Advocare is a multilevel marketing (MLM) company that sells nutrition and weight loss supplements. If you are on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, chances are you know someone that is a distributor for these products. Advocare has become increasingly popular in recent years, signing on numerous famous athletes as endorsers. They even recently recruited Rich Froning as an endorser—the professional Crossfitter who holds a 4-time record of the Crossfit Games’ “Fittest Man on Earth” title! So, if Rich Froning is “getting sparked up” to get through his Crossfit WODs, should you be too? Is Advocare actually healthy? While Advocare sells numerous weight loss shakes, protein bars, and nutritional supplements, for the purposes of this post, I’ll be focusing on the trendy product Advocare Spark® Energy. According to the Spark product tagline, it promises to be “a sugar-free source of long-lasting energy”. As far as Advocare products go, I certainly could have highlighted another of their products with many more toxic ingredients and health concerns than Spark. But I feel compelled to focus on this product, in part because I have personally suffered from the effects of a lack of energy, fatigue, and mental fogginess that this product claims to eliminate and I have discovered the real solution to these problems (hint- It’s not Advocare). This product is a perfect example of why even seemingly “better choices” will still never be a healthier option than simply choosing real food.
The positive side of Advocare
As a licensed health care provider and certified nutritionist, I believe that it would be unethical and a major conflict of interest for me to sell MLM nutrition products. Which is why I do not and I never will associate myself with a MLM company. If you are wondering why I still haven’t responded to your Facebook message asking if I want to learn how to make more money, it’s nothing personal. I still like you as a person! But first and foremost, I am in the business of helping people heal their bodies through the use of real food. I do use nutritional and herbal supplements in my practice to assist clients in bringing balance back to the body, but I do not align myself with any particular company and I only recommend professional-grade products. I do not make money off of any of the supplement recommendations that I make to clients. I recommend products based on the client’s specific nutritional deficiencies, the quality of ingredients, and the manufacturing processes used. There are a lot of reasons why Advocare and their products do not fit the bill for my clients’ needs, but what I do like about Advocare is that they recommend making dietary changes and starting an exercise program while taking their products. Listen up because that is sound advice for people everywhere! Nutrition, fitness, and other lifestyle changes are what actually changes lives. Not energy drinks, protein powders, or supplements.
Recommending diet and lifestyle changes is common sense, but it is also a smart business practice on the part of Advocare. There are a lot of wonderful, inspirational stories that you will hear about people using Advocare products. I suspect that many of those transformations come from the nutrition and fitness programs that people have started and not the products themselves.
What makes me qualified to give my opinion about Advocare
One of the reasons that I don’t particularly like MLM companies is that they often attempt to make their distributors (the people who sell their products) experts in a particular field. I have had people who don’t know my background approach me and try to sell me Advocare products while presenting themselves as “health and nutrition experts”. I'm sure there are some people who are sufficiently educated in health and nutrition fields that do sell Advocare products, but most people selling these supplements are not qualified to be giving nutrition advice. Many MLM companies attack and harass people that speak out against their products, and so it's unfortunately necessary to add a quick disclaimer on my qualifications.
I am a registered nurse (RN) and I have a BSN and MS degree. I have practiced as a registered nurse for over 8 years in various specialties in both conventional and holistic health care. I’m certified as a nutritional therapy consultant through the Nutritional Therapy Association and a health and fitness specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine. I have owned a health and nutrition consulting practice since 2008. You can read more about my credentials here.
Is “Getting Sparked Up" Healthy?
The short answer is no. The simplest explanation is that the product is not real food. It is a supplement that contains toxic, low quality ingredients that ignore the bioindividuality of people’s nutrient needs and fail to address the underlying root causes of a lack of energy and fatigue.
Vitamin A (as beta-carotene), Vitamin B-6 (as pyridoxine HCl), Vitamin B-12 (as cyanocobalamin), Vitamin C (as ascorbic acid), Vitamin E (as d-alpha tocopheryl acetate), Thiamine (as HCl), Riboflavin, Niacin (as niacinamide), Pantothenic acid (as calcium pantothenate), Zinc (as zinc monomethionine), Copper (as copper glycinate), Chromium (as chromium citrate), Choline (as bitartrate and citrate), L-Tyrosine, Taurine, Caffeine , Glycine, Citrus flavonoids, Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), L-Carnitine (as tartrate), Inositol, Maltodextrin, citric acid, sucralose, silicon dioxide
Depending on the flavor of Spark, beet root extract, grapeskin extract, and natural and artificial flavorings are also added.
Based on a cursory glance, the ingredients list does not seem too bad. After all, it is mostly vitamins and minerals and everyone needs more of these nutrients, right? The vitamins and minerals found in Spark are important to the optimal functioning of the body, but once again, it goes back to the real food concept. It is always best to obtain your nutrients through the foods that you eat and not rely on getting them through a powder or pill. One important reason for this is that vitamins and minerals manufactured in a laboratory for use in a supplement are not always in the most bioavailable form that the body can actually use. This is especially true with supplements that are not professional-grade.
Low Quality Ingredients
As one example, I will highlight the vitamin B12 that is in Advocare Spark. Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that helps to maintain healthy nerve and red blood cells and is essential to the synthesis of DNA and RNA, as well as the production of neurotransmitters. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to pernicious anemia. Since vitamin B12 is only found in animal products or fortified foods, it is recommended that people who are vegetarian or vegan supplement with vitamin B12 (As a former vegetarian, I recommend that people who are vegetarian or vegan change their diet if they want to find optimal health).
In the supplement industry, there are several forms of vitamin 12 that can be used in products. Because of its low manufacturing costs and relative stability, cyanocobalamin is the most common form of vitamin B12 that is used in low-end vitamin products, including Advocare Spark. Cyanocobalamin is a synthetic form of vitamin B12 that does not occur in nature, but it can only be manufactured in a lab. In order to be utilized by the body, cyanocobalamin has to be converted by the body into an active form of vitamin B12. A large percentage of the population (some estimates are 50% or higher) have mutations at the MTHFR gene that make the conversion of cyanocobalamin into an active form of vitamin B12 less efficient. The best way to get more vitamin B12 into your diet is to optimize your digestion and consume high quality meats, fish, poultry, and eggs. If you are going to supplement with vitamin B12, be sure to choose a high quality, active form of vitamin B12 that can be readily utilized by the body, not cyanocobalamin.
The cyanocobalamin in Advocare Spark is just one example of how the forms of the vitamins and minerals in this product do not necessarily provide the most benefit to the body. In general, MLM companies make money by manufacturing products using the lowest cost ingredients that they can find and then marking them up to outrageous prices. With vitamins and minerals, that often means that you are literally flushing your money down the toilet in the form of nutrients that your body is unable to utilize. You are much better off using your hard-earned money to purchase nutrient-dense, whole foods that contain all of the nutrients you need in the forms that the body can use.
Lack of Attention to Nutrient Synergy and Bioindividuality
That leads me to the next issue with the seemingly benign vitamins and minerals found in Advocare Spark. Multi-vitamins and supplements such as Advocare Spark operate on the premise that everyone needs these extra nutrients and more is always better. In the previous example of cyanocobalamin, one serving of Advocare Spark contains 750% of the daily recommended value of vitamin B12. According to the Spark label, consumers are urged to drink 1-3 servings of Spark per day. If you are drinking 3 servings, that is 2,250% of the daily recommended value! In the case of the water-soluble vitamins (such as B12), you will excrete what your body is unable to use in your urine and overdosing is not a concern. But what is a major issue is that all vitamins and minerals work synergistically in the body. Throwing a bunch of nutrients together in an energy drink in various amounts ignores the careful balance that is needed in order for vitamins and minerals to work effectively and efficiently in the body. The beautiful thing about eating foods found in nature is that they already contain the vitamins and minerals in the exact proportions that are needed to perform their specific roles.
Another consideration is a lack of attention to bioindividuality of people consuming the product. The body has a remarkable ability to balance the ratios between minerals, but due to a variety of modern lifestyle factors, such as diet and toxic environmental exposures, the system sometimes goes awry, leading to imbalances between nutrients. The zinc and copper present in Advocare Spark can be used as an example of the significance of a lack of bioindividuality. Zinc and copper are minerals that have an antagonistic relationship. In our modern society, zinc and copper imbalances usually manifest as an excess of copper and a deficiency of zinc. There are numerous clinical reasons why I may not recommend that a client take a supplement with both zinc and copper in it if they are deficient in zinc or have an excess of copper. Or I may recommend a supplement with zinc and copper with very specific ratios. It takes clinical knowledge, thorough assessment, and thoughtful decision-making to render a decision about supplementation for my clients and that is another reason why I don’t think people should get their nutrition advice from a MLM company. It’s not just a bunch of harmless vitamins and minerals that everyone needs. The balance between the zinc and copper found in Advocare Spark may not be the best ratio to suit your particular needs. Mineral imbalances can potentiate serious health issues if they are not corrected.
Now, we can get into a few of the more obvious problems with the ingredients in Advocare Spark. The first toxic ingredient that sticks out on the list is sucralose, otherwise known as Splenda. Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that was first discovered by researchers who were investigating insecticides. Yes, you read that correctly- insecticides! Sucralose is manufactured in a highly refined process that replaces hydroxyl molecules in sugar (usually derived from genetically modified sugar beets) with chloride. It is one of the newest artificial sweeteners on the market and it was approved by the FDA in 1998, as the Advocare website proudly proclaims. There are a lot of reasons why FDA-approval does not necessarily make a product or drug safe, but that is beyond the scope of this post. FDA recalls and withdrawals happen quite frequently and in the case of sucralose, I am not convinced of its safety. In 2013, the Center for Science in Public Interest, a public safety watchdog, downgraded sucralose from “safe” to “caution” due to new evidence that linked sucralose to the development of leukemia in a life-long rat study. Because sucralose is a relatively new artificial sweetener, there is no life-long data available on its use in humans. Research does show that sucralose can significantly alter the gut flora and there is growing evidence that the gut flora is essential to overall health and wellbeing of the entire body. In our modern society, most of us were not provided with an ideal environment in which to foster optimal gut health from the very moment of our birth. I can assure you that none of us need any additional help from sucralose in creating an imbalance of gut flora! It’s best to limit added sugars in your diet and use only natural sweeteners, such as honey and maple syrup, which have been around as long as bees and trees.
The next questionable ingredients are “natural and artificial flavorings”. The Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 has a lengthy definition of what can and cannot constitute a “natural” or “artificial” flavoring under the law. These ingredients are not always intuitive. For example, many people are shocked to learn that castoreum, an exudate from the castor sac of beavers, is categorized as a “natural flavoring”. Technically, beaver butt fluids are Paleo and they are non-toxic, so I’m personally not bothered all that much by that one (although quality and processing concerns of castoreum should also be considered :) ). What concerns me more are the ingredients that sneak in under the “artificial” label. Under the law, artificial flavorings can be just about anything that does not meet the definition of a natural flavoring. There is usually little or no testing done to verify the safety of these ingredients in the food supply. A principle known as the Threshold of Toxicological Concern (TTC) is used to justify the addition of these ingredients to the food supply. The concept behind TTC is that very small amounts of chemicals should not pose a risk to human health when they are added to foods. You can read more about how the principle of TTC is applied to our food system here. There are sometimes hundreds of chemicals that are used to create a single “artificial flavoring”. Most companies, Advocare included, keep the exact chemical components of the flavorings a guarded secret, so it’s impossible to know what is really in your Spark.
"But...Spark makes me feel good and it really does give me more energy”
Well, sure it does. One serving of Advocare Spark contains 120mg of caffeine. The average cup of coffee contains 95mg. In general, caffeine does give people more energy, and in our stressed-to-the-gills, fatigue-burdened society, it may temporarily make them feel better (although if you give someone who doesn’t drink caffeine a cup of coffee, they may disagree with how good caffeine makes them feel). I don’t believe that there is anything inherently wrong with caffeine or natural sources of caffeine, like coffee or tea, but as with many types of foods, they can be abused. If you are suffering from a lack of energy, fatigue, and mental fogginess that Advocare Spark promises to help, the answer is not caffeine (or a low-quality vitamin and mineral supplement with artificial flavorings and caffeine added). You need to address the root of the problem, which likely stems from a combination of poor diet, uncontrolled stress, a lack of proper movement of the body, insufficient sleep and rest, and exposure to environmental toxins. Without a comprehensive nutrition and lifestyle approach that addresses all of these factors, you will not realize your potential of optimal health.
What are your thoughts about Advocare Spark® Energy and similar products? I'd love to hear from you!