"Hey, hope you’re doing well! We haven’t seen each other in years—probably since high school! Crazy how time flies. We should get together some time! Also, have you heard about Beachbody?"
Of course you have. Everyone knows at least one newly minted health guru hawking the latest diet beverages—Isagenix and Beachbody’s Shakeology—on Facebook or Instagram. (And Soylent, while not a multi-level marketing scheme, has a cult-like following that makes similar claims.) Millions of pounds lost, they say. Just swap out your usual lunch for a "creamy Dutch chocolate" protein shake (all the indulgent flavor *without* the guilt!) and watch the fat melt away.
Could these claims possibly be true? I've seen tons of posts in my Facebook feed, including people I really know, showing off drastic physical changes in photos before and after they started their shake regimen. So my anecdotal evidence suggests that these shakes appear to work if weight loss is your goal—but let’s remember that weight loss doesn't equal health. In addition to this concern, these shakes are pretty expensive as well (they can run you upwards of $400 per month).
Thus, the important questions: Are these shakes actually good for you, and are they worth the high cost?
Isagenix claims its IsaLean shakes are nutritionally complete meals. The brand is best known for a 30-day system that supposedly helps you achieve optimal health through "nutritional cleansing," a vague phrase the company says will "remove potentially harmful toxins and impurities from the body." There’s some strong evidence to suggest that detoxes are basically just hype, since our body’s organs are designed to eliminate waste of all kinds, including “toxins”—but let’s see this out.
Shakeology makes it clear that its products are not to be treated as a full meal replacement, although many sellers promote them this way. "Shakeology, if prepared as directed on the label, wouldn’t meet the caloric needs of a meal," Team Beachbody coach Daniel Crump says, noting that people typically bulk up the shake with some type of milk, frozen fruit, nut butter, etc., which can turn it into a meal.
Soylent, on the other hand, does claim to be a full meal in a bottle, containing “protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients... a complete blend of everything the body needs to thrive.” The company asserts that 20 percent of your daily nutrition comes packed in just one bottle.
What You’re Really Drinking
Isagenix’s IsaLean vanilla-flavored Shake contains 55 ingredients. Non-organic whey is the main protein source, which can be problematic for those who are sensitive to lactose from dairy. The third-listed ingredient in IsaLean is sunflower oil, which is concerning, as the commercial production process of sunflower oil tends to cause rancidity (gross); plus it’s high in omega-6s.
Despite being a powder primarily composed of isolated nutrients with little real-food ingredients, Isagenix does mostly use the natural forms of the vitamins and minerals it includes, rather than cheap, synthetic versions. But there are a couple of items that stand out.
Aside from natural sugars and artificial sweeteners (fructose, maltodextrin, Stevia; amounts not listed), magnesium is listed twice in both oxide and stearate forms. Magnesium oxide is the cheapest version and is least easily absorbed by the body, while magnesium stearate is a controversial ingredient in the supplement world, due to poor intestinal absorption and potential overdose issues. Bioavailability of US commercial magnesium preparations. Firoz M, Graber M. Magnesium research, 2002, Jun.;14(4):0953-1424. (TBH, though, given that there are 121 mg per serving, unless you’re guzzling shakes all day long, overdose does not appear to be a risk.) FYI, magnesium in these forms is sometimes used not for its nutritional quality, but to help machine processing and keep the ingredients from clumping.
There are 45 ingredients listed in the vanilla powder from Shakeology. Like Isagenix, this also contains non-organic whey as its main protein source, although the Shakeology powder is more problematic, as this whey is not produced by grass-fed cows.
If the cows they source from are not organic or grass-fed, they’re usually being fed corn and soy, which are foods high in omega-6 fatty acids—our body needs these, but in a certain balance with omega-3s. The current standard American diet is quite high in omega-6 thanks to corn and soy and other vegetable oils, so adding more can create an imbalance and up the risk of heart disease.
But Shakeology includes more actual food in their dehydrated forms. The ingredients look pretty great on the label—chia, flax, spinach, kale, quinoa, goji berries, chlorella, maca, etc., with minimal other ingredients and no fillers. The vanilla version contains proprietary blends of protein, adaptogens, prebiotics, probiotics, and digestive enzymes.
However, it does contain the aforementioned whey protein (non-grass-fed), magnesium oxide, and very small amounts of B vitamins that are essentially useless in the given dose (0.5-1mg). In "other ingredients,” organic cane sugar is the first on the list (meaning there’s a good amount of it), and Stevia appears as well.
So exactly how much powdered corn, soy, and canola oil do you want to ingest on a daily basis? All three of these ingredients are part of Soylent Powder. The process of making oil into a powder requires maltodextrin, which is a high-glycemic artificial sweetener typically derived from corn. It is championed for its easy absorbability, but that means it’s going straight into your bloodstream, which may beget a rollercoaster of spiked blood sugar, insulin secretion, stress hormone release, and the eventual crash.
As for the rest of its 40 ingredients, Soylent contains several synthetic vitamins, which are essentially watered-down versions of the real thing—only half as active and less absorbable. Also listed in the ingredients are sodium ascorbate and thiamine hydrochloride. Though natural, they are the less expensive forms of vitamins with low bioavailability, meaning that our bodies don’t absorb them very well. Soylent also contains other cheap additives (soluble corn fiber, and mono and diglycerides that may contain trans fats), as well as 7 grams of added sugar, and soy lecithin, which may be a concern to those worried about food-based estrogens.
If the goal is to thrive, it’s safe to say that this drink would not be our first choice.
Who’s Hawking This Stuff Anyway?
When it comes to Shakeology and Isagenix, many—I think we can hazard to say most—of the folks selling these products do not have a background in nutrition. As is typical with multi-level marketing companies, sellers often have unrelated full-time jobs and use the supplement business as part-time income. This made me wonder just how much product education sellers receive before they get their businesses going.
When I asked whether Beachbody provides nurition education to coaches beyond the basic nutrition label, I was told that everyone receives a tool kit that "includes an ingredient chart detailing the individual ingredients and what they do in your body." I received this internal PDF and call tell you that while there is a chart of ingredients, it is kept to a basic list of "ingredient groups" with general benefits, rather than detailed information on each item.
Exactly how much powdered corn, soy, and canola oil do you want to ingest on a daily basis?
Of course, some coaches have done their own research and educated themselves on the ingredients, but it’s important to note that the claims each company makes and how they’re instructed to market the products are not evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, and are not backed up by third-party evaluations.
The Bottom Line
So in the end, is it worth it to take the good ingredients with the potentially problematic? There are a few things to consider before shelling out your hard-earned cash (or becoming a seller yourself). Is replacing one or two meals per day with a shake financially, physically, and emotionally sustainable for your lifestyle? What choices will you make once you reach your goal and no longer need the supplements?
For Isagenix and Soylent, which claim to be meal replacements, the shakes hit between 200-250 calories. It’s more likely that the calorie restriction, not the shake itself, is what’s helping along that weight loss we’ve been seeing on social media. Additionally, when people start a new regimen, they often make a bunch of changes at once, incorporating a healthier diet and more exercise in their routine—not just shakes.
Those shakes are also highly processed, regardless of the "superfood" ingredients (45-55 ingredients in a single 36-gram scoop), and Sarika Arora, M.D., of Aum Healing Center in Boston suggests taking a less-processed approach. "Focus on consuming nutrient-dense whole foods as much as possible, and when it comes to meal replacements, exercise caution and aim to only use products from companies that are GMP-certified to ensure quality, safety, and efficacy."
Soylent, Isagenix, and Beachbody claim to follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards, but as of the time of reporting, none are listed as certified. (Note, GMPs are not required by law to be certified.) "I think it is always important to do your homework and know as much as possible about what you’re consuming to protect yourself," Arora says.Kristen Ciccolini is a freelance food writer and plant-based nutrition coach based in Boston. She is focused on nutrition education and teaches busy women how to incorporate healthy habits into their everyday cooking. Follow her on Twitter @kciccolini.