Gummi Bears and the War on Sugar

Moments after winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in Belgium, World Champion Peter Sagan double-fisted Haribo Gold Bears before making his way to the podium. Innumerable gifs and video clips immediately started circulating, as his post-race nutrition choice was a virtual kick in the teeth to every “marginal gains”-loving food pseudoscientist convinced simple sugar is the root of all evil. Here is a guide to what you might say the next time someone feels obliged to warn you about what all the added sugar in your sports drink, gel, or peanut butter and jelly is going to do to you.

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created by Hannah Weinberger (@Weinbergrrrrr)

Performance and health are not synonymous

There’s a difference between an athlete consuming exogenous carbohydrate and a sedentary person choosing a sugary soda or juice drink over water or tea. Carbohydrate is a high-octane fuel that improves athletic performance, particularly in mixed-intensity activities and high-intensity training efforts. During exercise your body is primed to put sugar to immediate use, and after exercise your muscle cells have more “doors” open so sugar carried in your bloodstream can replenish muscle glycogen utilized during your workout.

Consuming a lot of sugar when your body has no immediate use for it is what’s problematic for human health. And from the health perspective, overconsumption of sugar is a bigger problem than overconsumption of fat, protein, or total calories (energy). Overconsumption in any form is likely to increase a person’s weight and percentage of body fat. Excess sugar tends to accelerate weight and fat gains because it is easier to consume in massive amounts. Protein and fat are more filling and satisfying, which means that while people can still consume too much, they’ll generally stop when they’re full. Simple sugar doesn’t provide the same satiety cues, and there’s evidence sugar activates the brain’s pleasure centers. You’re wired to enjoy sugar; but when that evolutionary wiring was created sugar wasn’t available in the quantities it is now.

Throughout sport and nutrition it is important to consider performance and health independently. Sugar has a proven benefit for athletic performance, and in some circumstances a proven detriment to human health. But on an individual level, consuming sugar doesn’t mean you will experience both the positive and negative effects. In other words, consuming a sports drink to improve performance during a long training session doesn’t necessarily increase your chances of developing Type II diabetes.

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But… Insulin!

Don’t get stumped by someone who challenges your consumption of sugar by correlating high sugar intake to a spike in insulin production or as a potential cause of insulin resistance. During exercise glucose transport into cells works differently than it does at rest.

When you polish off a whole package of Sweet Tarts at your desk, the spike in blood sugar (hyperglycemia) leads to increased insulin production in order to move that sugar out of the blood and into cells. But during exercise, muscle cells can remove glucose from the blood without an increase in insulin production. It is thought that chronic production of high amounts of insulin is partly to blame for insulin resistance in sedentary people who consume a lot of sugar. Exercise training has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, and even a single bout of exercise can mitigate acute hyperglycemia in people who have impaired insulin response. Here’s a good resource if you really want to dig into the science of exercise and insulin.

Simple is speedy

It doesn’t matter how much gasoline you have in your car. If you can’t deliver it to the engine as fast as the engine can burn it, you can’t drive at full power. Your body can burn fat, protein, and carbohydrate, but during exercise consuming simple sugar is the fastest way to obtain usable energy from food. Carbohydrate-rich sports nutrition products are designed to exit the stomach quickly. This is important because gastric emptying rates can dramatically influence the delay between ingestion and absorption. Foods higher in fat and protein stay in the stomach longer and are slower to be absorbed once they reach the small intestine. Some carbohydrate can also be absorbed directly in the mouth, before even reaching the stomach. On top of that, consuming multiple forms of sugar (glucose and fructose together, for instance) accelerates absorption (from 1 gram/minute to potentially 1.4-1.6 grams/minute) because different sugars use different gateways to move from the intestine to the bloodstream. More gates equals less waiting.

Sugar’s rapid rate of absorption doesn’t mean fat and protein have no role to play in sports nutrition. Both can provide usable energy, and in low- to moderate-intensity scenarios it can be beneficial to slow gastric emptying and energy absorption so you can use the energy you’re eating over a longer period of time. Generally speaking, the longer an event or training session, the more an athlete will benefit from incorporating fat and protein. In a criterium or 10k running race there’s no need for anything beyond simple sugar (if you need anything at all) because of the high intensity and short duration. At the other end of the spectrum, ultraendurance racers typically perform best by utilizing all macronutrients and a wide variety of flavors and textures.

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So, what about Gummy Bears?

If cycling’s World Champion stuffs his face with gummy bears should you do it, too? A single 17-piece serving of Haribo Gold Bears contains 140 calories, 132 of which are from carbohydrate. I have no idea what “two handfuls” equates to, but let’s say it was three servings, or about 51 pieces. That’s 398 calories from carbohydrate, or 99 grams worth. Sagan’s weight is listed as 73 kilograms (161 pounds), which means he consumed around 1.36 grams/kilogram of carbohydrate. Obviously there’s the potential for significant error in that calculation, as I have no idea if 73kg is an accurate weight for him currently, nor do we have an accurate count of the gummy bears. But as a ballpark carbohydrate intake, 1.36 g/kg is perfectly appropriate after racing 200 kilometers (approx. 125 miles) in 4:37:49.

Are there better sources of carbohydrate he could have chosen? Sure. The best post-exercise choices incorporate carbohydrate, electrolytes, and a little protein to accelerate glycogen replenishment. I doubt Peter Sagan relies entirely on gummy bears for recovery, but they certainly get the job done when you need some blood sugar to get through a podium presentation and interviews (after all, your brain needs glucose, too) before you can really focus on recovery.

Similarly, there are advantages to consuming sports drinks with carefully formulated osmolality values. And chews containing electrolytes and multiple sugar sources are a better choice than gummy bears and jellybeans during exercise, too. But real food – including candy and sugary soda – can play a role, especially if it means you’re more likely to actually consume calories when you need them.

Personally, I loved seeing Sagan wolf down handfuls of gummy bears. It should be a reminder to everyone that it’s easy to overestimate the value of making perfect sports nutrition choices. It’s important for most of your choices to be good ones, but sometimes you just want gummy bears.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 21

  1. The analogy with the car needing gas is similar to what I believe happens when I crave too many sweets – if your car needs the gas, you are wise to fill it up, but if you overfill it, it has no value and in fact ‘cost’s.

  2. I question your statement that “But during exercise, muscle cells can remove glucose from the blood without an increase in insulin production.” Does the science not show that insulin levels do indeed rise during exercise, and just after are at Hi levels enabling a more
    Rapid replenishment of muscle glycogen with CHO ingestion?

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      Author

      Insulin is still produced and utilized during exercise, but production doesn’t increase with the ingestion of simple sugars the same way it does when you consume the same amount of sugar at rest. So it’s not that insulin production ceases or is reduced, it’s that when you increase simple sugar intake during exercise it doesn’t lead to a spike in insulin production the way it does at rest. You are correct that insulin levels increase after exercise to facilitate movement of glucose from the blood into cells, but remember that during this period there is an actual purpose and need for replenishment. Post-exercise, insulin is doing exactly what it is designed to do. But in the sedentary population, muscle glycogen stores are rarely, if ever, depleted, so the insulin response is trying to regulate blood glucose in the face of already-full glycogen stores. It’s like trying to stuff inventory into warehouses that are already full.

  3. Thank you Chris. I commented below and meant no disrespect. I had just done some (highly unscientific) research on carb sources (I.e., maltodextrin) and found your article very informative and useful. The simple sugars in gummy bears appear to be a viable option for glycogen replacement. As a lifetime athlete, is there any concern with long term simple sugar as a carb source? Does a complex carb like maltodextrin have some hidden drawback as well?

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      Author

      If my biochemistry memory serves, maltodextrin is just a polymer chain of glucose molecules, and it gets broken down to glucose in the gut and then absorbed as such. One of the reasons to use maltodextrin is to reduce sweetness. Fructose is very sweet, glucose is less sweet, and maltodextrin is even less sweet than glucose. Flavor profile of sports nutrition products is more important than most people realize. A food or drink that is too sweet or too strongly flavored is less pleasant to consume during exercise. This is why every manufacturer has some form of citrus or tart flavor (lemon-lime, orange, etc.). When drinks are too sweet, for instance, athletes consume less fluid when they take a drink than if the drink is less sweet and more tart. Sodium helps to increase the drive to drink as well. And the reason many sport-specific hydration drinks have a light flavor – almost a diluted flavor – when consumed at rest is because a full-strength flavor becomes overwhelming when consumed rapidly and in larger volumes during exercise. If a drink tastes watery or diluted at rest, it will typically taste about right during exercise. You can experiment with this yourself. On one relatively challenging ride, try drinking full-strength ready-to-drink Gatorade. On the next ride drink something like Bonk Breaker Real Hydration. The Gatorade is much sweeter and has a stronger flavor. During exercise, the Real Hydration is likely to taste better and clear your mouth faster without leaving a syrupy feeling. – Jim Rutberg, co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

  4. Chris: thank you for the article is there is so much information to digest (ha) about sugars – providing and explaining examples of various types and how the body ingests them differently.
    I don’t read your article as proponing use of gummy bears ( or any specific products) Over other products (I E those that contain maltodextrin – which has its own issues) or that use of gummy bears (v genes) is the secret to Sagan’s success — rather an opportunity to explain some of the general differences and benefits and detriments of, and when it was beneficial to, use.
    Excellent reminder!

  5. Jimi Hendrix held the guitar improperly (thumb used in fret board) . When you’re a rock star like Sagan you make your own rules and shatter preconceptions. He is the best thing to happen to the sport. Great article. Thank you CTS

  6. I wish his secret were as simple as eating gummy bears. I’d be right there with him on the podium, as I can eat gummy bears with the best of them. Unfortunately for me though, I think he also has great genes, incredible bike handling skills, an unsurpassed competitive streak, and he trains like crazy – all of which tend to separate him from me. And the energy he burns likely affords him a little more latitude in his post-ride diet, so for now, I guess I’ll go easy on the gummies.

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  8. Simple sugars are not the best choice for replenishing glycogen stores. Maltodextrin, a complex carbohydrate, actually has a much higher glycemic index than simple sugar, meaning it will enter the bloodstream (and thus get to working muscles) faster when exercising and when taken with protein after a hard workout, will help expedite the recovery process.

  9. Loved this article….reminded me of the time Skittles literally allowed me to finish the Cape Argus Pick n Pay in South Africa (Cape Town). I had just begun riding a road bike and this 109 km ride was my first big challenge. By the time I reached Chapman’s Peak, I was dying….Skittles kept me going and I finished. No ride has ever seemed as daunting since that one.

  10. A Coke and hot dog at the last stop on DK200 last year sure hit the spot for me after many hours riding on a well dialed in nutrition plan – science works to a point, sometimes you just have to appease the crave.

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      Precisely. We are huge proponents of a well-structured and thought out nutrition plan for race days, especially something like DK200 (which I’ve finished twice as well). What we try to impress on athletes is that having a plan enables you to recognize and fix problems. A plan actually gives you MORE flexibility than not having a plan. At the last aid station of DK200, 150 miles into the race, you were able to discern what you wanted and probably why you wanted it. Some sugar, caffeine, salt, fat to settle your stomach and satiate hunger, and a savory flavor hit the spot. Having a plan gives an athlete the tools to deviate from it and address specific needs and cravings. Congrats on your finish at DK, that’s a tough one. – Jim Rutberg, co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

  11. Nothing beats a bonk better than one of those HUGE 3 Musketeers bars you find only in gas station candy aisles!

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      The King Size Snickers is my personal go-to rescue food from the convenience store! However, I must say that I haven’t had to go to Snickers since I started carrying a Mint Chocolate Chip Bonk Breaker bar in my jersey pocket. They revamped the bars recently to be softer and smaller (200 cal), and therefore easier to eat. They have saved my butt more than a few times this winter! – Jim Rutberg, co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

  12. I think he swallowed some of that beer on the podium too.
    It’s funny how much of a stir a guy who just raced 200km in shitty weather can generate by eating a bit of candy at the finish.

    1. No joke! The guy is the defending world champion and people are questioning what he eats? I’m going out to get some gummy bears myself…

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