Ensure What?

a six pack of ensure

Looks Good, or Is Good?

Last night, a commercial for “Ensure nutritional shakes” came on the TV. It showed a man bowling and a woman walking on the beach while sipping a chocolate elixir. It’s not uncommon to see drinks like these used as meal replacements. Looking at the label, you might be inclined to think that’s a good idea: 9 grams of protein, 200 calories, and 26 different vitamins and minerals.

Let’s look more closely and see if the small print delivers on the promise of a healthy meal-replacement drink.

Ready to drink meal replacement drinks are common. Unfortunately, the ingredients they contain are some to most damaging foods we can eat. They negatively impact our gut microbiota, our hormone levels, digestion and even immune system.

We’re not off to good start…

99.5% of everything in the bottle comes from eight ingredients: water, corn maltodextrin, sugar, milk protein concentrate, canola oil, soy protein isolate, cocoa powder (processed with alkali), and corn oil. Let’s make sure we understand these ingredients.

Total calories
There are 200 calories in each bottle of Ensure. This is a reasonable amount for a snack or very low-calorie meal. But we need to consider the source for each of those calories and understand how that may impact our body. 


The nutrition facts panel lists calories from fat as 50. This is strange because there are 6 grams of fat on the label. A gram of fat contains 9 calories, which would come out to 54 total calories from fat, not 50. But close enough, I guess.

The nutrition facts panel only tells part of the story. The ingredient list is where we find out exactly what foods contribute the fats. In the case of ensure, two sources of fat are listed: canola and corn oil. Unfortunately, these highly processed fats are devoid of nutrients and among the most destructive foods in modern diets.

Processed seed oils have only been around for a hundred years or so. These refined oils contain an excessive amount of omega-6 fatty acids. Diets high in omega-6 and low in omega-3 fatty acids help set the stage for a host of inflammatory diseases that appear in people eating a typical Western diet—diseases like cardiovascular disease, arthritis, depression, and even cancer.

We explore fats in greater depth in the Four-Pack Revolution, but for more info now, see our article on industrial oils. 


According to the nutrition facts label, there are 9 grams of protein in each serving. Again, this doesn’t give us the info we really need. What is this protein, and where did it come from? Once we look at the ingredients list, we see the answer is milk protein concentrate and soy protein isolate.

Have you ever experienced “unexplained” cramps, bloating, flatulence, or diarrhea? All of these can be symptoms of a milk protein allergy or intolerance. Reactions to traditional protein supplements are common and often go undiagnosed. In addition, both casein and whey, the two proteins found in milk, often create excessive inflammatory immune responses. A telltale sign is mucous production, including blocked airways, stuffy nose, and thick throat.

When it comes to soy, research is mixed. Some of the claims made for soy were based on preliminary evidence, and some showed benefits, while others did not. If you tolerate soy protein well, it might be a good option.


Carbs are the new fat when it comes to macronutrients to watch out for. This time, there’s science to back up the claims. Excessive sugar is the single most destructive aspect of the modern diet. Ensure lists 15 grams of sugar among the 33 grams of total carbs.

Total carbs = starches + sugar + fiber

Moving from the nutritional facts panel to the ingredients list, we see corn maltodextrin as the first ingredient after water. This common food additive is used to add sweetness like table sugar and to increase the viscosity of the beverage making it more enjoyable to drink.

Due to weird food labeling laws, maltodextrin is not technically considered a sugar and manufacturers are not required to list it in the sugars section on the nutritional facts panel.

Instead, it’s allowed to go into the carbohydrate section, giving the appearance that there is more than 50% less sugar than there really is.

Your body knows the difference.

Maltodextrin causes a spike in blood sugar levels similar to sugar and contributes to changes in the composition of your gut bacteria. A 2012 study found that maltodextrin increased bacterial adhesion to cells located in the intestine. Bacterial adhesion to intestinal cells is commonly associated with autoimmune disorders.

Maltodextrin may also promote the survival of salmonella. Salmonella may be responsible for a broad range of chronic inflammatory diseases. A study conducted at the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center in Boston demonstrated that maltodextrin impairs cellular antibacterial responses and suppresses intestinal antimicrobial defense mechanisms. This can lead to inflammatory bowel disease and other conditions that arise from an inappropriate immune response to bacteria.

Even in light of all this, the sports nutrition and health food industries love maltodextrin. It’s inexpensive and allows them to legally misrepresent the nutritional value of their products for stronger marketing campaigns and sales numbers.

In reality, 8oz of Ensure contains 32 grams of sugar. That’s double the label claim, and more sugar per ounce than soda.

Bell Chem, a leading distributor of maltodextrin confirms all this on their website:

Many soft drinks and other flavored beverages contain maltodextrin in their formulas so that they can have a lower amount of sugar on their nutrition facts labels. On the nutrition label, maltodextrin is included under the “Total Carbohydrate” heading, instead of the “sugars” label. 

Vitamins & Minerals
The remaining .5% of the ingredients are synthetic vitamins and minerals. These micronutrients need to be added to the drink because each highly processed ingredient has had most of its nutrition stripped out during manufacture.

How much (or little) of these added vitamins and minerals that makes it into your bloodstream is up for debate. There is something about nutrients delivered in their natural form that is hard to replicate in a lab. Even worse, eating these highly processed ingredients may actually leach valuable vitamins and minerals from your body during the digestion process.

Again, Bell Chem explains it best:

In order to assist the body with converting complex carbohydrates into energy, most naturally occurring complex carbohydrates often contain some vitamins and minerals that help with easier digestion and absorption into the body. However, maltodextrin contains almost no vitamins and minerals to assist with turning carbohydrates into energy.  Therefore, consuming maltodextrin may actually reduce the amount of vitamins and minerals in the body because it uses more vitamins and minerals than it brings into the body. Over time, this can lead to a net decrease in a person’s vitamin and mineral levels.

You don’t have to look far to find the toxic impact sugar has had on our health. From obesity to heart disease, it’s clearly killing us.

Not only do these foods affect your performance, they also negatively impact your health. So pay attention to the ingredients of the foods you choose, not just to the marketing claims on the front of a label or the supposed nutritional “facts” panel. Dig deeper, and think for yourself.

If you are trying to lose weight, looking to improve your overall health, or cutting weight for a fight, take the time to read labels. Making better choices is easy once you’re fully informed. With a little prep work, you can easily find or create a healthy alternative that will support you as you work towards your goals.

Here’s a healthy high-protein coffee smoothie that won’t spike your blood sugar and will deliver healthy fats and carbs to support you until your next meal.


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *