The first time I went into print about energy drinks being no better than sugar in water, the wrath of the energy-drink manufacturers hit me like a tsunami. No amount of persuasion on their part, however, changed my view.
Since then, I’ve been horrified by the growth in popularity of energy drinks. I can’t understand it, other than thinking people believe the con. It infuriates me that manufacturers, backed by so little science, play on people’s insecurity.
But now researchers from Bath University have come up with evidence that supports my original contention. In fact, they go further. They say adding a spoonful of sugar to plain water could be MORE effective in enhancing sport performance than energy drinks.
They even reckon stirring sugar into a water bottle before a big physical challenge could be the difference between success and failure.
An increasing number of sports drinks designed to provide energy during exercise use sucrose or mixes of glucose and fructose – but many still rely on glucose alone.
However, researchers found that combining different kinds of sugars improves the speed people can absorb them from the gut. The team tested various drinks to see how different sugars (carbohydrates) could help avert tiredness due to the decline of liver energy stores.
Their experiment, conducted on long-distance cyclists, showed that consuming sugars in the form of either glucose or sucrose can achieve this, but sucrose is better.
A word about sugars. Both sucrose (table sugar) and glucose are called simple sugars. But they’re not the same. The major difference is that each sucrose molecule is made up of one glucose and one fructose molecule linked together.
Scientists warn that glucose-only drinks could lead to gut pain and suggest sucrose-based alternatives – or simply sugar in water – can help make exercise easier and more comfortable.
Dr Javier Gonzalez, the lead researcher, said: “Our study showed that ingesting carbohydrates (sugar) during exercise can prevent the depletion of carbohydrate stores in the liver, but not in muscle.
“This may be one of the ways in which carbohydrate ingestion improves endurance performance. This suggests that when your goal is to maximise carbohydrate availability, sucrose is probably a better source than glucose.”
The scientists recommend up to 90g of sugar per hour – diluted in about a litre of water – for top performance during exercise lasting over two and a half hours.