Expat Life

Drink to your health? Healthy or hype?

As a registered dietitian, I occasionally receive unsolicited emails from advertisers, including one recent offer of a free sample of a popular nutritional shake.  I clicked on the offer:

Nutrition Made Simple. BOOST® Simply Complete
9 ingredients + 25 Vitamins and Minerals  10 g Protein.

Two flavors, vanilla bean and dark chocolate.

Oh boy. My B.S. detector went off, loudly. I decided to peel back this onion. See what you think.

The very first thing you need to do when shopping for any food that comes in a package is to flip it over and read the Nutrition Facts label first.  It took scrolling to the bottom of the page, but I finally got to the Nutrition Facts label.

The dark chocolate variety contains:

190 calories, 6 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, 1 gram of fiber, and 12 grams of added sugar in one 8 ounce serving (237 mL.)

OK. Check the serving size. Good. One bottle equals one serving. In addition, displayed are various vitamins and minerals with the percent daily value based on a 2,000-calorie diet. For example, one serving offers 15% of vitamin A, 25% of calcium, and 150% of vitamin C.

But, that’s not telling me what I want to know. When choosing packaged foods always read the ingredients first and always ignore the marketing claims on the front of the package.

For example, there is no fruit in that breakfast cereal Froot Loops®. The manufacturer of this “kid’s” breakfast cereal works really hard to persuade parents that Froot Loops® is a reasonably healthy breakfast cereal by highlighting on the front of the package that it contains “three grains” and proclaiming it “a good source of fiber.”

But savvy consumers always read the ingredient label first. The cereal’s very first ingredient is sugar, then “corn flour blend.” The  “good source of fiber” comes not from whole grains, but from byproducts of different flours (husks). There are “natural flavors”, artificial colors and flavors, and of course, synthetic vitamins and minerals, to assure those parents that they’re doing right by their children.

But I digress. Deliberately.

And so it is with commercial supplemental nutrition drinks. Knowing your ingredients is the most important information, especially when a product is advertised as “supporting your nutritional needs for an active lifestyle” as this supplement does.

I urge all my clients to be nutrition sleuths.  Ingredients are always listed in descending order of weight.  Here are the ingredients in Boost® Simply Complete:

Brown rice syrup (— another name for sugar)
Milk protein concentrate
Cane sugar
Canola oil

plus … Less than 2% of cocoa processed with alkali, vitamins and minerals, salt, gellan gum, natural flavor

So, you’re dishing out a lotta dough for water, sugar, and (ultra-processed) supplemental protein.  By the way, a single serving contains a smaller amount of vitamin and mineral supplementation than you can get by taking a generic multivitamin every third day.

To be “nutritionally complete” a product must contain fat, essential for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, among other functions. In this product, the fat is from canola oil.

Gellan gum is a polysaccharide produced by bacterial formation and is used to “keep everything mixed together.”  Because it may be considered a high FODMAP food [read my previous column about FODMAPS (certain carbohydrates that certain people have difficulty digesting) here], people with sensitive intestinal tracks may find this nutritional supplement produces gas, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation.

In this case, a bottle of Boost® means drinking water with added sugars, canola oil, milk solids and some coca powder, plus a polysaccharide. Is consuming this concoction necessary for free-living people to stay healthy?

Following my dietetic internships and credentialing exam, I worked as a clinical registered dietitian in a community hospital. There I first encountered patients whose lives depended on supplemental nutrition.  Their digestive tracts, anywhere along the way from mouth through the gut, had been damaged by disease or injury.  They couldn’t eat or sometimes even drink: they had to either take their nutrition through a surgical port that opened directly into their stomach, or intravenously, bypassing the gastrointestinal tract entirely.  I developed a real appreciation of how chemistry, technology and modern medicine served to preserve life in extremely ill people, including children.

Dietitians are trained to calculate the nutritional needs of these patients, and work with physicians and nursing staff to administer the proper balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. In the stone age when I was first practicing, elemental formulas (taken through the stomach) had to be mixed in the pharmacy and so when companies like Ross and Abbott (who were big into infant formulas), developed individual servings of “nutritionally complete” canned supplements for people with special and sometimes critical nutritional needs, it was seen as a positive development, deemed more standardized and safer (including less risk for contamination).

Then, manufacturers looking for new market share, started branching out.  They targeted seniors — and their concerned children — promoting the shakes as “insurance” for their loved ones to obtain sufficient nutrition when living alone.

Sure, sweet “completes” could be helpful for elderly who are disinterested in eating, who rather drink a “chocolate shake” than to eat often tasteless, unseasoned institutional food.

But what’s happened here is similar to what’s happened to children’s breakfast cereals. These supplements are no more “real food” for generally healthy people than is Froot Loops a whole-grain cereal.  And now I’ve seen that manufacturers are targeting “busy people,” not necessarily unable to eat real food, but who believe they don’t have the time or maybe don’t have an interest in eating balanced diets but feel a vague need to stay healthy.

And ironically, these sugary shakes are being promoted for bodybuilding. And sports performance. They’re called “meal replacements.” And for weight loss! For example, Ensure® has a campaign that “challenges” consumers to drink one Ensure shake daily.  Want to feel better about yourself and your nutrition? Try adding a new, healthy habit: Drink one Ensure Shake every day!

The claim is that by choosing a shake daily you’ll develop “healthy habits”.  They say a daily shake is a “starting point”  to develop better eating habits.  Drink one daily to replace an unhealthy habit and it will be a “step toward a healthier you.”

I don’t think so. What’s so healthy about drinking synthetic calories from a plastic container?

Check out the ingredients in Ensure® Original Milk Chocolate.

Corn maltodextrin (a sweetener and thickening ingredient made from corn)
Canola oil
Soy protein isolate
Cocoa powder
Corn oil
Vitamins and minerals

The marketing hype would have you think that you’re missing out on good nutrition by not quaffing a mix of water, sugar, and oil daily.  But don’t fall for the hype, and think whole foods instead.

After all, this 220 calorie drink contains a mere 9 grams of protein but it does contain 33 grams of carbohydrate, all from sugar. That’s more than 60% of the calories from refined carbohydrate.

Convenience doesn’t have to mean synthetic food. Try this whole-foods snack, full of protein, fiber, and flavor, without added sugar, oil, or manufactured protein.

Greek yogurt, 1 cup

Chopped walnuts or almonds, 2 tablespoons
Fresh fruit — ½ cup strawberries, kiwi, mango, papaya, or pineapple are all delicious and full of fresh antioxidants and micronutrients.

Nutritional value:

250 calories, 26 grams of protein, no added sugar, and four grams of fiber; more than 25% of your calcium for the day, more than 100% of your vitamin D, and all natural.

You don’t have to drink sugar, canola oil and milk solids to keep yourself healthy.  Well, if you cannot eat, maybe.  But if you can eat, do.


Boost® Simply Complete™. https://www.boost.com/products/simply-complete

CuencaHighLife.com. Oh my aching gut. Is it IBS? https://www.cuencahighlife.com/oh-aching-gut-ibs/

Ensure®. https://ensure.com/health-articles-tips/lifestyle/one-ensure-day

Kellogg’s Froot Loops®. http://www.kelloggs.com.co/es_CO/froot-loops-product.html

Wikipedia. Gellan gum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gellan_gum


Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is... Read More

  • Robert

    My wife died of Cancer 3 years ago at first when getting 40 radiation treatments she was still able to eat regular food then after another month the did a oep test and she lit up then started 18 treatments of kemo , then loss of appetite weight loss no solid foods 2 months later
    Another pep test then her limpnoids
    In her throat lit up and they performed surgery removing her left lung and limpnoids around her heart
    She wanted to try and live a little longer couple month later ,The doctor did another test and advised that they needed to remove her top lip and remove her nose All the time giving her hope the hospital dietician
    Prescribed insure and or Boost as she could not keep even food that I would process in a blender 8 months on that stuff she was 5’7 died at home weighed 72 lbs. Even if she drank 5 or six a day if she could was useless after doing palative care for 2 1/2 years I learned not to trust doctors as they give you false hope just to experiment on us and as far as Boost or Enshure I would not feed that to my dog I’m a bitt of a health freek and after seeing what feeding her that did well I drew my own conclusion about the dietary value 00000

  • That is so very sad, Robert. The canned supplements are helpful for hospitalized people but the point of my column is that they’re not necessary or even healthful for people who can eat real food…that real food is so much more nutritious, unless you’re worried about infection or you cannot eat normally. That you tried to help your wife by blending food for her shows how loyal and loving you were. Take care and thanks for taking the time to comment. Susan

  • LadyMoon

    Robert, my heart goes out to you about your wife. The end-of-life (or living) issues are really on our minds as we age. I hope to drop dead!