Decades ago, meal replacement beverages began as an instant breakfast powder mixed with milk. Carnation Instant Breakfast™ is one example. This was the start of ‘breakfast on the run.’ Products such as Ensure were meant for hospitals, people who were poorly nourished, ill or unable to eat regular meals.
Today, these brands – plus a host of new ones – remain popular. They are marketed to anyone needing a nutritional boost. Many look at meal replacements as a convenient source of balanced nutrition, or to help with weight gain or loss.
Product labelling can be quite puzzling. Products may look similar, but be labelled as meal replacements, nutritional shakes or beverages. Some include the word ‘complete’ on the package. Supplements may be in the form of a beverage, bar or pudding. If you decide to try a meal replacement, first become familiar with the labels.
In Canada, laws control the terms used to describe food. Nutrition products must fit into certain categories when they are designed and marketed. They must meet vitamin, mineral, protein, carbohydrate and fat specifications set for each category.
Meal replacement bars are like meal replacement beverages in that they meet government regulations on vitamins, minerals and amounts of protein, carbohydrate, fat, and calories. Usually, the label includes instructions about eating one bar for breakfast, one for lunch, and then a proper evening meal.
Note that granola bars and sports bars are not the same as meal replacement bars. Such bars are made with familiar ingredients like oats, nuts and dried fruits. They can be used as a pick me up treat. Some bars hardly differ from a cookie or chocolate bar. Read labels for ingredients and nutrients.
Terms like nutrition bar, nutritional shake or nutritional beverage are not recognized categories in Canadian food labelling laws. However, such a product may still meet requirements for a meal replacement or nutritional supplement. Always check the nutrition information on the label for the amount of vitamins and minerals.
Keep in mind that the word ‘complete’ does not mean that one serving contains all the necessary nutrition. For many products, one must consume six or more servings in a day to totally meet all nutrient needs. It is best to consume a variety of foods as well.
Many products include healthy new ingredients. For instance, prebiotics contain carbohydrates that the body does not digest. They act as food to help ‘good’ bacteria thrive in the intestines. Likewise, omega-3 fats are healthy oils, generally from fish or flax.
When looking at labels, do not be surprised to see ingredients like corn syrup, sugar and fructose. In order to have an acceptable taste and level of calories and carbohydrate, some sweetening is required. In drinks for people who have diabetes, carbohydrates tend to release slowly to minimize spikes in blood glucose levels.
Common Uses for
|Instant breakfast||Carnation™ Breakfast Anytime
Carnation™ Breakfast Anytime, Ready to Drink,
No Sugar Added
|Standard supplemental nutrition||Boost™
|High protein||Boost™ High Protein
Ensure™ High Protein
|High fibre||Boost™ with Fibre
Ensure™ with Fibre
|High protein, high calorie or fluid restrictions||Boost™ Plus Calories
|Diabetes||Carnation Breakfast™ Anytime, Ready to Drink, No Sugar Added
Glucerna™ Nutritional Drink
|If swallowing is difficult or fluid must be restricted||Boost™ Pudding
At first, nutritional drinks were intended for the frail elderly or those unable to eat due to illness or surgery. Today, products like Boost™ or Ensure™ remain popular to help those who need to gain or maintain weight. For instance, someone may have a poor appetite due to cancer, or an elderly person may not remember to eat. As well, athletes working out or those needing liquid nutrition after dental or jaw surgery might use these supplements.
Meal replacements, like Slim-Fast™, have been used for weight loss for over thirty years. Despite what some believe, they do not have special ingredients that melt away pounds. Rather, they work by helping to control the size of food portions. Calories are controlled along with the portion.
Generally, weight loss meal replacements contain about 250 calories per serving. The labelling states that a regular meal should be eaten at least once a day to provide balanced nutrition. Note that product labels usually recommend that the user exercise at moderate intensity for 30 minutes a day. This helps with weight loss by burning more calories than are eaten.
Using a meal replacement for weight loss does have its place if meals are often skipped or help is needed at first with portion control. However, exercise, proper diet, and portion control are still needed or the weight will return. If someone is looking for a quick fix to weight loss, the results will only be temporary without lifestyle changes.
Meal replacements exist for people with special needs, such as for higher fibre, protein or calories. Others are designed for children or those with diabetes. In the case of diabetes, some bars and beverages contain less carbohydrate and sugar. Others can be used if the person is ill or has a poor appetite. Bars are great to have on hand in the car, purse or briefcase if a quick snack is needed. However, they are not intended to treat low blood glucose.
Compared to high fat, high salt, high calorie fast food, meal replacements offer a healthier alternative if you are short on time. Consider that the average fast food meal can contain 500 to 1000 calories. A meal replacement provides about 240 to 360 calories, plus added vitamins, minerals and possibly fibre.
However, nutrition drinks and bars can quickly empty the wallet. Limit them to when you cannot access a healthy meal like a hearty soup, sandwich or salad. Other choices can be just as quick and easy. Fruit, 100 per cent fruit juice, low-fat cheese and crackers, bagels, yogurt, nuts, granola bars, or a container of milk or soy milk are all portable. Not only do these foods provide quick energy, they are cheaper than pre-packaged meal replacements.
Nutritious food still is the gold standard, offering a variety of nutrients that cannot always be reproduced in a supplement. Use meal replacements only when you are unable to eat full meals or truly must eat on the run.