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Convenient options that come with added sugar

September 21, 2018

Browsing through breakfast items online, it’s easy to spot “meal replacement” as a key phrase in product descriptions. The concept of substitute meals in the form of bars, soups or drinks is gaining popularity in the Chinese market.

Meal replacements allow people to know the exact quantity of calories, thus, controlling daily intake becomes an easier task. They have become popular in the fitness community and many people are purchasing such products to incorporate in their everyday diet.

Amy Guo, a 25-year-old who started exercising with a professional trainer last year and now does cardio, yoga, boxing and weightlifting regularly, has tried some of these meal replacement products based on recommendations from fitness blogs and apps.

“The choice was limited when I first started, the food in restaurants didn’t meet the standards of less oil, salt and sugar, so I tried some of the meal replacement products like protein shakes and wholegrain breads. Although they kept me full, it’s not a complete meal and the nutrition is not balanced,” she said.

She also noted that the price of those products was quite high, and eating the simple and boring bars and shakes during a time when she was trying to lose body fat was frustrating and agitating.

“A lot of people think that eating meal replacements doesn’t gain weight so they don’t control the intake, instead they are consuming too much calories, and if you are looking to gain muscle, the nutrition from meal replacements is not enough,” she said.

Now, Guo occasionally eats energy bars, not as meal replacement, but a quick boost of energy and sugar after high intensity training.

“I think a lot of the meal replacement products on the market exaggerate their performance and effect, and some of the products you find online cannot guarantee quality and nutrition,” she said. “And if meal replacement is part of the diet, it’s better to eat some protein-rich meats like chicken breast, beef and salmon that are cooked in simple ways, as well as nuts to provide unsaturated fatty acids and fiber.”

Weight loss or weight gain?

It’s easy to fall into a marketing trap when a product claims to have health benefits and aid weight loss. But there are downsides of being far too trusting of “healthy” meal replacements.

First off, sugar. Energy bars and liquid meals often contain added sugar, and some products are essentially candy bars or sugar-based drinks that sound nicer under the guise of a meal replacement.

For example, Belvita’s soft breakfast oatmeal cookie is advertised as a fulfilling meal replacement, but it contains a lot of sugar besides the whole grains and oats. Of the 58 grams of carbohydrates in every 100g of its cranberry and raisin cookie, which is about two cookies, 18.5g come from sugar. White granulated sugar ranks fourth in the ingredient list, and there are also additives and polydextrose, an artificial sweetener.

Also advertised as low in calories and fat, Slimfast’s meal replacement energy bar in yogurt fruit crunch flavor contains 33.1g of carbohydrates per 100g of the product, 14.6g of which are sugars.

Sugar not only makes weight control more difficult, consuming too much can lead to health problems. For people who don’t need an immediate boost to aid their blood sugar level, it’s not ideal to replace a real meal with such alternative products.

Without burning calories, eating energy bars cannot help with weight control.

Then there’s the fact that ingredients in the meal replacement products are heavily processed, and the vitamins and minerals are synthetic, so they are not as easy to absorb as those derived from natural food.

Artificial ingredients such as shelf stabilizers, thickeners and preservatives as well as flavor enhancers also have side effects.

The best approach to lose weight in a healthy way and maintain fitness levels is still sitting down to eat a nutritionally balanced meal made from fresh ingredients.

But while you are on the go or in need of an immediate energy replenishment, meal replacements are convenient options.

A simple guideline to choose healthier meal replacement products is to look for those with more fiber and protein, higher levels of vitamins and minerals, and less fat and sugar.

Chinese grounded grains

Ground nuts, grains and root vegetables, such as black sesame powder or yam powder, are traditional Chinese snacks.

They take a long time to cook and a pressure cooker is required to fully cook grains such as pearl barley and Job’s tears, as well as food like sweet potato and taro, so a lot of people opt for the more convenient powder packets made of the same ingredients as a replacement.

These prepackaged ground nuts and grains are often eaten as breakfast, just add water and a meal is ready. As meal replacements, the traditional soups are quick, easy and delicious. Some of them are healthier than an energy bar or cookie as a meal.

“Black sesame paste, which is usually sweet, appeals to a lot of children, so it is a memorable flavor from childhood for me. Now I pay more attention to the nutritional value than flavor and prefer products that don’t contain added sugar,” said Wang Li, who keeps a few kinds of the ground nuts and grains at home as quick meals.

Browsing through the various Chinese-style meal replacement powder packets, popular recipes include red bean, Job’s tears, walnut, black sesame, black bean, purple sweet potato and yam. Novel ingredients such as black goji berries are also incorporated in some of the products to boost nutritional and marketing values.

Sugar-free products and those that contain more fiber from good quality ingredients are preferred replacement meals, but it’s still important to treat them as a supplement rather than the main source of food in the diet.

“I like products that contain high levels of fiber to replenish what I miss in my diet. I know it’s healthier to cook and eat the grains directly, but it’s very time consuming and I have a busy working schedule, so I sometimes eat these packets for breakfast,” said Li.

Every winter, many people in Shanghai will line up at shops that specialize in traditional delicacies to purchase freshly ground black sesame and walnut powder, as it’s a local tradition to eat a few spoons daily as a remedy to fend off the cold and promote health. Customers can not only see the quality of the ingredients, but also choose how finely they want the nuts to be ground as well as with or without added sugar.

Packed with rich protein and nutrients, it is a popular gift for older people in the Spring Festival season. It’s seldom consumed in summer.

The Hougu brand launched a mixi, or rice soup, two years ago, which has grown very popular in China. The product not only contains grains such as round-grained rice, rolled oats, Job’s tears, lotus seed and yam, but also traditional Chinese medicine herbs such as fuling (Poria), ginseng, mandarin peel, licorice and sharen (Fructus Amoni) that contribute to nourish the stomach and promote health.

As ideal as meal replacement products sound, they cannot replace actual meals.