers that I call “the global Sugar Pushers” – I have a lot to say about those companies, but I’ll save it for another post, another day. This post isn’t about politics and economics, it’s about nutrition, so I’ll stop there and let you draw your own conclusions about the buying power of huge corporations that make lots of products with sugar in – from ice cream to weight loss shakes. They make you fat with one brand, then offer you a helping hand with another brand to slim you down. You go figure it out for yourself. Unilever grossed over 50 BILLION Euros in sales in the last reported full year (2012), and made almost 5 BILLION Euros in PROFIT.
That’s about equivalent to the GDP of Malawi, an entire country.
By the way, they grow sugar cane in Malawi. Sugar is the 6th largest export product coming out of Malawi.
Oh, and one more thing…the United Nations recognises Malawi as one of the poorest nations in all of Africa.
The countries that grow sugar are some of the poorest on Earth. The companies that sell sugar are some of the richest on Earth. Don’t get me started on the politics of sugar. Enough said.
#4. Currently trying to take the UK market by storm: ViSalus / Body by Vi / ViShape
ViSalus is another US MLM business that has come to the UK (in 2013) and I have heard a lot of talk about this ‘Body by Vi’ program. ViSalus make weight loss shakes and energy drinks, let’s take a look at the core products:
These core kits seem to be weighted towards the staple of the Vi ‘diet’, which is the Shape shake, a meal replacement shake:
The product brochure makes some pretty bold claims – according to this, eating protein helps you to build muscles. Interestingly, I always thought that progressive-resistance training and a diet including protein helped you to build muscles: They also claim “No Added Sugar” –
Let’s see what’s in the product:
I’m not going to list through it all again, as I’ve already covered most of these ingredients above on other products. It appears to be almost exactly the same as the other products detailed above, there is virtually no difference, so we just need to work out how they got around the ‘no added sugar’ thing.
The first few items are mostly proteins and carbs, emulsifiers, gums, stabilisers, oil, flavourings and thickeners, all as listed for the previous products. The bottom half of the list, all the small ingredients making up the last 2 percent of the product by weight, are the same as before – basically it’s like a multi-vitamin pill, in powder form…ascorbic acid for the Vitamin C again, and so on.
So it seems to be that ViShape is almost identical to Herbalife Formula 1, except they don’t list fructose, they list something else, to avoid ‘added sugar’.
The second largest ingredient is ‘Digestive Resistant Maltodextrin’
- You might think ‘Who the heck wants to eat something that is “digestive resistant”?’ Well actually digestive resistant starches do have some benefits in oru diet, they can be a bit like fibre in our gut. Some digestive resistant starches form in cooked carbohydrates that have cooled. Commercially formulated digestive resistant maltodextrin is far from a natural carb, and it is designed to resist digestion in the stomach, and then ferment in the gut…in theory they fill you up, and they promote production of a type of gut bacteria called butyrate - that’s actually a good thing. But maltodextrin is ‘the cheap end of the wedge’ in my opinion.
- Maltodextrin in a food chemist’s name for SUGAR, a complex carb that burns quickly, like a simple carb…only this variant doesn’t burn at all, because it’s digestive resistant.
- So we have “sugar that you can’t digest” as the end result.
- Basically, it tastes sweet but doesn’t add a ton of calories to the product, because you don’t digest it all. So it’s sugar, cheap, plentiful and tastes nice, that you can’t fully digest. This is how they boast “no added sugar” – they fill the product with ‘a cheap carbohydrate that you can’t digest’ then sweeten it with sucralose.
The product labelling says Sucralose is safe, but there is a stack of evidence against Sucralose, just Google it and you’ll see for yourself.
ViShape, just like the other products reviewed here, is artificial, full of synthetic chemical compounds, it has maltodextrin (in more than one form) and it has artificial colours, flavourings, preservatives, stabilisers and emulsifiers. The product brochure boasted ‘gluten free’, and I guess they have ensured that their maltodextrin comes from corn or potato starch, not wheat, but then the label disclaimer states that the product was manufactured on machinery that is used to handle wheat, so it could be gluten contaminated.
The label suggests that per serving will deliver approximately 30% of the RDA of all those vitamins and minerals. However, as we have discussed above, the vitamins and minerals are synthetic, and supplied without combinant bioflavonoids and other digestive enzymes, nor bound up in the fibre of natural whole foods. In this state, and I am just speculating here, but I would think you would be lucky to absorb and use even a third of the contents of the product, in terms of those micronutrients. So, if you replace 2 meals per day with these shakes, you are only likely to really get 10% of your RDA from each shake – that’s 20% of your RDA in total. If you then only eat 1 real meal per day, you need to try to ensure that you derive 80% of the RDA of all your essential vitamins and minerals from that one meal – a pretty tall order!
Scanning over the ViShape ingredients list, it all sounds pretty nasty to me…I don’t think my body is lacking in DiCalcium Phosphate (used in dog treats, noodles and poultry feed), Sunflower Oil (has a terrible omega 3:omega 6 ratio, so it is high in the wrong sorts of fats). Maltodextrin is a cheap nasty form of sugar, just a filler. Sucralose (reported to cause weight gain, headaches, seizures, dizziness, gastrointestinal problems and more). Half the true chemical ingredients are hidden on these labels, as the list includes “Natural and Artificial Flavourings” or “Patented Protease” and the exact chemical make-up of these items is not listed. The products include many common allergens. They are rammed with manmade chemical compounds and items so alien to our bodies (like sucralose) that our digestive system doesn’t know what to do with them, so we just poop them straight out the other end…hence they get zero calorie ratings. I’ll stick with outdoor reared pork and broccoli thanks, that’s real food!
#5. Finally, some signs of natural (if not fresh) plant origin: Shakeology by Team Beachbody
First up, I was instantly turned off by the Home Page that greeted me when I looked up shakeology. The welcome screen shows the usual chocolate, berry and pineapple (or is that banana or vanilla flavour) sweet tasting shakes, and they use the word superfood which I hate, because it is a made up word, it’s not a real thing, it’s marketing sales talk, it’s not in the dictionary, and finally the welcome page shows three ‘Buy Now’ buttons in one view – way too pushy!
The site goes on to make the usual lofty claims –
How you should drink it every day, replace meals, you’ll lose weight and reduce cravings, increase your energy and improve your digestion. On the grounds that they don’t know who is reading the webpage, they simply CANNOT claim that drinking this stuff will “increase your energy” – what if Usain Bolt is reading their web page? Sir Chris Hoy? Jessica Ennis?
They go on to claim that the products offer a wide selection of antioxidants, phytonutrients and pre-and-probiotics –
The blurb promises more than 70 super-nutritious ingredients, though the ingredients label (below) only lists 56 in total, so who know what the others are, and why they don’t tell us, if they are so proud of what they put in.
In fact, when we look at the ingredients labels, this stuff is WAY better than everything we have seen so far - Chocolate flavour meal replacement Shakeology:
And just for completeness, here is another shakeology label (declaring that apparently, Pea protein is a Proprietary Superfood. Interesting…it’s not. Loads of companies sell pea protein, so it’s not proprietary, and peas, last time I checked, were just real food, not so-called superfood…unless peas have started wearing a cape and flying around saving lives and defeating criminals since last time I looked):
We should note that the product brochure/blurb says they do not list minor ingredients that make up less than 2% of the product. I notice at the bottom of the label, the disclaimer panel notes that they include some fructose, stevia, Xanthan gum and traces of wheat. However, compared to the other products covered, this shake does seem different, it uses real plant extracts and some genuine health promoting foods such as wheat grass, spirulina, reishi mushrooms, chia, spinach and cherry. Whey, rice or pea protein seems to make up the bulk of the product, and after that, this is way ahead of the others in terms of more natural ingredients – using cacao, maca or stevia as the primary sweetener. I am delighted to see that this label lists “Citrus bioflavonoids” as an ingredient – helping your body to absorb the Vitamin C. Compared to all the labels listing Ascorbic Acid as the source of Vit C, this is a major step in the right direction.
Compared to all the others we have looked at so far, thumbs-up for Shakeology.
#6. Making millionaires: Isagenix
Isagenix is another multi-million dollar US MLM company, selling weight loss diet solutions, meal replacement shakes and other supplements and skin care products. The core weight loss product is the IsaLean shake. When I went to their Home Page, the welcome screen that greeted me seemed to focus more on making money than on losing weight or being healthy –
The core product, the IsaLean shake, seems to form the bulk of most of the packs and programs promoted on their site. Here is the nutrition label for the best-selling Dutch Chocolate flavour IsaLean shake powder (by the way, I have no idea why these American firms promote Dutch chocolate as a flavour – maybe they have never been to Europe. I an English and have been all over Europe, and as far as I know, Switzerland and Belgium are home to famously good chocolate, not The Netherlands. To the best of my knowledge, Holland is famous for cheese, tulips, windmills, clogs, dykes and the hard-to-learn native language):
So scrolling through the ingredients, this stuff looks pretty much the same as all the others to my eyes. The first 4 or 5 ingredients on the list tend to make up the bulk 90% or so of the contents of the product – we see various blends of milk protein, fructose (sugar), cocoa powder for the chocolate flavour and something called ‘isomaltooligosaccharide powder’. Just to try to work out what that is, ‘iso’ is just an isolate, ‘malto’ sounds like a variant of our old friend maltodextrin, saccharides are sugars and oligosaccharides are meant to be prebiotic sugars, so it’s my guess that isomaltooligosaccharide powder is a kind of maltodextrin blend that has prebiotic properties. Then we see many of the usual ingredients – some oils, gum (thickeners), MCTs (good fats), some salt and a few of the usual chemicals.
To be fair to Isagenix, then we do seem to have a long list of ingredients that supply the micronutrients, all the vitamins and minerals. Some look poor, cheap synthetic fillers, but some look pretty decent, there are some genuine plant extracts and powdered roots and they actually include an enzyme blend to help absorption of the nutrients.
Overall, it’s better than Vi or SlimFast, but not as good as Shakeology, in my opinion.
#7. The rest…
There are loads more. Some of the better known are listed below, but in all honesty, almost every supplement company out there offers something – meal replacements, diet pills, fat burning pills, the list goes on and on. I simply don’t have the time or patience to look at the nutritional composition of every product on the market…but if there is something on this list that interests you, you can go Google it and figure it out for yourself:
- Amway – BodyKey by Nutrilite - http://www.amway.com/nutrition/bodykey
- MonaVie RVL Nutrition Shake Mix
- EAS Myoplex (is regarded around the industry as a meal replacement drink…but EAS promote it as a post-workout recovery product, not as a diet system)
- MetRx, like EAS, promote muscle building supplements, not diet shakes
#8. Not promoted as a meal replacement, just a health supplement: Rockin’ Wellness
Of note, the US brand Rockin’ Wellness (not currently available in the UK, but if you order and pay shipping, they’ll ship a few packs, I know this because a friend of mine buys it) make some pretty lofty claims about not using any junk ingredients and their product being all natural. Yes, they use the word ‘superfoods’ and I hate that! NO SUCH WORD!!!
The web site makes a lot of big claims about what the product can do…I’m not too sure about all that. But they claim to only use natural ingredients, and looking at the label – they seem to be right:
Rockin’ Wellness seems to use maca powder and stevia as sweeteners. Personally, I don’t eat either, but I have used maca a few times and it’s OK, and these two are definitely the best options if you want a sweetener. They are certainly a thousand times better than sucralose or refined white sugar.
Rockin’ Wellness looks like a genuinely good product. It does not promote the shakes as meal replacements, it’s not marketing this hard as a weight loss diet plan, it is simply a supplement, a way for folks to get some good nutrients in on top of their meals. I don’t really have a problem with that.
#9. The Ugly: Bottom-of-the-barrel fake-food slop from a start-up that wants to take over the world: Soylent
Oh, where do I start with this abhorrent aberration of food science? It’s like “Dr. Evil’s birthday party in a food science laboratory” all gone horribly wrong – wrong because some people have actually taken Soylent seriously and let this thing become a real product that people are keen to pay for. It seems that as a supplement, it can be sold in the US market and sold online to a worldwide market, completely free of any kind of regulation, food standards approval or long-term clinical trials.
If you have not yet heard about the horror show that is Soylent, basically this 24-year-old software engineer from Atlanta has worked out what he believes to be “all the nutrients a human needs to live” and put them together in a sloppy shake. The idea, is that you can GIVE UP EATING FOOD and just live on this fake-food slop, day in day out, for weeks or months on end. This guy thinks he has some kind of mass market solution that can end world hunger. Just don’t get me started on the causes of ‘world hunger’ and what it might take to solve that problem. Keep me off politics today.
OH DEAR LORD. DON’T – GET – ME – STARTED.
In all honesty, if hundreds of millions of people start consuming this product and it becomes an acceptable norm to consume these Soylent shakes instead of real food, I am going to look at relocating my home to another planet. Stop the world I want to get off.
I hate to actively ‘promote’ awareness of this ‘Death Star Milk Shake’ but if you want to hurt your own intelligence and learn about this garbage, check these links.
In a nutshell, the guy created a Kickstarter campaign and got a staggering $1.5 million in funding. He has secured a further $1.5 million from Venture capital firms who seem equally keen to cash in on the end of human health as we know it. He has over a $1 million dollars in pre-orders – HOLY COW, people actually WANT to stop eating food! Oh my Lord!!! Aaaaarrrggghhhh!!!!!!
Exact ingredients used are hard to find, this is what the creator of Soylent says on his own blog site: MAY 2013 –
Does that look familiar to anyone? Maltodextrin, some fibrous carbs (how fibrous they can be, when reduced down to a fine powder, is debatable), some whey protein, some oil and some salt. Sound familiar?
And updated in June 2013 –
So from Version 7 to version 8, they switched whey protein to rice protein, and grapeseed oil to MCTs.
And this ingredients list off Wiki offers a little more detail:
Just as one final lesson in learning to read ingredients labels, all those minor ingredients listed above, everything on the list that is less than 1 gram, so everything from Phosphorous onwards, all those milligrams and micrograms and IU (International Units), in total weight they add up to less than 1 gram.
Percentages add up like this – this is just the first half/column from the Wikipedia screen grab…the second column is about 0.3 of a gram, or less, in total, which I have allowed for in these percentages.
So adding up the total list above, we have 532 grams, 531 of which come from the 9 main ingredients. So when we look at an ingredients list, you rarely need to look further than the first few items to know what 90% or more of the product is made up of. In this case, Soylent, measured by weight, is 75% maltodextrin, 12% olive oil and 9% rice protein – that’s 96% of the product in those 3 ingredients. Ummm…yummy. I’ll stick with roast chicken, carrots and broccoli thanks.
Soylent is basically the same as all those meal replacement shakes. The creator of this fake-food slop, Rob Rhinehart hasn’t invented anything new at all, he’s just come up with more new marketing. The product is made up just like the shakes, 96% plus of the weight is maltodextrin or similar starches, protein (rice or whey or soy), some oil or MCTs to add fats, and some sugar. Then they add some salt and calcium, and a spread of synthetic vitamins and minerals.
Some gullible people gave this very young man 3 million bucks to re-invent something that was garbage to start with. Makes me so furious!!!! Soylent is JUST ANOTHER MEAL REPLACEMENT SHAKE. It’s made of ALL the same stuff. My message to the Kickstarter crowd who funded it – you’ve all been taken for a ride, it’s s trick, you could have just gone down the road and bought any meal replacement shake from the local ‘health food’ store. You have been conned!
At one point in one of his video’s, Mr Rhinehart says “All my life I have been searching for the answer” or words to that effect. All his life? He’s 24 years old! He’s a software engineer who only left college about a year ago, he’s got no training in food science and knows nothing of the complexities of feeding the world’s starving millions. He’s just trying to get rich!
I have SO MANY issues with this garbage… No one can say “this meets all your body’s needs” - no, it does not. It does not meet the primal needs a human has to BITE into something. It does not meet the requirement for HOT food inside you - try living on cold smoothie gloop all through the winter if you live in Northern Finland, Norway, Russia, Scotland or Canada. It does not meet the need to chew – we need to chew solid food, humans WANT to chew solid food. There is no satisfaction is sipping Soylent, no pleasure, just function…if people lived on this slop permanently they would suffer from a weakened jaw, and they’d probably go stark raving mad…I have so many issues with this, I could rant about this for days! Humans need to enjoy the process of eating. We need to chew. We need to feel satisfaction. Humans CANNOT live on SYNTHETIC slop!!!!
#10. The fake-food slop copy-cat hot on the heels of Soylent: Ambro
Seeing the cash flowing into Soylent, some folks came up with Ambro. Groan. http://theambro.com/
Allegedly, it’s the all-natural, up-scale, organic answer to Soylent. Taking a look at what it’s made of:
Essentially, it’s just an organic, plant-origin-based, version of all the rest:
The bulk of the product is rice protein, whey protein, lots of nuts, some other carbs such as quinoa and coconut flour (much better options that the junk in many products) and then we see maltodextrin, MCTs for fats, palm oil, maca, rice bran and so on. The smaller ingredients include some good things such as wheat grass and nettles, nuts and berries.
It’s pretty much what we might expect. The same as the others.
I’m confused again. It’s made of nuts and berries, and it’s for people who don’t have time to make a meal. Right? Well then why not just grab a bag of mixed nuts and berries and eat that instead? Even quicker. Cheaper. Nicer, you get to chew. Nuts are a wonderful food – full of protein, complex carbs, fats/oils, nutrients. Berries are loaded with vitamins and minerals. Seriously, you have to see through the marketing b/s behind all this – cashing in on a fad for some kind of convenience. It’s all wrong. Just eat REAL FOOD.
If Soylent is the ‘shitty end of the stick’, then Ambro is the up-market organic version.
Like SlimFast versus Shakeology.
Drinking shakes as meal replacements is not, in my opinion, a sustainable long term health plan. No liquid meal replacement satisfies the need to eat and chew solid food, which also stimulates the release of digestive enzymes in saliva.
There are loads of these things…and almost without exception, these drinks are all the same. The bulk of the product is made up of some kind of cheap starch, usually maltodextrin, and a protein powder, most commonely whey, soy or rice protein. They all add some oils, emulsifiers, some kind of gum as a thickening agent, and some sugar or artificial sweetener. Beyond that, they add synthetic vitamins and minerals, and that’s about it. If that’s what you want, drink a glass of milk (unless you are dairy intolerant!), eat a few veg, take a vitamin pill (not required if you eat a healthy diet) and save yourself a ton of money.
Sloppy seconds – shakes are no substitute for real food
SlimFast, Maxitone, Herbalife, ViShape and Soylent are all so similar they might as well just be the same thing, and they are all garbage in my personal opinion. If I had to summarise these products in a simple sentence, I would say “they are milk powder, soy powder, sugar, starch and a vitamin pill” and little else. In terms of nutrient delivery to your body, I should think you could eat a potato, drink a glass of milk and swallow a cheap vitamin pill to get the same calories and nutrients.
I do not recommend any of these products as a route to supreme good health. However, if you are going to drink a meal replacement, opt for Shakeology by Team Beachbody, it seems to be way better than the others in terms of the quality of the ingredients. If you just want a supplement, perhaps to make a shake to drink post workout or something like that, then Rockin’ Wellness looks like a great product, free from junk and sugar.
I found this interesting summary online. Obviously, it’s a table published by ‘Shake Down’ so likely the data is biased in its own favour, but interestingly it shows Herbalife and Body by Vi as the cheapest on the market, and Shakeology as the [joint] most expensive – in line with the findings written up here, that Herbalife and Vi use the cheapest ingredients, while Shakeology use the best ingredients. I guess the old adage is true – you get what you pay for:
By comparison, ViSalus publishes this chart itself in its literature, pitching its own product against competitors in the UK market:
And finally, here is another comparison chart I found while researching for this article. Interesting to see the comparison against a regular high-street milkshake (Jack-In-The-Box, is a US burger joint)which makes everything else look healthy by comparison, as you might expect:
If I was to collate my own table, based on the brief analysis in this article, I would rank the products thus:
Folks, remember, that table is NOT conclusive, and NOT based on any kind of in-depth scientific analysis, this is JUST my limited look at a selection of the market, so please keep that in mind.
Beware of the marketing pitch
Please remember, MLM companies are selling you products, they are incentivised to keep you locked in and consuming, that’s how they make money. The real route to good health, as I mentioned before, is free. You just need to exercise, get some fresh air, and stick to REAL whole foods and plenty of water.
As with most things in life…it’s all about money.
Stay healthy, stay happy.