Nutrition and Ensure

Every few years I feel obliged to check in on Ensure drinks which claim to be all about nutrition.

Over a decade ago I crunched the nutrition numbers and found that to get the same nutrients in a serving of Ensure you could eat a very small spinach salad with a couple of small slices of carrots and celery and a teaspoon of sunflower seeds sprinkled on top. But with the dinner salad you missed out on the 24 gms of sugar and the artificial colorings and preservatives.

Today, instead of good-looking seniors chugging Ensure from cans, the ads feature Ensure plastic bottles-as-talking-people dancing in the fridge with vegetables and (nyah nyah) implying that they’re better than veggies because they have 9 gm (grams) of protein. I’ve got news for the ad writers at Ensure – we don’t eat veggies for the protein. Even so, a generous serving of steamed veggies would likely contain close to 9 gm of protein and more fiber, vitamins and minerals than the little Ensure bottle people could ever dream of.

Ensure ads claim the drinks are “fortified” with vitamins and minerals, but the vitamins included in each type of drink, and the amounts, appear to change on a regular basis and are not listed on their website.

Ensure is specializing like never before and every drink now seems to have a mission such as building bone, boosting the immune system or muscle health.

Unsure about Ensure Clear

Ensure® Clear™ does not seem to have a mission other than to be clear, but here’s how you could get the nutritional equivalent of one bottle of Ensure Clear:

Fill an 8-oz glass with nonfat milk, add 1-1/2 tsp of sugar and drink.

But with the nonfat milk you would get 23 gms fewer carbohydrates, 10% of the RDA for vitamin A, 22% of the RDA for vitamin B12, 25% of the RDA for vitamin D, 31% of the RDA for calcium and a healthy smattering of other vitamins and minerals.

You could substitute in just about any nonfat dairy product here. There are about 12 mg of protein in a ½ cup of cottage cheese or Greek yogurt.

Don’t like dairy products? Substitute legumes, fish, nuts, seeds or eggs. There are 18 gm of protein in a cup of lentils. To make it a perfectly complete protein, add a grain.

With a whole food source of protein instead of Ensure Clear you could skip the Acesulfame Potassium (an artificial sweetener), and the artificial colorings FD&C Red #40, and FD&C Blue #1.

Ensure Clear comes in peach, blueberry or pomegranate flavor — in fact there are even real peaches, blueberries and pomegranates in the ads — and yet there is no blueberry or pomegranate listed on the label. (This means there is no actual blueberry or pomegranate in the product.) With a ½ cup of Greek yogurt you could skip the fruit flavorings and stir in some real, honest-to-God fresh blueberries. Now that would be nutritious and delicious.

A 10 fl oz Ensure Clear drink costs around $2.00

An 8 oz glass of organic nonfat milk costs around 50 cents.

The Lowdown on Ensure High Protein

Now let’s take a look at Ensure® High Protein. It boasts 25 gm of protein, primarily from milk protein concentrate. Since the selling point of this Ensure drink is protein, let’s focus on that.

To get the protein content that’s in Ensure High Protein, you could stir a couple of tablespoons of whey protein powder into water. Many people add it to coconut milk or fruit smoothies. Whey is a pure protein derived from cheese, similar to the milk protein concentrate in Ensure High Protein. It’s often used by body builders and professional athletes. Whey has little nutritional value beyond protein, but is a complete protein and is easily absorbed.

Health food stores carry whey that is free of artificial sweeteners and costs about 60 cents per serving, as compared to Ensure High Protein, which is about $2.50 a serving. If you have a protein “nutrition gap,” whey protein is a cheaper and healthier alternative.

Talking Bottles with Little to Contribute

If you’re an omnivore it’s not that difficult to get adequate protein. If you’re elderly and/or ill and nutritionally compromised, whey protein is a good source of easily absorbable protein but doesn’t have the nutrients or fiber found in whole food proteins. If chewing or digestion and absorption of whole foods is an issue, get out the blender or food processor. If that’s too labor-intensive, get organic baby food and add flavorings and spices as needed. If you have a stomach bug and need electrolytes, get some  unflavored Pedialyte — it’s a good product to keep in the pantry just in case.

If Ensure would take out the artificial sweeteners, flavorings and colorings, be consistent and open about vitamin and mineral content, keep the sugar content low and stop pretending to be a liquid vitamin with balanced nutrition, it might be a drink that a normal, healthy person could grab on the go as a pick-me-up. But doctors recommend it to pregnant women, very sick people and the elderly, which only proves that doctors get little to no education in nutrition.

Most health food stores carry a variety of reasonably clean protein and nutrition drinks and powders, but be a label reader. Jillian Michael’s whey powder claims to be 100% natural, pure whey protein with no artificial sweeteners, but both Acesulfame Potassium and Sucralose are listed on the label and there’s a long list of ingredients other than whey powder in it.

Buyer be aware.

The moral of the story: if you’re thirsty drink a nice tall glass of water. If you’re hungry eat whole, fresh, preferably organic foods.


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