One of the things we have been asked about a few times since we launched our new all-natural range of electrolyte drinks is why there is a bit of sugar in the all-natural drink mixes.

Sugar is a bit of a ‘bogeyman’ in mainstream nutrition at the moment, so we thought we’d write a post fully explaining the rationale for this very specific performance-enhancing addition to the recipe.

There are 3 reasons why we added sugar to the new mixes.

  1. To enable faster absorption of the drink into the blood stream
  2. To allow us to go ‘all-natural’ (using just 8 ingredients)
  3. To provide just a little shot of energy to help your performance when you’re out there doing what you love and sweating

Let’s go into each reason in more detail…

Faster absorption into the bloodstream

The number one reason we have included some sugar in the new formulation is to increase the absorption rate of the drink from the gut into the blood stream. This helps hydrate you faster and more effectively.

An increase in the speed of fluid transport into the body is useful for athletes. It’s important because sweat rates can easily outstrip fluid absorption rates when you’re exercising hard or in the heat. For example, being a very sweaty individual I can lose at least 2 litres (64oz) of fluid an hour in hot conditions, but rarely do I manage to drink and absorb more than about 750ml - 1 litre (24-32oz) per hour (and often much less than that if I’m working hard), so maintaining fluid balance is usually a losing battle for me (as it is for nearly all of us) during activities.

However, being able to absorb even a little bit more fluid over time means the battle with dehydration is lost more slowly (especially important in longer sessions or events), preserving hydration levels and enabling you to maintain your performance for longer.

Just as importantly, faster absorption helps to facilitate more rapid rehydration and recovery after exercise, when fluid and electrolyte balance needs to be corrected quickly to allow you to get up and go at it all over again.

Finally, there’s the fact that anything that helps drinks move through the digestive system faster reduces the chances of the bloating and stomach upset that can occur when your body is being challenged to absorb calories and fluids during the stress of exercise.

So, faster absorption is something of a ‘triple win’, that’s why we’ve worked so hard to speed the absorption rate of our products.

How sugar helps the absorption rate

Under normal conditions, when you drink something the water in the fluid enters the body through the wall of the intestines by osmosis; moving from an area of lower solute concentration in the gut to an area of higher concentration in the blood. There it replaces the fluid lost from the blood plasma in sweat (amongst other things). 

Osmosis is a passive process and can be thought of like a single lane road delivering the necessary amount of water into the body under normal conditions.

However, doing high-intensity sport and sweating heavily does not really constitute ‘normal conditions’. Therefore to increase the delivery rate of fluid into the body, a dual carriageway (dual lane highway) is definitely preferable to a single lane.

This is where the sugar (along with plenty of sodium) in a well-formulated hydration drink come in. Together, they get the fast lane (a mechanism that’s actually called sodium-glucose co-transport) open for traffic by actively pulling those two solutes through a totally different channel in the gut, dragging more water through with them at the same time.

This process dramatically increases the amount of water that can be taken across the gut wall per unit of time. It basically turbo charges your ability to hydrate when it matters most.

This incredibly useful mechanism was first discovered in the 1960s by American biochemist Robert Crane and it directly paved the way for the formulation of oral rehydration solution (ORS) - a simple and effective mixture of sugar and salts with water used to re-hydrate severely dehydrated patients suffering from diseases like cholera. The introduction and runaway success of ORS in preventing deaths from dehydration in the developing world led ‘The Lancet’ to proclaim in 1978 that: 

‘The discovery that sodium transport and glucose transport are coupled in the small intestine, so that glucose accelerates absorption of solute and water, was potentially the most important medical advance this century.’

No small thing then!

And what’s even more amazing is that the idea of sodium glucose co-transport has largely been overlooked by the sports drink industry. Instead of being focused just on hydration many products aimed at athletes have been designed primarily to deliver fuel to working muscles as well as some fluids and electrolytes. This makes them a jack of all trades but their main purpose is rarely solely hydration.

The amount of glucose that’s needed to optimise fluid absorption via sodium-glucose co-transport is actually pretty small - certainly a lot less than in most traditional sports drinks. 

And that’s why the Precision Fuel & Hydration Electrolyte Drink Mix formulations contain half the carbohydrates of a regular isotonic drink. For example, Lucozade Sport contains around 32g of carb per 500ml/16oz serving, whereas PH drinks contain just 16g. This lower concentration makes PH drinks hypotonic (i.e. of lower osmolality than body fluids) and really is a crucial point of difference to recognise and understand. On that topic, if you didn't catch our blog about the different types of sports drink and when to use them I strongly recommend you take 5minutes to give it a read.

In fact, because they primarily aim to deliver a large amount of carbohydrates for energy along with their fluids, transitional isotonic drinks can inadvertently end up SLOWING the movement of water into the body when compared with water or something hypotonic. This is especially true if they are consumed in large volumes, or in conjunction with other carbohydrate products like gels and energy bars - causing the horrible nausea, bloating and gastro-intestinal distress familiar to all too many endurance athletes who have tried using them for longer and hotter events.

On the other hand, if there is just a small amount of carbohydrate in a drink (as in the PH formulations), the fluids are absorbed as fast as possible across the gut wall. This enables very effective rehydration and minimises the chances of feeling nauseous and bloated.

So, in a nutshell, the main reason why there is a small amount of sugar in the new drinks is to facilitate faster fluid absorption in the body- something that has a positive knock on effect on hydration status and the general ‘happiness’ of your GI tract when it’s under the stress of exercise.

Improved taste

As well as providing the glucose for sodium glucose co-transport, the sugar in the new formulations contributes some of the sweetness to the taste (along with the natural fruit flavours in there). 

If you’ve tried the drinks already you’ll know that, although the drinks taste great, they aren’t particularly sweet. In fact, they’re only a 3% carbohydrate mix compared with the 10% carbs found in a normal soft drink like Coca Cola, or the 6-7% solution in isotonic drinks. But the addition of that little bit of sugar means now we don’t have to add any of the artificial sweeteners, like Sorbitol or Sucralose, that are found in most of the effervescent tablets on the market.

Whilst sweeteners are widely used in all manner of popular foods and drinks, we’ve been getting feedback from a growing number of you in the last few years that you would like to have a hydration product that avoids them and is 100% natural in composition. Happily the addition of the sugar has allowed us to do just that, which is good news all round. 

Of course to go all natural technically we could have made a drink mix containing only the electrolytes you lose in your sweat. However this would taste pretty much like seawater. We actually tried something like that in the kitchen/lab but it was truly, terribly disgusting. The sugar and fruit extracts we use help to make PH palatable so you actually look forward to using it to quench your thirst when you need it - a rather important quality for a hydration drink I'm sure you will agree!

A small source of energy

Whilst the addition of sugar does mean the new formulation has some calories in it, this doesn’t make it an out and out ‘energy drink’. Far from it in fact.

The new formulations contain less than half the carbs (or calories) of the kind of drinks that are designed to fuel activities rather than just rehydrating you, so they’re not something to rely on to provide all of your energy needs. At least not when you’re working hard for extended periods of time anyway.

To put this in context with some actual figures, the Precision Fuel & Hydration Electrolyte Drink Mixes provide around 16g of carbs per 500ml/16oz serving. (Actually, the 250s have even less sugar). 

Research and practical experience suggests that most people benefit from around 20-30g of carbs to fuel activities of 1-2 hours (although clearly the exact amount varies based on your body size and the intensity of the activity).

Around 60g of carbohydrate per hour is a ball park figure for many to aim at when going hard for 2-3 hours. For longer events (or just for bigger athletes, working really hard) there might be a benefit from as much as 90g of carbs per hour too.

This means that, in cool conditions when you could be drinking as little as 250-500ml per hour, you’ll only be getting 8-16g of carbs from your Precision Fuel & Hydration drinks - the rest would need to be obtained from other fuel sources like energy gels (typically containing around 25g of carb per gel), energy bars (30-45g of carb per bar) or from whatever other solid foods your digestive system gets on with best. (We know of some ultra runners for whom this means eating cold pizza slices - and if something like that works for you then go at it!)

If it’s hotter and you’re drinking a lot more (for example if you’re knocking back 1 litre/32oz per hour) you’ll still only be getting around 32g of carbs per hour from your drinks, so you’ll need quite a bit more fuel for anything over about 2 hours in duration.

It’s important to bear in mind that the exact amount of energy you’ll need (and where it comes from) is pretty individual and extremely specific to what you’re doing. Past experience and some basic trial and error needs to play a part in defining a plan that works for you.

We wrote a blog outlining our thoughts (with some real world examples) on how to combine PH with your nutrition plan. That might be a good place to start if you are unsure. 

The main point I’m trying to get across is that you’re highly unlikely to meet all of your energy needs by using PH drinks for longer and higher intensity activities (over about 90min to 2 hours), so you’ll still have to give some thought to where else you get your fuel from when you’re going at it really hard. For further reading this 2013 paper gives a decent overview of the use of differing amounts of carbs for anyone wanting to dig a bit deeper. 

What about being ‘fat adapted’?

As a side-note here, I think it’s worth just touching on the idea of fat adaptation vs carb utilisation and how that influences fuelling needs during exercise. It’s something we’ve been asked about in relation to the new drinks, with some people being worried that having sugar in there will be counterproductive when it comes to their performance. 

Essentially there’s a school of thought gaining momentum that says endurance athletes should aim to use less carbohydrates than has typically been recommended in order to teach the body to switch to burning more fat during exercise - i.e. to become more ‘fat adapted’. The basic rationale for this is that even the skinniest person has relatively vast stores of fat and that being able to use them in preference to muscle glycogen can preserve energy levels for longer and result in better endurance performance, especially in very long events.

Whilst there may be some (or even a lot of) mileage in this approach at key times (possibly in ‘training low’ on carbs some of the time, for example) the prevailing thinking in high performance nutrition is still that “in the context of exercise performance, it is clear that carbohydrate (but not fat) still remains king” - with that exact quote being taken from a recent 2016 paper reviewing all manner of nutritional strategies to boost sports performance.

Image credit: Andy Blow ©

Even for extremely long events such as 100km/mile ultra running races, where there’s a lot of anecdotal discussion of athletes using more fats to fuel performance, an analysis of some of the very best competitors revealed that they’re all using very carb heavy (70% + carbohydrate) based strategies immediately before and during competition to fuel their race-winning performances. In the above study, the athletes were routinely shown to be taking 57 to 94g per hour in carbs to fuel their runs; numbers that are basically in alignment with current published guidelines. 

From my own perspective, having really tried with a ‘low carb’ approach both during training and competition (and in my day to day diet) over the last few years, I have definitely found that whilst reducing my carbohydrate intake when I am not training and racing hard feels like it can be beneficial to body composition and my general health and energy levels, I am far from convinced that going ‘low carb’ when I am trying to train and race hard is a good idea.

Whilst I do perform a lot of training sessions on an empty stomach in order to help my body burn more fat whenever I am seeking to maximise out and out performance (or prioritising short term recovery over longer term adaptation), I make sure I am well fuelled with carbohydrates. I’ve therefore found the small amount of carbs in the new PH drinks great for fuelling most of my shorter (less than 90 min) sessions that make up the bulk of training nowadays, as well contributing to overall fuelling on longer days out.

Anyway, this is getting to be a long post now so hope that helps answer the question of why we’ve introduced some sugar into the new range. As ever, your thoughts and questions are welcome via the comments or email. 

Precision Fuel & Hydration all-natural drink mixes come in strengths of 500mg of sodium per litre (PH 500), 1000mg (PH 1000) and 1500mg (PH 1500), and come in waterproof sachets to ensure you can be confident that you're well stocked on electrolytes whatever your activity and whatever the weather.

Buy Precision Fuel & Hydration all-natural drink mixes

Further reading