This awesome post was written by Alina Islam, a wonderful Certified Nutritional Practitioner from Toronto, Canada. She is a writer, speaker and nutritional consultant.
We’ve all come across a bottle of Ensure, whether it’s been given to us or a family member after a doctor’s visit or caught our eye at the drugstore. In fact, the brand has become synonymous with the word ‘meal replacement’, and is on the tip of every doctor’s tongue when it comes recommending a nutritional shake or liquid supplement.
However, what began as a supplement for the elderly or a patient who could not consume solids, is now being touted as a weight loss supplement, liquid multivitamin, and protein shake all-in-one. As a product that is recommended by doctors and even given to patients who are admitted to a hospital, I had higher hopes for the ingredients I would find in the product. Unfortunately, the more research I did the more I felt that it shouldn’t be recommended at all.
If you or a family member are currently using Ensure as a meal replacement, please take the time to read the information below to learn what’s inside, it’s side-effects, and what other alternatives you can use instead.
Ensure- A Troubled History
Introduced in 1973 by the pharmaceutical company Abbott Nutrition, Ensure (along with its sister product Glucerna) generates over $2 billion globally in sales (1). The ride hasn’t been smooth, however, as Ensure has been called out multiple times in the past for misleading its consumers. (2) (3) (4)
Strike 1: In 1995 the Center for Science in the Public Interest stated that Ensure ads were ‘the most misleading food ad’ of that year
Strike 2: In 1997 the Federal Trade Commission charged Ensure with false marketing on three accounts: 1) having the same level of vitamins and minerals as multivitamins; 2) being recommended by doctors more than any other nutritional supplement; 3) bring recommended by doctors as a way to stay healthy and active for people who were otherwise healthy
Strike 3: In 2013 a Washington Post article revealed that Ensure was being used to force-feed prisoners in Guantanamo Bay detention camps. Politics aside, I think it’s telling when the same product that is being used for prisoners is being recommended at a hospital.
What’s Inside An Ensure Meal Replacement Bottle?
Let’s just dive right in. Below are the ingredients found in the Ensure Original Shake, this is taken directly from their website: (5)
Water, Corn Maltodextrin, Sugar, Milk Protein Concentrate, Blend of Vegetable Oils (Canola, Corn), Soy Protein Isolate, Nonfat Milk. Less than 0.5% of: Magnesium Phosphate, Potassium Citrate, Natural & Artificial Flavor, Cellulose Gel, Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Calcium Phosphate, Choline Chloride, Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Citrate, Cellulose Gum, Potassium Chloride, Monoglycerides, Soy Lecithin, Carrageenan, Potassium Hydroxide, Liquid Sucralose, Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Sulfate, Acesulfame Potassium, dl-Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate, Niacinamide, Manganese Sulfate, Calcium Pantothenate, Copper Sulfate, Thiamine Chloride Hydrochloride, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Vitamin A Palmitate, Riboflavin, Chromium Chloride, Folic Acid, Biotin, Sodium Molybdate, Potassium Iodide, Sodium Selenate, Phylloquinone, Vitamin D3, and Vitamin B12.
After reviewing this label, the following ingredients immediately stand out to me as an area of concern:
I get it, you need the drink to be palatable especially if you’re giving it to someone who is ill or trying to lose weight. But I don’t understand the need for 15 grams of sugar (just under 4 teaspoons of sugar) in a bottle that is just 8 oz. or less than one cup. By this point, enough studies have been conducted showing the harmful impact of sugar on the immune system, diabetes, heart disease and more. (6)
Blend of vegetable oils (canola, corn)
Vegetable oils are essentially unsaturated fats that are modified to become solid and stable at room temperature. The process itself is extremely unnatural (e.g. oils are bleached, deodorized and cut with toxic solvents) and the end product is an oil that is high in inflammatory compounds such as Omega-6 and trans-fats. (7)
Artificial sweeteners: sucralose, acesulfame potassium
Is it any wonder we’re addicted to sugar? Not only are there 4 teaspoons of sugar in a bottle, but both sucralose (600 times sweeter than sugar) and acesulfame potassium (200 times sweeter than sugar) are added into Ensure. Research has shown that artificial sweeteners actually increases our cravings, and further research is being done on its link to diabetes and heart disease. (8)
As a derivative of starch, this is used as a filler and to enhance texture; it is also known as an artificial sweetener. Research has also linked it to digestive problems by having a negative impact on gut bacteria. As a simple starch, it also spikes blood sugar levels. (9)
This preservative is common in packaged beverages, and many manufacturers are trying to reformulate their products. Extracted from red seaweed, this is a thickener which has proven to have some adverse gastrointestinal effects on animals. Ideally, it’s better to err on the side of caution and avoid giving this to a patient who may already have a weakened digestive tract. (10)
Milk Protein Concentrate, Nonfat Milk
Research has shown that about 75% of the world’s population lose their lactase enzymes after weaning i.e. they are lactose intolerant. Many people continue to consume dairy products, unaware that it is causing their digestive discomfort, bloating, cramps and indigestion. (11)
What’s more, steroid hormones found in dairy products are starting to gain recognition as risk factors for various human cancers. (12)
Can Ensure Be Classified As A Liquid Multivitamin?
When I compared the nutritional profile of Ensure bottle to a multivitamin (note: I selected Natural Factors Women’s 50+ Multivitamin – I have no affiliation I simply wanted to compare against a brand I’m familiar with and is affordable), I found that Ensure was clearly trailing behind.
Not only were the dosages much lower on average, but the forms of some of the vitamins and minerals were not as absorbable e.g. Ensure contained calcium carbonate which is poorly absorbed and basically the equivalent of chalk. You’ll see I’ve highlighted some dramatic differences below between the two products.
*No set RDA for this, based on an estimate
The Verdict On Ensure
It’s probably not a surprise that I’d highly discourage the use of Ensure. Not only is the product high in sugar, it contains ingredients that are clearly harmful to the immune system, digestion, and linked to a host of chronic illnesses. What’s more, the nutritional profile simply does not justify the purchase of the product. The same, if not better, a nutritional profile can be found in a regular multivitamin.
Even if you’re not using the shake as a nutritional supplement, but rather a weight loss supplement, I would provide the same caution. Don’t focus on the calorie count or the protein intake (it’s only 9 grams after all), but pay attention to the high amount of added sugar that will contribute to greater cravings and weight gain.
5 Natural Shake Brands That Are Actually Healthy
Not able to consume a multivitamin? No problem. Not only are there many liquid multivitamins available at a health food store, there are also ‘meal replacement’ shakes you can purchase. I’ve recommended some great alternatives to Ensure below, that contain a solid nutritional profile, high-quality ingredients, natural sweeteners (and still, a low amount), high fibre and much higher protein (approximately 20 grams).
Note: these are not premade shakes, but powders to add to water or another liquid. The reason I suggest these instead is to limit the exposure to preservatives and sweeteners and get better value for money. They are easy to carry with you, all you need is a wide-mouth bottle and a scoop inside!
Progressive – Vegessentials
Orange Naturals – ND Shake
Garden of Life – Raw all-in-one
Vega – Protein, and greens
Sunwarrior – Illumin-8
Meal Replacement Shake Recipe
If water and a scoop of flavored powder is too basic for you, simply make this smoothie recipe in a blender! Have fun and experiment with different ingredients – no matter what you choose, it’s still a much better option to Ensure for a nutritional boost, weight loss and overall health.
1 scoop nutritional shake (vanilla or natural flavor)
1.5 cups homemade nut milk**
1 cup mixed berries
1 cup leafy greens (optional)
1 tablespoon almond butter
1 tablespoon chia seeds
**Adjust consistency based on preference
Add nut milk and berries to blender and blend for 30 seconds
Add remaining ingredients and blend until smooth
Fisher, M. (2017). Photos from Guantanamo’s force-feeding facilities. Washington Post. Retrieved 16 May 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/05/10/photos-from-guantanamos-force-feeding-facilities/?utm_term=.f50851f84d00
United States of America Federal Trade Commission: In the Matter of Abbott Laboratories (DOCKET NO. C-3745). (2017) (1st ed.). Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/cases/1997/06/c3745cmp.pdf
Burros, M. (2017). Eating Well. Nytimes.com. Retrieved 16 May 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/08/garden/eating-well.html
Abbott cashes in as aging baby boomers turn to liquid nutrition. (2017). NutraIngredients-USA.com. Retrieved 16 May 2017, from http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Manufacturers/Abbott-cashes-in-as-aging-baby-boomers-turn-to-liquid-nutrition
Ensure® Original Milk Chocolate Nutrition Shake | Complete Nutrition. (2017). Ensure.com. Retrieved 16 May 2017, from https://ensure.com/nutrition-products/ensure-original#vanilla
Research Papers. (2017). SugarScience.UCSF.edu. Retrieved 16 May 2017, from http://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/pub-sources.html#.WRcxjFPyvVo
6 reasons why vegetable oils can be harmful. (2017). Authority Nutrition. Retrieved from https://authoritynutrition.com/6-reasons-why-vegetable-oils-are-toxic/
Artificial Sweeteners. (2017). The Nutrition Source. Retrieved 16 May 2017, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/artificial-sweeteners/
Researcher Links Digestive Problems to Food Additive | Give to Cleveland Clinic. (2017). Giving.clevelandclinic.org. Retrieved 16 May 2017, from http://giving.clevelandclinic.org/articles/researcher-links-digestive-problems-food-additive
Tobacman, J. (2001). Review of Harmful Gastrointestinal Effects of Carrageenan in Animal Experiments. Environmental Health Perspectives, 109(10), 983. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3454951
What is Lactose Intolerance?. (2017). The Physicians Committee. Retrieved 16 May 2017, from http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/what-is-lactose-intolerance
Malekinejadi, H., Rezabakhsh, A. (2015). Hormones in Dairy Foods and Their Impact on Public Health – A Narrative Review Article. Iran J Public Health, 44(6): 742-758. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4524299/