This month's Q&A comes from my sister Megan Barker from Coaching By Megan, she wanted to interview me about my thoughts on the meal replacement Soylent.
Megan: As a entrepreneur and a business coach, my time and energy are very valuable. I was recently chatting with a friend about this and how some people struggle with maintaining a healthy, balanced diet when they are super busy. My friend then went on to tell me how she started using Soylent as a meal replacement. I had never heard of it before so I had a quick look at the ingredients but didn't think this would be a product you would recommend. What are your thoughts on using Soylent as a meal replacement?
Shawna: This is a very timely topic. Although this product has been out for a few years, there was a recent article in the Globe and Mail about a chef's perspective on the product and the ingredients he would change to improve the flavour. However, for this article we are going to look at the ingredients in terms of nutrition and health. Since I looked into the ingredients when the product first came out, I have been very vocal to my clients and students about why it is important to avoid this product, and then teaching them about healthier alternatives.
Megan: Okay that's what I thought. So what is it about the ingredients that aren't good for us?
Shawna: The main ingredient is soy protein isolate which is very hard to digest (soy should always be sprouted or fermented first in order to fully digest) and because it isn't organic soy that means it is genetically modified and highly contaminated with the herbicide glyphosate - which is classified as a 'probable carcinogen' by the World Health Organization.
Megan: This is very concerning, especially since on the Soylent website they mention that it was formulated by a medical doctor. Why do you think they would be okay with these ingredients?
Shawna: Well many medical doctors, and even dieticians, do not look at the benefits of the whole food or take into account how different foods are digested and what happens after digestion. Throughout my entire 5 years of studying nutrition at UBC this is what I experienced, basically the focus is on the numbers of a handful of nutrients and not the whole food, or how the food is grown and prepared, or digested and absorbed. With food we know for a fact that 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts'.
Megan: Okay so we covered the first ingredient but there is a whole paragraph of ingredients. What else should we be aware of?
Shawna: The next ingredient is maltodextrin from GMO corn, this ingredient is used as a thickening agent. Basically it is just shorter pieces of starch, which then breaks down into glucose once it is digested. Here the concern is due to the quality of the starting material, that it quickly turns into sugar in the body, and can negatively effect the good gut bacteria.
Megan: So far I am just really confused about how this even got approved as a healthy drink, especially as a meal replacement! Do the other ingredients at least supply some nutrition?
Shawna: Well it's really just more starches, gums, thickeners, and fillers; basically what I call 'non-foods'. Plus canola oil (another GMO ingredient), which promotes inflammation, is contaminated with glyphosate, and contains high levels of damaging free radicals.
Megan: So how did it meet the nutrient requirements to be able to be called a meal replacement?
Shawna: With the addition of synthetic, isolated vitamins and minerals. These cheap forms of vitamins and minerals are not recognized or absorbed by the body very well. In other words they have low bioavailability. A couple years ago I wrote about the importance of food-based nutrients and the negative health effects of certain synthetic, isolated vitamins and minerals used in the supplement industry. Nobody should rely on these synthetic vitamins and minerals for their nutrition. This product contains 26 synthetic vitamins and minerals. This is just a handful of the nutrients we are supposed to get from food and it will never be able to replace the 100's of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants that exist in real, whole foods.
Megan: What about the sweeteners and flavours?
Shawna: The flavours are coming from 'natural and artificial flavours' and it contains the artificial sweetener sucralose. Sucralose has been linked to decreased levels of good bacteria in the large intestine. This may not sound like much but it is actually very important because our health is dependant on the health of our gut microbiome.
Megan: So what is your final take-home message.
Shawna: Soylent and other similar 'meal replacement' drinks actually do more harm than good and should be avoided. They promote inflammation, contain GMOs (glyphosate), are hard to digest, cause havoc to the gut microbiome, contain rancid oils, and the synthetic vitamins and minerals are not bioavailable.
Megan: What would be a good alternative for busy entrepreneurs to maintain their health while saving time?
Shawna: Smoothies from whole foods like fruits, vegetables, dark leafy greens, nuts, and seeds are actually really easy to make and taste delicious! If you would like to ensure they contain a full range of vitamins and minerals you can add a whole-food supplement powder like Pranin A-Z. Or for those looking for the same convenience as having an all-in-one product a great option is Garden of Life Raw Meal.
Interested in learning more? Book a complimentary 15 Min Discovery Call with Shawna.
Shawna Barker BSc., RHN is a nutritionist, college instructor, and raw food educator.