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Harvard Health Ad Watch: Are nutritional drinks actually good for you?

I first heard of nutritional drinks in the 1980s, early in my medical training. They were recommended for people struggling to maintain a healthy weight, often due to loss of appetite, cancer, or swallowing problems.

Since then, nutritional supplement drinks like Boost and Ensure have gone mainstream. Their widespread, primetime advertising aimed at a much broader audience has proven highly effective. The market for nutritional drinks is now worth many billions of dollars. In 2019, Ensure sales alone totaled nearly $400 million.

When you watch ads for nutritional drinks, do you wonder if you should start drinking them? Will it improve your health or fend off future health problems, as the ads suggest? Are there any downsides? Read on.

What the ads say

Right now, two ads in heavy rotation are for Boost and Ensure.

One 30-second ad for Boost shows a well-appearing older woman holding a camera (a real, two-handed, professional photographer’s camera, not a cell phone). As she takes photos of a young, hipster musical group, she tells the viewer, “I don’t keep track of regrets. And I don’t add up the years. But what I do count on is staying happy and healthy. So I add protein, vitamins, and minerals to my diet — with Boost.”

As she happily sips her chocolate drink, a voiceover tells you more. “Boost high-protein nutritional drink has 20 grams of protein, along with 26 essential vitamins and minerals your body needs.” A graphic of a human body with a list of eight of these vitamins and minerals is displayed: calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, vitamin C, B vitamins, iron, zinc, and potassium.

Then comes the big finish and trademarked tagline: “All with guaranteed great taste. And now try peaches & cream natural flavor. With 27 vitamins and minerals and 10 grams of protein. Boost — be up for life.”

Ensure’s 15-second ad takes a very different tack. Here we have animated food characters — an egg, a pear, a carrot, and some broccoli — hanging out together in the fridge. So adorable! An egg looks off camera and exclaims, “Wow!” A bottle of Ensure Original explains what the egg is admiring: “That’s Ensure Max Protein with high protein and 1 gram of sugar.” Shift to a towering bottle of Ensure Max, complete with bulging biceps, sounding like a drill sergeant shouting orders at the banana: “It’s a sit-up, banana, bend at the waist.”

“I’m trying!” says the banana, as it rocks back and forth on its back. “Keep it up, you’ll get there,” Ensure Max barks. Two bottles of Ensure high-five each other. Meanwhile, the banana falls backwards, failing to complete even a single sit-up.

A voiceover breaks in: “30 grams of protein, and 1 gram of sugar. Ensure Max Protein.”

What the ads suggest

The suggestion is clear: to be healthy, you need to be drinking these supplements.

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What do you think?

Written by Shobha

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