Like this site? Help us to make it better.

Sugar mixed with water more effective than some energy drinks, say researchers

A spoonful of sugar helps performance go up, say researchers

A new study involving 14 club cyclists claims that adding a spoonful of sugar to water could give you more of a boost to performance than forking out money for some sports drinks that only contain glucose.

Researchers established that when the subjects – all male and experienced riders – ingested water containing sucrose, rather than water with glucose, they found cycling easier, reports the Guardian.

While each helped the body maintain glucose levels, it was water with sucrose that led to a better level of performance, according to the study, which will be published in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism.

It was conducted by researchers from the University of Bath, Northumbria University, Newcastle University and Maastricht University.

Six riders hospitalised after mistaking detergent for energy drink

Sucrose is comprised of one glucose and one fructose molecule, and while many sports drinks contain both, some only have the former.

The study, funded by Sugar Nutrition UK and Suikerstichting Nederland, saw participants randomly given water with either glucose or sucrose stirred into it ahead of a three-hour cycling session.

Each participated in the trial twice, with the type of drink switched for the second ride, and MRI scans used to assess the impact on their performance.

Beforehand, they had fasted for 12 hours and avoided exercise for 24 hours, and had their last meal standardised by researchers to enable individuals' results to be compared.

It was also discovered that sucrose led to subjects experiencing less gut discomfort than glucose.

See our reviews of energy & recovery drinks

Lead researcher Dr Javier Gonzalez commented: “The carbohydrate stores in our liver are vitally important when it comes to endurance exercise as they help us to maintain a stable blood sugar level.

“However, whilst we have a relatively good understanding of the changes in our muscle carbohydrate stores with exercise and nutrition, we know very little about optimising liver carbohydrate stores during and after exercise.

“We found that the exercise felt easier, and the gut comfort of the cyclists was better, when they ingested sucrose compared to glucose.

“This suggests that, when your goal is to maximise carbohydrate availability, sucrose is probably a better source of carbohydrate to ingest than glucose,” he added.

“While the findings are interesting,” notes an analysis of the findings on the NHS Choices website, “this is a small study involving just 14 male endurance cyclists.

“The results can't inform us of the effects in women, less experienced exercisers, or people performing different types of exercise.

“Even for male cyclists, a much larger sample may give different results.

It adds: “This study does inform us about how the body may use sucrose and glucose differently during exercise, but limited firm conclusions can be drawn about the best form of nutrition before, during or after exercise based on its results alone.”

Taste of sugar enough for brain to boost body's performance

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

Add new comment


PhilRuss | 8 years ago

Crikey....sugar gives you energy? Who woulda thunk it?!

Simon E | 8 years ago

I don't know if it's "bad science" but at least you could try this product yourself very cheaply, instead of forking out an arm & a leg for some overpackaged product with glossy packaging and claims of dubious legitimacy.

flobble | 8 years ago

Did the author of this article actually read the paper/abstract before reporting on it? The abstract certainly makes no claims of performance benefits and its conditions were far removed from normal cycling conditions.

The study was performed in a fasted state, 12 hours after the last meal and involved a 3-hr "ride". So that's like going for a Sunday morning ride without having any breakfast. The study was likely intended to emphasise the differences between sucrose and glucose, but it's not representative of the real world, and most definitely not in conditions where "performance" would matter.

Reporting that "doing X *could* give you more of a boost to performance" is akin to saying "there *could* be a chocolate teapot orbiting the planet".

Finally, if you're going to do science please could you link to the original source, not second-hand media reports.

ragtag | 8 years ago

Agree with other comments. Title should be, Sugar industry funded research provides unsurprising conclusion. Imagine if this was done in the US, it would say high fructose corn syrup is better.

brooksby | 8 years ago
1 like

Well, it does help the medicine go down, or so I hear...

mithrasm | 8 years ago

I agree sm.

It is truly depressing that stuff like this gets presented as research which may influence what people do. Sucrose may well be as effective, or more so, than some energy drinks - but this study doesn't answer that question.

sm | 8 years ago

Bad science does not make for a valid conclusion. Funded by Sugar Nutrition UK and with a sample size that has the statistical significance of my middle finger.

Viney_c replied to sm | 8 years ago

sm wrote:

Bad science does not make for a valid conclusion. Funded by Sugar Nutrition UK and with a sample size that has the statistical significance of my middle finger.


Whilst I agree with you the the funding source does not aid with validity, I think you would be lucky to find a carbohydrate study which uses the expensive gold standard assessment methods not funded by a company interested in results for their products. And sample sizes like this are quite normal in performance studies, unlike clinical studies. Neither of these factors make it 'bad science', its actually a very good paper with respect to its methods.

 On the article front it did make me laugh when the title is about a spoonful of sugar when actually its 102g of sugar an hour on average. And an MRI was not used it  was MRS. Finally it cant have 'lead to improved performance' if not perfromance measure was analysed.


pruaga replied to Viney_c | 8 years ago

Viney_c wrote:

And an MRI was not used it  was MRS.


MRS and MRI and essentially the same thing.  They are both specialised forms of NMR, which is Nuclear Magnetic Resonance.  Most people in medical applications use alternative acronyms to avoid fear of the word 'nuclear' even though in these cases it refers to the nucleus of the atoms being looked at.


Looking at the rest of the paper, 102 grams of sugar per hour seems like a very large amount.  I doubt this would be healthy.  Also, the error bars on their measurements are huge so their conclusions are very dubious, for eg they determine 101±49 to 60±34 is a decline even though the values are all within error.


This summarises it quite nicely

Latest Comments