Saturday, July 20, 2013

Shakeology: Shaking up its foundations

My wife is really into Beachbody workouts, particularly now Focus T25.  The science behind high-intensity interval training is fairly sound, and I encourage physical activity of any type.  Thus, I have no problem with this.  It helps that it also makes her super fit and even more hot, which I didn’t think was possible when I met her.  I am so impressed with her results from the workout, that when I am done my marathon at the end of August, I plan to take a break from running and do it myself.

However, Beachbody is not just about selling workouts.  They also have an elaborate system of “coaching” whereby individuals sign up to be Beachbody coaches and then promote the workouts and nutrition products to others.  Again, I have no problem with this, aside from it being a multi-level marketing system.  Then she bought Shakeology, dubbed “The Healthiest Meal of the Day” by Beachbody.  

If you have not come across Shakeology, it is a powdered protein supplement, replete with myriad “superfoods” (aside: there is no such thing as a superfood.  Get over it.)  You make a smoothie from it, either straight up or mixed with other foods, and use it as a meal replacement.  Aside from the fact that processed desiccated “food” is not even close to the same thing as the real deal, taste is always of utmost concern to me.  And I find it repulsive.  But others, including her, find it delicious.  

She says it gives her energy and satiates her for long periods of time so she would like to continue buying it.  This surprised me on two fronts.  First, not only is she incredibly fit and at a remarkably healthy body weight, she also eats with an eye to both taste and nutrition.  She eats probably one of the most balanced, whole foods diet of anyone I know.  To replace some of that with processed powder in a bag is out of character.  Second, the price.  My goodness.  Two pounds costs you $120. $120!!!!!!!  TWO POUNDS!!!!  They recommend one scoop per day.  Doing this, one bag would last you 30 days.  Is $4/day all that bad for one meal?  I guess not.  But the greater question is why?  Why use this instead of whole foods?  

I’ll admit I don’t have a massive moral pedestal on which to make this argument, given that I cannot for the life of me forego my daily breakfast cereal.  And not the healthiest kind.  Raisin Bran, Honey Nut Cheerios, etc.  However, she always had incredibly healthy breakfasts, so I asked her why she wants to switch to this.  This led to a challenge to me to research the “science” behind Shakeology and the health claims made on the package.  She should know me better by now.  Such a challenge always results in a lengthy diatribe about the inherent lack of real science in such claims.  And I am not one to walk away from such a gauntlet throw down.  

What follows is not short.  It is anything but.  Mostly because the claims and ingredient list on the package are so detailed and expansive.  Besides, I don’t do brevity.  If you want the Cole’s Notes, here they are.

Bottom Line: The health claims made on the package have no scientific evidence base to support them.  There are insignificant amounts of multiple plant products mixed in with the protein, none of which come anywhere close to duplicating the health benefits of whole plants.  The manufacturing process to make plant powders is a laboratory procedure.  Beachbody does not go out into the field with a mortar and pestle, grind up some plants, hang them in the sun to dry and call it a day.  

Thus, this is protein powder with filler.  If you are happy paying $120 for protein powder, which you can get elsewhere for a quarter of the price, go for it.

The claims from the package

Claim #1: Proprietary Super-Protein Blend: Whey, Sacha Inchi, Chia, Flax, Quinoa, Amaranth, Pea: Helps build lean muscles, improve skin and hair, support mental clarity, and reduce cravings. 

The only part of this that is true is the protein part.  There is nothing “super” about any of them.  Protein is protein.  And in North America, we get enough protein already.  More than enough.  In fact, from meat alone, Americans consume twice the daily amount of recommended protein.  Thus, if protein were truly going to help build lean muscles, we’d all be a bunch of lean, mean, muscle machines by now.  We most certainly are not.  How about better hair and skin, sharper wits, and less desire to eat junk?  For these sorts of claims, I search the ultimate authority on evidence-based natural therapies, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD).  You need a subscription to access it, so you will have to take my word that what I report is straight from that source.  You can access the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, but it is not as complete.  

If you doubt anything I write, I’d be more than happy to take a screen shot and send it your way.  I will also do a quick search of Pubmed to see if any new research exists in case NMCD missed anything.  I will look at all the above ingredients, and then determine whether there is any scientific evidence to support that they lead to any of the stated outcomes.  

Of note, you will notice on the bag and the website, a little asterisk next to each claim.  When you find it far below, you read this: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration”.  Meaning that they could just be pulled out of thin air for all it’s worth. But nonetheless, I will give them their day in court.

For every single ingredient listed above in claim #1, there is not a single drop of scientific evidence to support any of the statements made.  I could just as easily say “These whiz-bang superfoods will give you giant muscles, make you more sexually attractive to potential mates, increase your chances of winning the lottery, and exponentially increase your financial net worth!!!!!” and it would have exactly the same amount of scientific credibility.  
I’m not too excited about what I’ll find with the remaining claims, but on I march.

Claim #2: Proprietary Super-Fruit/Antioxidant Blend: (Superfruit.  Sigh.): Camu-camu, acai, acerola cherry, bilberry, goji berry, grape seed, green tea, luo han guo, pomegranate, rose hips: Provides antioxidant support and helps promote a healthy heart and optimal blood pressure.

First off, the antioxidant=health notion is a complete myth.  In fact, it may even be dangerous.  Now, to the others.  

Very preliminary research suggests cardiovascular effects from consumption of grape, grape juice, and red wine (the research did not look at grape seed extract; the differences are substantial; same reason research on omega-3 supplements has not shown the same benefits as those found in populations eating diets high in fish).

However, these studies only showed improvements in vasodilation and suppression of thrombosis.  Extrapolating this to say that it promotes a healthy heart is disingenuous.  We call these “surrogate markers”.  The best example I have to show the risk of using surrogate markers as evidence of hard outcomes is a drug called torcetrapib.  This drug MASSIVELY increased levels of good cholesterol and substantially reduced levels of bad cholesterol, leading many early commentators to suggest that it would be a game changer in preventing heart attacks and death due to cardiovascular disease.  Too bad the studies had to be terminated early because the drug caused a 60% INCREASE in DEATH.  Not just an increase in disease.  An increase in death.  So, that WHOLE grape products “might improve endothelium-dependent vasodilation” is clinically meaningless.  And one study found that it has no clinically significant impact on blood pressure.  

There is, of course, some epidemiological evidence suggesting a benefit of green tea consumption for cardiovascular disease prevention.  However, this just states that people who drink lots of green tea seem to have lower rates of heart disease than others.  It doesn’t account for all the confounders (ie. people who drink green tea may be more health conscious overall, the rest of their diet might be healthier, they may exercise more, etc. etc.)  No sound evidence exists showing the same effect from consuming green tea extract.  

For pomegranate, there are just as many studies supporting a benefit in cardiovascular disease as there are ones that refute it.  The evidence base to date is insufficient to draw any reliable conclusions.  And again, none whatsoever on pomegranate extract. 

For all the other products, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claims made.  

Claim #3: Proprietary Super-Green/Phytonutrient Blend: Moringa, chlorella, spirulina, spinach, barley grass, kamut grss, wheat grass, oat grass: Helps alkalize the body and promotes detoxification of the liver, kidneys, and blood to restore health and vitality.  

Ugh.  Where do I even start with this one?  It is hard to find evidence for a statement when it refers to physiologic processes that don’t exist and when it uses subjective measurements like “health and vitality”.  

Toxins first.  Suffice it to say, your body does an outstanding job of keeping you free of toxins.  We are not, despite popular belief, awash in harmful toxins.  Other science-based writers have covered this better than I can here and here.  

Alkalization next.  The biochemical pathways charged with maintaining your internal pH are incredibly complex and they do a remarkable job of keeping it there.  So much so, that clinically significant pH excursions typically only occur in the acutely ill, particularly those with kidney disease.  This is called metabolic acidosis or alkalosis and is a serious medical condition.  You wouldn’t be walking around asking for pH strips for your urine if you had it.  Long story short, no one drinking Shakeology has any clinical need to “alkalize” their body.  In case you don’t believe me, read this.  An excellent quote from Quackwatch sums up nicely this cockamamie notion:

“If you hear someone say that your body is too acidic and you should use their product to make it more alkaline, you would be wise not to believe anything else the person tells you.”

But what about the magical superfoods in this “proprietary” SUPER-green phytonutrient blend?  Don’t they do anything?  Let’s see.

Moringa: Nada.  Unless you’re a goat.  
Chlorella: Nothing.
Spirulina: Zilch.
Spinach: Negatory.
Barley grass: Ohhh....ohhhh.....wait for it.....oral consumption of barley just might lower bad cholesterol significantly.  Sadly though, as NMCD says, this does not hold out for all studies: “This lack of effect seems to be the result of processing the barley into a highly enriched beta glucan product.”  And we thought we were so smart we could identify the responsible component of a whole food, isolate it, feed it to people, and get the same outcomes.  Curse you nature.  Wouldn’t matter much anyways as 1 serving of Shakeology contains only 4.75mg of beta-glucan, roughly 0.6% the required amount the Food & Drug Administration requires to allow companies to make claims about its health benefits.  
Kamut grass: That’s a big tall glass of nope.
Wheat grass: Zippo.
Oat grass: Same situation as barley grass.  Possibly effective for cholesterol, but only with whole consumption.

Claim #4: Proprietary Adaptogen Blend: Ashwagandha, astragalus, cordyceps, ginkgo, maca, maitake, reishi, schisandra, tulsi: Helps protect the body from stress, support the immune system, and balance the endocrine system.

Typically, anything claiming to reduce stress, boost the immune system, or balance your hormones, is a complete crock.  But just for fun, let’s evaluate the ingredients one by one to see if they can achieve any of those three remarkable goals.  

The evidence base is so lacking for these, I don’t even know from where they fabricated these claims.  So I ran a Pubmed search for all the ingredients against the search terms “stress”, “anxiety”, “endocrine”, or “immune”.  I got nothing useful.  

Claim #5: Proprietary Pre- and Probiotic/Digestive Enzyme Blend: Yacon root, Lactobacillus sporogenes, Amylase, Cellulase, Lactase, Lipase, Protease, Bromelain, Papain: Helps increase nutrient absorption, promotes regularity, and improves digestion.

NMCD doesn’t have much on these as most are simply digestive enzymes (most of which our bodies make naturally, by the way) and the body is notoriously unfriendly to large proteins.  But I will search nonetheless.  I ran a search in Pubmed with all the ingredients against the claims of nutrient absorption, regularity, and improved digestion.  I’ve limited the search to randomized controlled HUMAN trials, as all other research is potentially interesting, but clinically meaningless.  Nothing.  

There you have it.  With very few insignificant exceptions, all the claims on the Shakeology packaging are completely unsupported by scientific evidence.  That does not mean they are not true.  It merely means that based on currently available scientific research, we cannot confidently conclude that the claims are true.  

After all this I found myself wondering how much of each of the ingredients is within this product.  Thankfully, Beachbody has licensed some of its Shakeology products with Health Canada’s Natural Products Directorate.  Thus, I have a full ingredient listing at my disposal.

The chocolate product, per serving, weighs 42 g.  Here’s a breakdown.

Total protein: 16.8 g
Whey protein isolate: 7.9 g
Pea protein: 5.3 g
Rice protein: 3.6 g

ALL the other medicinal ingredients:
8.27 g

I’m confused, given that the label says the “Proprietary Superfoods” weigh 33g.  What this means is that 7.93 g of these “superfoods” are unaccounted for.  Too bad.  Likely it is the weight of the “superfoods” listed as non-medicinal ingredients (barley grass, spinach, lycium fruit, and wheatgrass) and the other stuff not included in the health claims that you only see when you look in the small print (oat grass, Himalayan salt, some enzymes, luo han guo, cocoa, and lactobacillus)

This still leaves 9 g unaccounted for, which can only be the weight of the non-”superfood” non-medicinal ingredients listed.  They are blueberry flavor, chocolate flavor, cinnamon flavor, D-fructose, guar gum, pectin, stevia rebaudiana leaf, and xanthan gum.  

Might I point out how sad it is that they had to add blueberry flavor even though one of the listed “superfoods” contained in it is blueberry?  Just proves how insignificant are the quantities of the products in this stuff and how far removed these extracts are from the real deal.

So, you are paying for 17 g of protein, which you could get anywhere for SUBSTANTIALLY cheaper, and an insignificant quantity of dried plant powders.  Just to give an example of the insignificance of these quantities, I have some quinoa kicking around the house.  The ingredient listing states there is 617 mg of quinoa in Shakeology.  I couldn’t even weigh this at home as my kitchen scale is not sensitive enough to detect anything under 2 g.  So I had to use my chemistry scale at work.  The resulting mass of quinoa seeds, in a single layer, was about the size of a loonie.  

127 seeds, if anyone’s counting.

The shark wrangler

Good for you. You wrangled a shark onto land just to let it go and then bask in the ensuing web-fame. Of course he's a hero because, you know, sharks kill people, right? About six per year worldwide. The annual killing scoreboard looks like this. Humans 100 000 000: Sharks 6.

But they are the most deadly animal on earth right? Wrong. Mosquitoes, hippos, deer, bees, dogs, ants, jellyfish, cows, horses, spiders, and rattlesnakes kill more people every year.

Well it's not like he was clubbing a baby seal. But while harp seals may be cute, they are not classified as vulnerable as sandbar sharks are (the species Mr. Manly McFamous wrangled). In fact, harp seals are classified as "Least Concern", the same conservation category as humans

We should shun this behaviour, not glorify it.