‘Nutrition’ drinks with additives that are hazardous to your brain can’t replace real food

Posted by
June 6, 2013

If there’s anything that the folks at Abbot Laboratories and their ad agency seem determined to do, it’s to ensure that as many people as possible gulp down their Ensure® “nutrition shake” products on a daily basis. To that end, they’ve saturated the airwaves with cutesy commercials showing animated bottles of these sweet-tasting concoctions taking a dominant role over the various food substances, such as fruits and vegetables, inside a refrigerator with the proclamation, “Nutrition in charge!”

Nutrition, indeed! According to the ad copy, just two bottle a day of this “simple choice to help you eat right” supplies you with just about everything it takes to keep your various components functioning at an optimum level – including something called “Revigor®.” Who could ask for anything more?

Not satisfied with trying to turn the entire adult population into habitual Ensure guzzlers, however, the company has also been actively marketing a junior rendition of the product called PediaSure® to ensure that kids are getting their share as well. PediaSure comes in two basic variations – a standard one designed to “help kids grow and gain weight” (with or without fiber) and a version called “Sidekicks®” whose label features a cartoon of a kid superhero and a description of what’s inside as “nutrition support for an uneven diet.”

But before I talk about the implications and possible effects of bringing up a whole new generation of ‘Ensurees’, I’d like to discuss some of the aspects of what you’re ingesting along with all those supposed nutrients whenever you take a swig of this stuff.

While Ensure is available in a variety of flavors, I’ll focus on the Big Enchilada of the Ensure lineup – Ensure Complete®, a product that brings to mind the “Vitameatavegamins” of Lucille Ball’s classic commercial spoof that enabled you to “spoon your way to health” and was “so tasty, too.” Or at least that’s the impression conveyed by the Ensure commercial in which it’s depicted as the “mystery guest” in the fridge promoting itself as the answer to all your nutritional needs, with calcium and vitamin D for healthy bones, Omega 3 for your heart, antioxidants for your immune system and protein and “Revigor” to “protect, preserve and promote muscle health.”

Vitameatavegamins, however, when swallowed repeatedly, had the effect of making Lucy increasingly, ah, incoherent. And while no one’s saying any such thing about Ensure Complete, two bottles of which are recommended daily “as part of a healthy diet,” it does contain a number of ingredients that many experts believe are not at all helpful to brain health. They include sodium caseinate, soy protein isolate, whey protein concentrate and milk protein concentrate – all forms of free glutamic acid (MSG), capable of killing certain brain cells (those in the hypothalamus) by overexciting them, which is why they are called “excitotoxins.”  (In addition, milk protein concentrate has been described by Food & Water Watch as an unregulated “mystery ingredient.”) Another additive,  the thickening agent carrageenan, as we reported here last month, is not considered particularly great for “gut health,” either, as it can cause inflammation in the colon (as well as being another likely source of  free glutamic acid).

A triple threat to  developing brains

And that brings me to PediaSure®, which follows in the path of Ensure, ingredient-wise, by delivering a “triple whammy” of excitotoxins in the form of milk protein concentrate, soy protein isolate and whey protein concentrate along with carrageenan. However, children’s brains, according to experts in neuroscience, are especially susceptible to the effects of excitotoxins due to the lack of a fully developed blood-brain barrier, making a cumulative dose of free glutamic acid administered on a daily basis sounds somewhat less than ideal “for your child’s growth and development.” In fact, one  autism researcher, Dr. Amy Yasko, who has done extensive work in molecular biology and biochemistry, is convinced  that “neurological inflammation” can result in autistic behavior, and that to reverse it, “it is critical to remove excitotoxin triggers from the system” by “closely monitoring food and supplement intake.” And that’s not to mention carrageenan’s potentially inflammatory (and possibly carcinogenic) effect on the gastrointestinal tract.

Of course, the people at the other end of the Abbott  Laboratories information line seemed blissfully  unaware of such concerns. According to to a cheerful and courteous supervisor named Erica who did some checking for us, “all the ingredients in the company’s nutrition products are approved and considered safe” by the Food and Drug Administration and meets all that agency’s regulations. But she would be glad to pass on our concerns to the company, “so it knows how you feel.” (For the record, Abbott Laboratories just a year ago agreed to pay a near-record $1.5 billion in criminal and civil penalties after what was described as a long-running investigation into the unlawful promotion of a prescription drug targeting nursing home patients with dementia.)

Ingredient issues aside, there is another aspect of these all-purpose drinks that particularly resonates with us here at Food Identity Theft: the idea that for many consumers, they’ve come to substitute for actual food.  Perhaps that’s largely due to the influence of all those commercials showing Ensure as taking charge of your nutritional needs while lording it over the fruits and veggies in the fridge, or promotional gimmicks like the “Yuck-O-Meter” at the PediaSure website that asks “which food gets a big ‘yuck’ from your picky eater?” and helps you to find the perfect PediaSure alternative.

But no matter how many synthetic nutrients such products offer, the only way to really ensure that our bodies and brains – and those of our children — are getting the vitamins, minerals and micronutrients they need to function at normal, let alone optimal levels, is by consuming genuine, unadulterated whole foods. Whatever the fanciful commercial gimmicks and slogans used to promote them, flavored concoctions created in a laboratory, complete with additives that can be hazardous to our brains, can no more replace nature’s diverse bounty of truly nutritious commodities than can Vitameatavegamins.