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The Evolution of a True Meal Replacement

The Evolution of a True Meal Replacement

Author:     Brad Sloss, HBSSc., MA, CPT  
 Brad has a Masters Degree in Human Kinetics (Sport Business Major) and an Honours Bachelor of Social Sciences Degree with a Concentration in Business, all from the University of Ottawa.   Brad has both academic and industry experience in Sport and Fitness.   He has a strong passion and desire to see people involved in these disciplines get better daily and succeed.
Some of his academic and industry experience includes:
  • 20 years as a college professor
  • Key Account Manager at Mammoth Supplements
  • Personal Training Cert Provider - PTS canfitpro
  • Heart & Stroke Instructor
  • A founding member of the Advisory Committee of the Health & Fitness Promotion program at Conestoga College. 
  • Municipal experience includes Recreation Programming, Active Living and Facility Management.
  • Fitness Positions includes Regional Health and Fitness Director and Personal Trainer
FUN FACT: Brad was awarded Canadian Fitness Professionals’ “Host with the Most” for his teaching performance in adult education.
Social Media:  Instagram @bslossy
Contributor: Warren Karr, Popeye’s Supplements 

Protein supplements have come a very long way!  From their humble beginnings as thick, nearly unmixable powder, we are truly spoiled with the improved variety, taste, and texture of what is being offered today!  What is often forgotten is that today’s powders owe their success to another product family that shares similarities with that of a basic protein.  That is the humble meal replacement (MRP) whose history goes back far further than most realize.

Today, MRPs have become synonymous with weight loss and fat loss diets; at least in the case of mass-marketed brands.  While they can be a viable component of an all-encompassing weight loss strategy, this is not all they can offer.  With the projected sales in Canada expected to rise to over 500 million (US $) by the end of 2025 (Camara.S, 2021), it stands to reason that we should take a closer look at this category to discuss what has changed and how it has evolved. 

  • Is it our fast-paced life that is making these choices more popular?

  • Outside of the over-marketed “weight loss” application, who else might use these products?

  • Is there a way to differentiate better quality options?

  • Could a quality MRP be a better choice for some rather than a stand-alone protein supplement?

It has History:

Surprisingly, meal replacements have a significant amount of history behind them.  The following is a brief timeline to add some perspective of where the need for an MRP originated and how we arrived to where we are in 2021.

18th/19th Century:           

Pemmican appears to be as a legitimate meal substitute as there was a long time ago.  Depending on how one does their research, the creation of pemmican is credited to either the indigenous people of North America or European travelers.  It would be safe to wager the credit belongs to the former!

1920’s & 30’s: 

Having a magic pill goes back further than the 1920s, mostly in fairy tales, but having a surgeon general make the comments below is certainly something to note.  Unfortunately, it was merely a hypothesis and not a reality, so there was pemmican,                                           again. (Novak 2014)

1940’s - 1960’s:               

During the years of WW2 and the decades following it appear to be when we really start to see some similarities to today’s meal replacements.  The defining quality is the singular focus on weight loss via caloric restriction.  We can also see similarities in advertising with marketing campaigns taking advantage of popular interests and news of the day.   Although not the topic of discussion, it is very interesting how smoking tobacco was marketed as an option for weight loss (see 3rd add below in collage).

1980’s/90’s:       While ‘weight loss’ meal replacements continued to be popular, the 80’s and 90’s athlete and bodybuilder became a larger target for meal replacements.   MET-Rx was a popular brand with an effective marketing plan as well as an equally abundant amount of scrutiny.  Around this time, a number of the leading meal replacement companies came under serious scrutiny with regard to invalidated claims and questionable ingredients (Lightsey 2006).  

Several countries also began to apply regulations surrounding meal replacements.  These regulations included testing guidelines, ingredient disclosure, minimum levels of vitamins and minerals, as well as calories (Irazabalbeitia, E  2021).   Some great news is that Canada’s requirements are incredibly strict and because of this, most US and European MRPs products cannot meet the standards and are restricted from our market. 

Some of those standards include:

  • A specified amount and quality of protein.

  • Not more than 35% of the total energy from fats.

  • A specified amount of various vitamins and mineral nutrients, for example Vitamin D per serving must be at least 1.25mcg and a maximum of 2.5mcg.

  • If milk needs to be added, there must be a statement establishing the need to do so (Government of Canada 2019)

From Then Until Now: What Makes a Great Meal Replacement

Earlier, I referenced how vast the market is for MRP products in Canada.  While standards protect customers from false advertising and claims on what a product can (or cannot) do, this still has some major gaps.  The most significant?  The actual food quality contained in these products.  As an example, you can get a “meal” from any number of fast- food chains quickly and efficiently.  Yet while broadly considered a meal, most realized that these highly processed foods lack nutritional density; moreover, due to the fat sources they can also exert a highly inflammatory effect on the body while being calorically dense.  Deep down, we know eating these foods is not a “good” choice, but often convenience and efficiency can trump our decision making. 

The same holds true with MRP supplements.  Big callout packaging tags with glamour phrases such as “high protein” or “100% RDA of Vitamin XYZ” and the infamous “#1 choice of physicians” scream quality but as with most things the devil is in the details, or in this case – the ingredient list!

How can you identify what makes a great meal replacement and what does not?  Deciphering between the good, better and best options falls primarily on you, the consumer and that is what we will focus on now.   In other words, do not, I repeat, do not rely on marketing or front label call-outs to make your decision.   It is on you to flip the box over and apply some critical thinking to what is contained in it.

Meal Replacements formulated ‘on the cheap’ are costly to Consumers in every way:

The only people who benefit from low-end ingredients are those making the products.  Here is why:

  • Cheap Carbs: using high levels of modified, sugar-based carbohydrates (corn syrup, fructose, juice concentrates) can spike blood sugar levels* and has a very low energy cost (aka thermic effect); worse are the “low-sugar” carbs meant to make you think your making a good choice like the next ingredient, below.

  • Maltodextrin: this  ingredient has an even higher glycemic index (GI)* than table sugar and has been linked to minor and major gastrointestinal issues (Butler, 2018).  Its molecular structure is made up of 5 carbons, therefore it is not classified as “sugar” but has a stronger impact on insulin response.  This is a time when actual sugar is a better ingredient! 

  • Sugars and other Unhealthy Ingredients: the meal replacements that still dominate sales in this category contain more sugar than protein; even more concerning is that these replacements are served as a viable option for hospital patients and marketed as “the #1 choice of physicians”. A few other ingredients to avoid that are unhealthy are hydrogenated vegetable oil, artificial flavours, and chemical preservatives (essentially a lot of ingredients that are hard to pronounce)

  • Imbalance of Macronutrients (Protein/Carb/Fat): maintaining a properly balanced intake of macronutrients is essential for optimal health. Keep reading to find out what a balanced macronutrient product looks like.

 The cumulative result of low-grade ingredients is a consumer that:

  • is not feeling satiated (aka still hungry)

  • is feeling tired and lethargic

  • if at a caloric surplus, storing fat due to the influx of essentially pre-chewed, sugar-rich food

  • if at a caloric deficit, losing muscle mass along with body fat (catabolysis)

  • is potentially creating gastrointestinal issues

  • is potentially slowing resting metabolic rate

  • is spending money on a product that is not doing what it promised: replacing a meal

  • is creating more frowns than smiles (this is just a guess)


One final comment – when the ingredients match that of those found in a box of cookies, adding protein does not make it “healthy” . . . or a meal that much better than fast food. 

What Makes a Great Meal Replacement:

meal replacement should be a product that provides complete and balanced nutrition, not just select components.   

Taking a complete nutrient balanced approach as the guide to choosing a great meal replacement makes a lot of sense.   It is, after all, exactly the purpose for taking a meal replacement supplement.  Further, it has an abundant of scientific research and dietitian recommendations to support it (see the ‘healthy living plate’; 40:40:20 plan; macro nutrient plan or your local health unit). 

Using this information as the standard, what we are specifically looking for in a meal replacement formula is:

  • High Quality Carbohydrates (at approximately 40%)

  • Healthy Fats (at no more than 30%)

  • Protein that is not only instantly absorbed (at approximately 30-40%)

  • Soy, Peanut, Dye and Maltodextrin free

 The cumulative result from a formula like this is a consumer that is:

    • Optimizing the thermic effect

    • Keeping glycemic index stable

    • Feeling satiated (not hungry) for a sustained period

    • Keeping muscle mass

    • Feeling energetic and productive

    • Happier (again, just guessing)

The Evolution of a Quality-1st Meal Replacement

The 653 new meal replacements launched in Canada in the last 5 years is a testament to the fierce competition out there (Camara.S, 2021).  Undoubtedly there is an extraordinary mix of choices in these new products.  One that separates itself from the pack is Mammoth Meal.  Released in 2018, this product set the bar in this whole-food category with a unique approach designed for a broad range of users but without sacrificing food quality and optimal balance.

40% Protein: MEAL contains a unique blend of three proteins formulated to optimize both the immediate release of protein for muscle recovery and growth as well as a sustained release of protein for muscle mass maintenance and to keep users feeling full and satisfied.  This unique combination is possible because of the ‘Tri-Pro’ Protein Complex utilized in the MEAL formulation:  Isolate, Casein and Whey Protein Concentrate.

  • Many larger brands will offer a decent amount of protein, but where is the source? GMO Soy is often found in many mass-produced products and is something one should look to avoid due to the highly processed nature of this protein. 

40% Carbohydrate:   No fillers here, MEAL contains a premium whole food, organic-based carbohydrate blend (C.A.R.B. = Carbohydrate Assimilation Regeneration Blend).   C.A.R.B is a uniquely designed, low-glycemic formula that maximizes and sustains energy levels.   The blend includes: gluten-free oats, organic oat bran, organic amaranth, organic quinoa, organic buckwheat, organic millet, organic chia and sweet potato.

  • When comparing this to any other MRP, this is where the critical differences can be found. These ingredients are far more costly than cents-on-the-dollar maltodextrin and are whole food sources that your body will enjoy!

20% Fat:  This macronutrient is made up of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT oils).   The benefits of MCTs requires more space and time than we have, but in summary, these fats benefit the cardiovascular system, sustain energy levels, assist in disease prevention, reduce lactate build up (exercise benefit), and much like the ‘Tri-Pro’ Blend, it keeps the user feeling full. 

  • Many products that contain canola (product of rapeseed) are not good with respect to inflammatory response. They are not stable and being highly processed are not a “good” fat choice.  This is another ingredient to “avoid” when shopping for a quality MRP

Mammoth Meal Bonuses

If the MRP was made up with just the listed ingredients above, it would already surpass most/all of the options on the market.  Beyond that, a few other formula benefits include other nutritional benefits and some important consideration for those with certain food sensitivities.

✔  Fruit & Greens Complex

✔  EAA’s/BCAA’s (building blocks of tissue)

✔  Naturally Occurring Electrolytes

✔  Probiotics

✔  Banned Substance Free

✔  Gluten Free

✔  Peanut Free

✔  No Artificial Colours or Dyes

✔  No Soy

✔  No Maltodextrin

To accommodate the varying needs associated with such a wide range of users, MEAL comes with a well thought out ‘E-Z Dose’ system.   Using the chart below with the perfectly sized 26 gram scoop, the consumer can easy track and measure macronutrient and calorie intake:  

  • For example, if someone wanted a quick low-calorie nutritious snack, then the one scoop option is ideal (100 calories, 10g of protein & carbs, and 2.25g of MCT oil).

  • For a meal replacement or skipping a meal, one should consider the 2 scoop, 200 calories option.

  • The chart allows the user to forecast all the way up to a 400-calorie serving, that is great news for hard-gainers, athletes and growing youth.

In addition, it is important to note that the chart is showing MEAL mixed with water-only so one could simply replace water with milk to further increase calorie intake.  The point here is that the options are all laid out so you can tailor your desired intake precisely without any guessing.

Final Thoughts:

We started with the recognition the there is an increasing demand for meal replacements, often marketed for use with weight loss.  This narrow (and somewhat misleading) view misses a key aspect of overarching importance: the actual ingredients.  You can technically lose weight eating fast-food daily . . . but what is the overall health and wellness outcome of this manner of eating?  Producing quality MRP supplements that one can easily digest that offer proper nourishment with proper, whole food ingredients should be the starting point and an industry standard.

One Other Consideration:  Many consume protein alone and at times, use it as a meal.  Unless one adds in some whole foods, rich in vitamins and minerals this is in essence a boneless, skinless chicken breast served on a plate and cannot be considered a meal.  Using a quality MRP with the additional gut support along with fruits and veggies may be a better choice as it fits so many with a busy and/or active lifestyle.

Reference List


Aikmen   https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/498492252475094625/

Butler N. 2018 What is maltodextrin and is it Safe https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322426

Camara S.  2021   https://agriculture.canada.ca/en/international-trade/market-intelligence/reports/customized-report-service-meal-replacement-and-meal-replacement-drinks-canada-and-united-states

Government of Canada   2019      https://inspection.canada.ca/food-label-requirements/labelling/-f-for-industry/-f-foods-for-special-dietary-use/eng/1519831346667/1519831347337?chap=5

Grosvenor, C.   2012  http://www.inthe70s.com/food/spacefoodsticks8.shtml

Irazabalbeitia, E   2021      https://latestfuels.com/blog/meal-replacements-canada/

La Fleur 2015  https://zerocarbzen.com/pemmican/

Lehmann, C 2012 https://www.academia.edu/2401355/Would_You_Rather_Reach_for_A_Lucky_instead_of_A_Sweet_or_Walk_a_Mile_for_A_Camel_How_Cigarette_Advertisement_of_the_1920s_played_with_Female_Consumers

Lightsey, D 2006   Muscles, Speed, and Lies: What the Sport Supplement Industry Does Not Want Athletes or Consumers to Know Matynne, S.  nd  http://www.themusclesecrets.com/muscle-building-ratios.html

Newton 2018  https://www.outmoreusa.com/authentic-native-american-pemmican-recipe-and-history/

Novak, M.  2014  https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20120221-food-pills-a-staple-of-sci-fi

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