Don’t want to fast to try the ultra-trendy, high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet? A San Francisco startup thinks you should take a shot of its elixir instead — even though the science behind it is dubious, experts say.
The supplement company HVMN (that’s Silicon Valley-shorthand for “human”) unveiled its newest product on Monday: HVMN Ketone, a 2.3-ounce vial of a substance called ketone ester. It’s supposed to almost immediately put you in ketosis, a metabolic state where the body is forced to burn fats instead of carbohydrates. By loading the body with “an ultra-efficient form of fuel,” as the company says, it’s supposed to help you perform better in workouts and think more clearly.
But even though HVMN says the drink is “proven to improve athletic performance and recovery,” nutrition experts say it is highly unlikely that a ketone supplement can single-handedly put you in ketosis. They also say there is little evidence that being in ketosis helps athletes.
The public won’t get its first taste of it until next month. But registered dietitian Ben Sit is skeptical. “I have not yet found one ketone ester supplement that has been able to successfully put someone into the state of ketosis, no matter what dosage they take,” Sit, president of Evolved Sport and Nutrition, told BuzzFeed News.
HVMN, formerly known as Nootrobox, is among a handful of consumer product startups that bill themselves as part of the loosely defined biohacking movement. Backed by tech venture capitalists, these companies, which include Bulletproof Coffee and Soylent, hawk food and supplements to busy, health-conscious people who have a quantify-everything mindset.
“As opposed to innovating on chips, we’re innovating on cells.”
HVMN, which raised $2 million in 2015 from Andreessen Horowitz (also a BuzzFeed investor), is best-known for its chewable, coffee-replacement Go Cubes and its “brain health” Nootropic supplements.
CEO Geoffrey Woo likens biohackers to software-tinkerers: “As opposed to innovating on chips, we’re innovating on cells.”
Starting Monday, the company is taking preorders online for HVMN Ketone. It isn’t cheap: a three-bottle package is $99, and a dozen bottles cost $369. They’ll ship in December.
The high-fat, moderate-protein, and virtually zero-carb ketogenic diet was originally developed as a treatment for certain children with epilepsy (and research shows that it does seem to work for them). But recently it’s become a health craze that HVMN is now seeking to capitalize on, particularly among athletes.
“We’re looking for people serious about training, serious about hitting their goals, serious about getting the most out of their workouts as our first immediate audience,” Woo told BuzzFeed News.
The goal of the diet is to deprive your body of carbs — its normal source of fuel — to the point that your liver starts converting fat into fatty acids and molecules called ketone bodies, and then your body begins to run on ketones instead. Proponents advocate eating extremely low amounts of carbs, as little as 30 grams a day — the equivalent of a single banana. That’s why some dieters intermittently fast.
HVMN is offering a shortcut: a drink that supposedly lets athletes benefit from the perks of ketosis, while still getting to eat carbs. It recommends people take HVMN Ketone with carbs an hour before working out, and a half-hour after working out with carbs and protein. The drink can also be taken “anytime for a sugar- and stimulant-free boost,” although people shouldn’t down more than three bottles within 24 hours. The effects purportedly last more than five hours.
At more than $30 a bottle, taking HVMN Ketone as a regular workout supplement or energy booster would quickly add up.
“When I drink HVMN Ketone, I feel like I’m more ‘behind my eyeballs,’” Woo said. “I’m sharper, clearer. It’s very similar to having fasted for multiple days, and some of the subjective focus I get from fasting, I get in a bottle.”
Flavor-wise, HVMN Ketone can best be described as a blend of nail-polish remover and alcohol — and that description comes straight from the CEO. When I gulped it down during a demo, my heart raced a little faster. I suddenly felt jolted awake, though that may have been because the taste was so unsavory. “It’s funky,” Woo admitted, watching me gag and frantically swallow water.
Various ketone supplements are already for sale online. But the proprietary formula of what I was drinking had been licensed from a team of scientists led by Kieran Clarke at the University of Oxford, who’s also an advisor to the company.
Woo and HVMN researcher Brianna Stubbs used devices to measure tiny drops of my blood. About 45 minutes after I’d downed the concoction, my ketone levels had shot up, while my blood sugar, or glucose, levels were down. Woo later explained that happened because my body wasn’t using glucose for fuel like it usually did, and was instead using the suddenly available ketones.
HVMN Ketone can best be described as a blend of nail-polish remover and alcohol.
In Woo’s view, I had entered ketosis because my ketone levels exceeded 0.5 millimolar, a unit of concentration (3.2, to be exact). But Sit, the dietitian, questioned that definition.
“If someone is in ‘a state of ketosis’ just because we put more ketones in their body, I would argue we’re just messing around with the results at that point,” he said.
In any case, my hyper-alertness didn’t last long. I went back to normal about an hour after my meeting with HVMN. And as my editors can attest, my productivity for the rest of the day was unremarkable. Woo and Stubbs had also told me that my appetite should decrease, but after work I was hungry enough that I ate unhealthy bar food with my usual abandon. (This is, of course, one extremely non-athletic person’s one-time, non-scientific experience.)
According to Sit, people want to enter ketosis because they think it’ll burn all their fat stores at once. He said that’s not usually the case, however, because it’s an inefficient way for the body to use energy.
“The body wants to fight against ketosis,” he said. “Ketosis is a stage of starvation, basically.”
In response, Woo pointed out that the ketogenic diet can be beneficial in therapeutic cases. For example, he cited a study that suggested that long-term dieting helps obese patients lose weight and improve their health.
HVMN gave BuzzFeed News a list of studies that it said supported its product. The three most relevant papers looked at the effects of a ketone-ester drink on small groups of athletes. All three were led by Clarke, the University of Oxford professor who helped develop the intellectual property behind HVMN Ketone.
In a press release, Clarke summarized one of those papers’ findings: “A single ketone drink allowed highly trained cyclists to add up to 400 meters of distance in a 30-minute time trial.” According to the 2016 study, the cyclists who’d had the beverage biked up to 20,600 meters, versus up to 20,200 meters for those who didn’t have it. That’s roughly a 2% difference.
Woo believes that difference is “massive” in situations where “winning and losing, life or death, is a matter of inches.” In the 2016 Olympic cycling road race, he wrote in an email, 400 meters “would account for the difference between 1st and 8th place.”
But most people — even most athletes — don’t find themselves in such extreme situations. “I wouldn’t call this significant where I’d recommend this to anyone as a coach or a physiologist,” said Albert Matheny, a registered dietitian and cofounder of SoHo Strength Lab.
HVMN also claims that its beverage helps athletes recover more quickly after they exercise, citing two other papers by Clarke. Small groups of athletes — seven in one case, 12 in another — were given a ketone ester drink post-workout, and the studies looked at whether it helped rebuild muscle glycogen, the carb-based fuel that muscles use for energy production.
“If you are trying to do a ketogenic diet with athletic performance in mind, you’re going to see a decrease in your performance.”
The results were seemingly contradictory: One found that the drink promoted glycogen rebuilding; the other found it did not. But the studies also had very different methods, which makes it hard to compare them directly or draw overall conclusions from them. The one that found that the drink promoted glycogen, for example, gave some athletes a big intravenous infusion of glucose in addition.
Athletes will have to weigh whether HVMN Ketone’s purported benefits justify the steep price tag.
They may also want to consider whether, in general, ketosis via a ketogenic diet is truly worth aspiring to. Experts said the vast majority of people are better off sticking to a normal diet, and that endurance athletes need carbs in their system for fuel.
The body can’t convert fat to energy fast enough to keep up during most kinds of exercises that involve high-intensity sprinting and a high heart rate, Matheny said. One possible exception are ultra-runners, who are traveling very long distances.
“If you are trying to do a ketogenic diet with athletic performance in mind, you’re going to see a decrease in your performance,” he said.
This isn’t the first time a low-carb diet has been in fashion: The ketogenic diet isn’t so different from the Atkins diet that became popular in the early 2000s. But it’s probably healthier to cut down on carbs without entirely cutting, or nearly cutting, them out.
“It’s good to point out that America does have a problem with overconsumption of carbs,” Matheny said. “But not everything needs to be taken to the extreme.”