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High performance chocolate milk: why most sports supplements are more spin than substance

Endurance athletes, from weekend warriors to the elite, seek nutritional post-exercise products to enhance training and speed recovery. But for athletes, the challenge of negotiating the massive range…

They may be well-marketed, but how effective are ‘sports’ drinks like Gatorade in aiding performance and helping recovery? mgstanton

Endurance athletes, from weekend warriors to the elite, seek nutritional post-exercise products to enhance training and speed recovery. But for athletes, the challenge of negotiating the massive range of post-exercise supplements is increasingly overwhelming, and for some it is downright confusing.

There are a lot of products on the market. Need to replace electrolytes? A quick review revealed over 20 companies selling liquid/powder electrolyte drinks, another ten companies pushing electrolyte tablets you can add to water, and I certainly cannot leave out the heavily debated salt tablet.

Need to refuel with protein too? There are approximately 20 options aimed at endurance athletes and another 25 high protein replacement drinks geared toward gaining muscle and/or weight loss.

Not sure which is best? Then Michael Phelps or many of the other celebrity endorsers pushing nutritional supplements can explain how the “latest and greatest” supplement should be a part of your post-exercise regimen. Need better (or more convincing) proof? There is the (quasi) scientific evidence boasted on adverts to support the use of such products, or, the advice of the fitness “expert” who bases his or her advice on such quasi-scientific evidence.

Of course there’s the real science, which is readily available to the consumer, but doesn’t seem to make the same impact. Perhaps the science is too advanced for the layperson and it adds to the consumer’s confusion. While elite athletes have coaches or sport nutritionists to advise them of the latest science and proper post-exercise regimen, how does the recreational endurance athlete survive the often divergent messaging?

Unfortunately, in their efforts to surpass the competition, product marketers have created so much clutter and mixed messaging that endurance athletes struggle to understand what product is best (or even necessary). For example, marketers have convinced athletes that leading and expensive post-exercise recovery drinks are superior to and enhance performance better than a more cost-effective chocolate milk option found at your local grocer. Rather, the truth is chocolate milk is an effective supplement for endurance athletes.

Recent exercise science research has shown that endurance athletes receive optimal recovery from nutrition with a balance of the macronutrients protein, carbohydrate, and fat.

In addition to replenishing glycogen stores, endurance athletes must also consider electrolyte replacement. Until recently, Gatorade ­- arguably the leader in this realm - for example, have only provided the athlete with a sugary electrolyte replacement with no protein option. Gatorade’s “G Series” now includes protein recovery products.

Is a humble glass of chocolate milk just as effective at post exercise recovery as expensive sports supplements and drinks? Wikimedia

Unbeknown to most athletes, the low-fat chocolate milk option not only provides a rich source of protein, but also the valued electrolytes necessary for rehydration. But it’s not just about what athletes should be using, but also the timing for when it is consumed. The timing of consumption in order to support performance is heavily researched and debated. While this has had incredible impact in the sport science world, it can certainly add to confusion among consumers that don’t understand the science (or the debate) within the sport science community.

This shows just how much marketers know about selling us supplements. However, what does the athlete think, or know? Looking at what sources of information athletes seek and how they perceive sport supplement marketing is fascinating, and there is still a need for more research in this area.

Interestingly, runners and triathletes seek information from training books and articles, sport-specific websites, magazine advertisements, event trade shows, and friends and family. They tend to be indifferent to celebrity endorsements when considering post-exercise supplementation. Despite the fact that they clearly seek the scientific evidence, they do not fully understand the science based on how they choose post-exercise products.

Notably, the media choices listed above (and the mixed messages often communicated through these mediums) do influence product choice as do factors such as sport type and a higher volume of training hours. Triathletes seem to better understand that longer training hours require a protein-carbohydrate supplement. Runners, however, tend to just reach for the electrolyte drink, despite the evidence that they too require a carb-protein source to replenish glycogen.

So what can we learn from understanding athletes’ product choices? Research tells us that media plays a big role in influencing product choices. Therefore, scientists need to better disseminate the evidence using various media as a vehicle to better arm athletes with the tools to sort fact from marketing fiction.

The confusion over the flood of supplements on the market is also part of the problem athletes face in knowing what they can take, when they should take it and why. For elite athletes, this information overload underlines the crucial role of sports scientists and coaching staff in providing accurate information.

These athletes depend on their experts to not only supply them with the information that will enhance their performance, but also prevent them from ingesting a product that contains ingredients on a banned performance enhancing drug list.

For the rest of us at more amateur levels, it’s anyone’s guess as to how we are supposed to know what supplements we should be taking.

Chocolate milk anyone?

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24 Comments sorted by

  1. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Thank you for a great article.

    I see two main influences at play here; first, as you say:
    "Of course there’s the real science, which is readily available to the consumer, but doesn’t seem to make the same impact. " (in much the same way as other nutrition, weight loss and health topics - we prefer the catchy, simple answers.

    Then, there's the widespread misapplication of the science around high performance athletes to the average punter who jogs or plays weekend sport.

    Elite sport is much…

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    1. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Sue,
      Do you give any credence to this website and its extreme opinion of milk?
      www.notmilk.com/
      The NOTMILK Homepage! (Milk is a bad-news substance!)
      Milk is a deadly poison. Each sip contains growth hormones, fat, cholesterol, allergenic proteins, blood, pus, antibiotic, bacteria and virus.

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    2. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      HI, Colin,

      That's an American site - in a country where many adults probably consume too much full-cream milk.
      Having said that, the rest mostly appears to be rubbish. Yes, milk contains fat - which is fine for growing children. Low-fat milk is a good source of calcium for adults. Cow's milk proteins are only "allergenic" to those who have a hypersensitivity to them. Bacteria in significantly amounts are unlikely in pasteurised milk. IF it were really a deadly poison, most of us would not be here posting!

      I can't immediately see who is behind the site - certainly a zealot of some sort.

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    3. Marian Macdonald

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Agreed, Sue.

      The other problem with the site for Aussies is that growth hormones are not allowed to be given to our cows here and antibiotics are only given to treat illness, rather than as a feed additive.

      Even then, the milk we drink is tested within an inch of its life to pass what many regard as the world's most stringent dairy food safety laws. Every time milk leaves the farm, it is sampled for antibiotics and cell counts. Pasteurisation knocks out any scary bacteria and viruses.

      As for the fat - you'll find that most "health" or gourmet bread has more fat than full-cream milk and there's some evidence that dairy fats are actually protective (see http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/12/dairy-diabetes/ and http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/humanbody/truthaboutfood/slim/calcium.shtml ).

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    4. Jamie Peck

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      The domain is owned by Robert Cohen, author of the diatribe "Milk: The Deadly Poison".

      Zealot is certainly an understatement.

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    5. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Sue Ieraci Wrote: "... no need, however, for the average person to carry around a bottle of water" Seriously?
      This is more an indication you have not really exercised, ignorance or both.
      It is high time such an 'authority' such as yourself actually write an article on a subject related to human health. You talk the talk, it's time to walk the walk.

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    6. Nick McKenzie

      Account Manager

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Sue Ieraci Wrote: "... no need, however, for the average person to carry around a bottle of water"

      I couldn't agree more with this statement, the confusion the average punter has between a serious strenous endurance workout, and what they do when they exercise, is hillarious......
      example - when i see people going for a slow jog or walk of less than an hour and are carrying a water bottle or eloctrolyte drink in hand!! unless it is weight training they are interested in, they are wasting their time in doing this, surely......

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    7. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Nick McKenzie

      Nick McKenzie wrote;"...... walk of less than an hour and are carrying a water bottle" True good comment, based on your age fitness and health. But we can't judge other by our standards can we? That would be very subjective.

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  2. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    I recently saw an interview with the sports physiologist for the Garmin cycling team. His mainstay of sports nutrition for elite cyclists is the humble potato. It's cheap, contains starch, salts and vitamins, and it's actually real food.

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  3. aligatorhardt

    logged in via Twitter

    There are no conclusions or ratings on products so I have no better understanding for picking a product than before. There seems to be a push for milk products, chocolate milk also containing sugar or sweeteners, which seem unhealthy by some standards.

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  4. Jason Mazanov

    Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

    As a corollary point to this article, the AIS invests a lot of time and effort identifying the supplements scientifically demonstrated to have a performance enhancing or recovery enhancing effect. The list is remarkably short.

    There is clearly a vibrant "doping industry" that is willing to do what it can to get market share in this extremely competitive industry. It's main marketing weapon is word of mouth. Products rumoured to work go like lightning through sport. Sometimes this is the result of intentional batch contamination with serious pharmaceuticals.

    If doping is so bad, should we be looking at tighter regulation of the sports supplement industry to ensure they live up to their claims?

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    1. Gary Cassidy

      In reply to Jason Mazanov

      Hi Jason,
      RE "Sometimes this is the result of intentional batch contamination with serious pharmaceuticals."
      Is this for real? Would this practice be considered illegal?

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    2. Jason Mazanov

      Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Gary Cassidy

      Gary:

      Thanks for the follow up question.

      Sometimes disreputable supplement manufacturers will contaminate their supplements with, among other things, anabolic androgenic steroids. Once word gets out it "works", people start buying it and the contamination disappears. Once people work out it no longer lives up to the hype, they move to the next thing.

      That being said, there are supplement companies who go to great lengths to ensure what is on the label is in the supplement. What is worth noting is that those supplement companies supply doping substances as well. Amy Bainbridge did a story on it for ABC a little while ago. Worth a look.

      The main issue here is whether we need to regulate the supplement industry more rigorously. It has been a significant debate in Europe, and one that is yet to be had here.

      Best wishes,

      Jason

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  5. Darren Parker

    logged in via Facebook

    Um, not trying to be an a-hole, but the author of this piece's speciality is "event management".

    I can't quite see the connect between that and sports science...

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Darren Parker

      Tip: click on author name, read profile:

      "She has a doctorate in Sport Management, and a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology and Nutritional Sciences."

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  6. Gary Cassidy

    "For the rest of us at more amateur levels, it’s anyone’s guess as to how we are supposed to know what supplements we should be taking."

    For most people, most of the time - real food.

    I have a two hour rule. If I'm going at a reasonable intensity for more than two hours I'll use a carb electrolyte drink type drink to help sustain myself (and usually as a supplement to other real food). Walking, gardening, etc. for two hours doesn't meet my "reasonable intensity" rule.
    Post exercise it's back to real food.

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  7. Tyson Adams

    Scientist and author

    For anyone interested in some more info on protein and postworkout drinks, read Kevin Tipton's work on the topic. He also did some work on chocolate milk but on a lot of whey and amino supplements. From this work you get a clear idea of just what is marketing spin and what is real.

    Suffice to say, most sports drinks are expensive and over-hyped, but that isn't to say that the protein supplements don't work.

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      " that isn't to say that the protein supplements don't work."

      "Work" to achieve what?

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    2. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Muscle growth, switch from catabolism to anabolism to start recovery, encouraging glycogen shuttling: bunch of things really. The thing about a lot of the supplements is their marketing claims and their points of differentiation, which are mostly BS.

      Here is a collection of the abstracts by Kevin Tipton on protein:
      http://musclemecca.com/bodybuilding-discussion-news-226/tipton-protein-nutrition-abstracts-203942/#post2939760

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  8. Ross Chester-Master

    logged in via Facebook

    YES, full cream chocolate milk powered more than one generation of Australian surfers. We are still alive and surfing ( Swannie included).

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  9. Nick McKenzie

    Account Manager

    Fantastic article, a shame that most of the masses will not read it, I've been thinking for years how great a con job the marketers have done in convincing people the importance of their products.......

    Watching TV, one would think that pre-hydrating, re-hydrating, carbo loading etc etc etc.......are equally important to the act of the training session itself and that only these specialised products can achieve this amazing feat of replenishment!!

    Unfortunately no-one makes any money out of convincing us to have a glass of water before and after exericse and maybe a banana or chocolate bar if we are going for a long time!

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