Over the last decade, science has evolved in leaps and bounds, changing the way humans work, think, interact, and travel, thanks to many recent advances and innovations, including computers, smartphones, and the Internet.

Nutrition studies have even changed how we, as humans, interact with food. With more and more people becoming conscious about what they put into their body, human diets are now veering more toward healthier food alternatives. Advances in medicine have also complemented nutrition research, leading to the development of nutritional supplements for various purposes.

In recent years, an ever larger slice of our population has become enamored of meal replacement products and cognitive enhancement drugs. Meal replacement products, as the name suggests, are aimed at replacing food in its natural form with powders, bars, or drinks containing all the nutrients the human body need could ever need. Cognitive enhancement drugs, on the other hand, are supplements that are touted to improve concentration, memory, and mood.

You might have heard about them before. You might even have been curious to try them out. But, perhaps, a healthy dose of skepticism has kept your curiosity at bay — all these supplements and drugs, after all, need to be ingested and will, therefore, directly affect your body. Let’s look at the facts and see for ourselves if they are, indeed, all just mad science, or if there are real benefits to be had from taking them.

A Life Without Food: Meal Replacement Products

Circa the 1990s, prior to the advent of today’s popular protein shakes, medical food replacements such as Abbott Laboratories’ Ensure and Nestle’s Boost were all the rage. With a slight tweak in sales and marketing strategies, more meal replacement products for adults were introduced in the form of protein shakes, among which were popular brands such as Orgain and Shakeology and, all of a sudden, more and more health buffs quickly joined the bandwagon. The popularity of these products, especially among fitness enthusiasts, can be largely attributed to their ability to provide people with adequate amounts of their daily protein requirements without altering their usual diet too much.

These days, recently launched brands such as Soylent are generating buzz by advertising themselves as fast and powerful alternatives to traditional meals. In simple terms, this means that you don’t even have to eat any food at all, and you can still stay healthy and fit.

How so? These alternatives are purported to contain all the nutrients you need for your daily life. Their use, moreover, will allow you to control what your body ingests with ease – essentially letting you take charge and choose to remove excess sugar, cholesterol, and fat from your diet at will. And being regulated as a food product by the FDA, these products are required to list nutrition facts on their labels — so they’re also thought of as being generally safe to consume.

No wonder they’ve gained a large following among busy executives, fitness buffs, and Silicon Valley’s techies — after all, they are no doubt an innovative and convenient alternative to fast food or processed meals, especially when you’re in a hurry. Simply drink the powdered mix and then you quickly can get back to what you are doing. Such supplements have also been found to be helpful for people with disorders that prevent them from chewing food properly.

Do they work? Yes. But not without caveats. These products are synthesized to give you the chemicals and elements that your body needs in its purest form. However, the natural design is for human bodies to ingest and digest food and work at breaking them down further into the nutrients our bodies need. This has led to some people experiencing gastrointestinal issues, as is reportedly the case with Soylent users.

Because of the problems associated with synthetic meal replacement products, brands such as Ambronite, 100% Food, Huel, and Ample came out with products that use only natural ingredients from plants, vegetables, fruits, and grains. Vegan-friendly versions of natural food supplements have also been developed for people who follow that lifestyle. One thing remains true: all these natural alternatives are quite pricey.

Another barrier to fully embracing the use of meal replacement products is the fact that human nutrient requirements vary from person to person. Different scenarios may also require different forms of nutrition.

Not surprisingly, these products taste just about as good as they sound: bland and sad. In fact, the owner of Ambronite does not suggest using the product for all meals, despite its being designed to fulfill daily nutritional requirements. Supplement product manufacturers in general do still advocate the consumption of “real” food, for the pleasure and enjoyment it can bring, and it tout it as a fantastic way to socialize and enjoy the company of others. This is also why a lot of people probably see these products as nothing but a temporary replacement (they’re also recommended by scientists as such) and not as something that ought to be substituted totally for food.

Optimize Your Brain: Cognitive Enhancement Drugs

Another popular product for the techies in Silicon Valley, startup entrepreneurs, and even e-sports players are cognitive enhancement drugs or nootropics. Nootropics are said to help people maintain calm, focus on the task at hand, boost memory retention and retrieval, and improve decision-making skills.

Supplements and drugs that directly impact your brain aren’t exactly new. But a lot of the well-known ones have negative effects, which might explain the apprehension and stigma associated with so-called these brain enhancers. However, you probably already consume a lot of similar products, such as caffeine (a stimulant) and alcohol (a depressant) on a more or less daily basis.

Similar to meal replacement powders, there are synthetic and natural versions of the product. There are nootropics that have been staples in diets and medicines for centuries, such as the herb Bacopa Monnieri used in Indian medicine. Because of that, there is no reason to risk your short and long term health on new, chemically-engineered, and still untested drugs.

Furthermore, there’s still a lot to discover about how the brain works and what effects nootropics may have. So, as always, be prudent in what you take. You should never consider nootropics that have known side-effects such as dependence, overstimulation, and long-term impairment. As much as possible, go for natural products that have been used for a long time without having caused any problems.

People who do take these brain boosters testify to their effectiveness. However, many ethical bodies are concerned about creating a drug-dependent future. Instead, they recommend brain exercises that you can do regularly in order to get the same benefits.

These same products, however, have been found to be useful in the medical field. Modafinil, a kind of nootropic, is used to boost cognition and is being studied as an alternative treatment for schizophrenia. Sulbutiamine, which is a Vitamin B derivative, is also considered a nootropic. It is commonly prescribed for people with low energy levels or high fatigue, helping them become more alert.

If you can consult a physician before taking nootropics, then definitely do so. Physicians will also advise that if you do not get proper nutrition and sleep, then nootropics are unlikely to do anything for you.

Science in Progress

Currently, both the meal replacement and cognitive enhancement drug industries are still in the relatively early stages of development. Just like any kind of invention in its infancy, there is still more to discover and  improve on.

Similar to how computers and the Internet have improved since they first arrived on scene, scientists are also continually making advances in the safety and effectiveness of meal replacement and cognitive enhancement products. Despite being regulated by the FDA, prudence is still highly necessary if you do decide to take them. Only buy from reputable sources.

Regardless, many testimonials have been shared by people who have improved their lifestyles because of meal replacement products and cognitive enhancement drugs. For them, these inventions are definitely achievements of science.

Further Reading:

o   “Efficacy of a meal replacement diet plan compared to a food-based diet plan after a period of weight loss and weight maintenance: a randomized controlled trial,” Published in the Nutrition Journal.

o   “Smart Pills: The Truth About Cognitive-Enhancing Drugs,” from Live Science.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

About The Author

Art is the current executive content director for Project Macro. He has covered health care, lifestyle trends, and business for more than 10 years for different publications. Born and raised in NYC, he prefers biking around the city and traveling the world searching for the next mountain to climb.