A recent encounter with a long distance cyclist has again left me questioning the validity of factory foodstuffs.
The cyclist in question recently stayed with us overnight. Shortly after breakfast, he was off on his travels once more, having donated to our bin a plastic screw-top container about 10% full with a strange white powder. Were I a traveller from some other world, one sniff of this substance would deter me from tasting it, and I would probably surmise that it is used for poisoning vermin or some such.
However, that is not what it says on the container.
Here it is described as GO>>> Electrolyte Sports Fuel. Yeah, right! The rest of the label is covered in blocks of small print and what the writer, Dr Ben Goldacre, might describe as ‘a sciency graph.’ As far as I am concerned, it may as well have ‘quack remedy’ writ large and be done with it. But hey, come on – it’s made by a company called Science in Sport, and that sounds pretty professional, so it must be okay. I think not. This product appears wrong on so many counts that it is hard to know where to start . . . but I’ll give it a go.
Let’s look at the front of the label, the bit you see when it sits on the shelf. The name of the product, GO>>>Electrolyte (I just love the little fast-forward arrows in the logo – what a nice touch!), features prominently. In a supporting role, we have the SIS logo, the phrase ‘sports fuel’ (written in a no-nonsense sans-serif font) and a description of what’s inside: ‘The Carbohydrate Energy Fuel with Electrolytes for dynamic sports performance in the heat.’ Oh, and it is Lemon & Lime flavour, so that’s alright then.
On the side of the container is the ‘sciency graph,’ which sits just below a commanding circular logo featuring a running figure in white silhouette on a red background ringed by the words, ‘SCIENTIFICALLY TESTED : PERFORMANCE PROVEN.’ No arguing with that then. However, as a belt-and-braces job, this is qualified with the semantically challenged statement: ‘GO>>> improves performance than water or 6% glucose-sucrose solution.’ Don’t worry, it doesn’t make sense to me either. By way of illustration, the graph below this grammatically inept sentence shows ‘time to exhaustion’ on the y-axis, with ‘Water, GO>>> and 6% GluSuc’ on the x-axis. This shows you in bright colours that this nose-wrinkling powder will indeed give you more time to reach the pinnacle of exhaustion. Still not convinced? Well, here’s the clincher. Below the graph is the following statement: Optimal Fluid intake while performing intensive exercise at 80% VO2 Max in a warm environment. Reid 1999 (Data on file). A bit of confident scientific-sounding phraseology – that should hook the floating voters!
So what’s in this magic potion? Well, in big(ish) letters, we are told it contains multiple energy substrates, balanced electrolytes (sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium) and, in case you are still undecided, great taste. The list of actual ingredients is in much smaller letters. I could just read it, but I can tell you the will to live slips away quite dramatically after the first line (only nine more after that). However, since we are on the investigative trail here, let’s look a little closer. It appears that it is 93% carbohydrates, composed of Maltodextrin produced by partial hydrolysis of a special variety of Maize, and Fructose (not my capitals). So that’s two different kinds of sugar then, the first of which is helpfully quick-dissolving, but of dubious provenance. Although ‘special’ could mean ‘specially hybridised to produce high levels of polysaccharides,’ it could mean GM.
Moving on, we see it contains 2% electrolytes – sodium chloride [table salt], calcium lactate [E327, good in baking powder], potassium chloride [also used in fertilisers, and to stop the heart during execution by lethal injection], sodium citrate, magnesium lactate [E329, acidity regulator]. A fine collection indeed. Why do we need electrolytes? Well, quite simply, electrolytes are a useful part of our digestive system but, more than that, ‘electrolyte’ has become one of those buzz words when it comes to sport, so it’s a good sales pitch. Somehow I feel sales would drop if all those over-zealous sports people out there were told, “Here’s some salty sugar water to help you exercise longer. “Sports fuel with electrolytes” sounds so much more rock-an’-roll. Right at the bottom of the list of ingredients we find that most controversial additive, the artificial sweetener aspartame, at one time listed by the Pentagon as a biochemical warfare agent. Arguments about its potential toxicity still rage today.
I should leave this now – even I’m getting bored with it. Yet, like a terrier with a rat, I feel another shake or two won’t go amiss. So let me tell you about the EASY MIX SYSTEM, best quoted directly from the label on the container.
“Unique to Science in Sport, the easy mix system makes it simple to create a nutritional strategy that works for you. Just pour powder straight from the pack into the wide neck drinks bottles available from your retailer. The marks on the bottle show you just how much powder to add. No mess, no fuss – better hygiene!”
There is so much more, but I know there is only so much you can take, and you are obviously itching to know what this is all about. So, here it is. What this is all about is that our intrepid cyclist didn’t need this dubious product at all. Having just had breakfast at Aspen House, he had consumed a comprehensive selection of carbohydrates, proteins, sugars (both quick and slow release) minerals and all the electrolytes his body could handle whilst generating all the energy he would need to keep him cycling all morning, with the occasional drink of water to keep his fluid levels up. It was all real food – nothing processed. It is just what his body needs, and it would have dealt with this influx of energy-rich foods in a naturally balanced way that would be appropriate at the time, taking into consideration his own body’s individual requirements under those conditions.
A one-size-fits-all energy drink is not the answer, and ultimately less effective than simply eating the right foods before setting out. That’s all it takes, but our modern world has created the quick fix for everything, and that idea is very appealing. A slurp of scientifically tested, performance proven sports fuel is so much more edgy than just eating some nutritious food. Ordinary food? Oh, that is so twentieth century! We have fallen for the persuasive adspeak patter, the slick modern quack doctors (now wearing white coats and serious spectacles) who beguile us with their deliciously scientific pronouncements. We are hooked on the fantasy of scientific solutions, and now it is so difficult to stand back from it all and make rational decisions about anything. Life in the golden cul-de-sac, eh? There’s nothing quite like it.