Choosing Your Ideal Meal Replacement

From breakfast bars to drink mixes, meal replacements are quick and convenient and can provide the nutrition of a repast. However, not all are created equal. Today, we delve on how to decipher the label lingo of these meal replacements and find the right one for you.


Common Forms

Meal replacements are mostly available as ready-to-drink beverages (RTDs), powders to mix with fluids and as bars. Meal replacement powders (MRPs) typically come in single-serving packets or in canisters. There are meal replacements offered for just about every need — low- and reduced -fat formulas, low- and reduced-carbohydrate formulas as well as specialised formulations, such as 30-30-40 (percentage of calories derived from protein/fat/carbohydrate) versions.

For dieting purposes, either whey or soy protein sources are used. For athletic purposes, whey protein is preferred for its muscle-building amino acid profile. Protein in these products typically ranges from 10 to 50 gm per serving. In the health food market, artificial sweeteners are in disfavour, but sugar substitutes abound. These include various sugar alcohols, such as mannitol, xylitol and sorbitol. Extremely common is the use of fructose and corn-derived sweeteners.


Common Uses and Dosages

Meal replacements are more than simple snacks in that they are required to supply at least 25% of selected minerals, vitamins and selected macronutrients. Hence, any meal replacement can serve as a snack, but not every snack can serve as a meal replacement. Besides replacing a meal for those on the go (usually breakfast or lunch), many of the replacement products are intended for dieters. Study after study has shown that dieters do better when one or two meals per day are controlled in their portion sizes — a perfect role for meal replacements. Another use is by those who want to increase a nutrient, such as soy protein with isoflavones for cardiovascular health or menopause support. Athletes use meal replacements to increase calorie intake and to supplement protein. Furthermore, many athletes follow programs mandating five or six meals a day, and meal replacements can certainly help in these situations.

Seniors, on the other hand, use meal replacements to ensure that they are getting adequate nutrition since many older individuals have a reduced appetite. Conversely, diabetics often will select meal replacements that satisfy nutrient-exchange programs and thereby simplify the regulation of carbohydrate intake and insulin requirements. Finally, meal replacements are offered as convenient energy boosters or as concentrated sources of protein and other nutrients. Authorities and health experts in these matters usually insist that meal replacements should never replace more than two meals per day because replacements lack the phytonutrients and many other nutritional compounds found in whole foods.


What to Look Out For

In late 2005, research company Consumer Lab tested 24 different nutrition powders and drinks and found that unlike the testing group’s experience with bars, all the drink products matched label claims. However, consumers should keep in mind that Consumer Lab was looking primarily at whether the Nutrition Facts Panel matched actual findings in terms of nutrients, and whether there were more sugars or other carbohydrates than listed, which is a major problem with 60% of the bars tested.

Therefore, consumers will still need to look closely at the ingredients for sources of protein and carbohydrate. Additionally, meal replacements are hardly good sources of phytonutrients, which are basically those special nutrients supplied by dark green vegetables and brightly coloured fruits. Phytonutrients not only contribute to good health, but they are also essential when it comes to great skin. The contents of better brands usually include more than just protein, carbohydrate and fat.


Pro Tips

A meal replacement powder may be low in fat or carbohydrates, but what about the liquid to which it is being added? If a powder is mixed into anything other than water, be sure to take into account the calories, sodium, carbohydrate, fat and other contents that are being added. For instance, whole milk contains 4% fats while fruit juices contain substantial carbohydrates.

In addition, look and examine closely the ingredients on the Nutrition Facts Panel. Bars usually require considerable carbohydrate, typically at least 15 gm, to achieve palatable texture and taste. Fructose-containing corn extracts are cheap fillers and often used in bars. Therefore, the carbohydrate-conscious consumer should be cautious regarding bars and should examine the label to find out what is being substituted for carbohydrates.

Similarly, consumers need to be fully aware of the sweeteners used in meal replacement bars and powders, as well as the amount of sodium content. The Health Promotion Board recommends that the total sodium intake per day on a 2,000-calorie diet should not exceed 2,400 mg. essential fatty acids are usually shortchanged in prepared meal replacements, but even if they are not, these necessary nutrients are easily damaged. Products containing these nutrients will have much shorter shelf lives and should never be exposed to excessive heat or sunlight. These products usually come with a label that instructs you to store them in a cool and dry place and it is best to abide by the directive.