NUTRITION: Sweet nothings
by Dominique le Roux
Are you a dieter or an athlete? What if you’re an athlete on diet? Dominique le Roux investigates the sweetest subject: sugar. Is it our friend or foe? Should we be taking the artificial alternatives?
Am I the only one living a schizophrenic life? Avoiding sugar the rest of the day, but then reaching for it while training and racing. Between training, a sweet thing brings guilt. Ride hard for a few hours, however, and I’m slurping energy sachets conscientiously, confident it’s the right thing to do.
Grab a colddrink and you’re not sure whether to go for the real fruit juice, so full of sugar, or whether it’s better to go for the ‘lite’ cola, lower in calories. Turns out this is not just a personal decision – the market is pushing you in that direction, telling you that artificial sweeteners are not only less fattening but better for your teeth. It seems that artificial sweeteners cost the food makers just a fraction of the cost of sugar and corn syrup. According to the Wikipedia ‘experts’, corn syrup was introduced by the industry as a low-cost alternative to sugar, “so it''s not surprising that the food industry is promoting its ‘diet’ or ‘light’ products heavily, thus moving the customers over to its more profitable, artificially sweetened products.”
But of course we’ve all heard the stats on how Americans are drinking ever more diet cola and yet getting fatter and fatter. One study on WebMD, by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, actually showed how those who consumed diet soda were more likely to gain weight than those that consumed naturally sweetened soda.
It is, actually, a no-brainer: artificial sweeteners might be many more times sweeter than sugar, but the reason they do not add calories is…
They don’t add calories. That’s the point. This means they don’t have energy. As an athlete, you want energy, don’t you? What you don’t want is empty carbs and cheap sugars.
So Fast Fuel’s energy bars, for example, contain a whole range of sugar sources, all of them ‘real’: glucose, pears, raisins, apricots, oats, crisped rice, soya protein, maltodextrin, honey, invert sugar. The maltodextrin is actually an interesting one. Turns out it’s the primary ingredient of Fast Fuel’s energy drink, yet it’s not strictly a sugar. But it’s not an empty artificial either. It’s a moderately sweet carb, produced from corn starch, that is easily digestible, being absorbed as rapidly as glucose.
Apart from its energy content, sugar’s other important properties are also hard to emulate: its ‘mouthfeel’ is one (the difference between diet Coke and the Real Thing); and its preservative qualities (put fruit in sugar and it doesn’t rot; it gives you jam).
Back to some more juicy nuggets from Wikipedia: “The majority of sugar substitutes approved for food use are artificially synthesized compounds. However, some natural sugar substitutes are known — including sorbitol and xylitol, which are found in berries, fruit, vegetables and mushrooms. (Although natural, they may be produced synthetically in bulk food production, to lower production costs.) Other natural substitutes are known but are yet to gain official approval for food use.”
And then the gossip – disputed, but of real interest to endurance athletes: One of the many hypotheses about the causes of Gulf war syndrome is that soldiers, after drinking gallons of aspartame-containing soft drinks in the extreme heat, accumulated toxic doses of methanol, formaldehyde, diketopiperazine and formic acid from the breakdown of the sweetener into its component molecules.
Seems the good ol’ fashioned real thing is not so bad after all. It will make you fat if you don’t exercise off those calories, but you might just live longer on it. And, while debates and court cases over the potential side-effects of artificial sweeteners rage, sugar still tastes good and gives you that injection of energy when your voema levels are low. Sweet.
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