Breaking Down Sweeteners in Performance Nutrition

Breaking Down Sweeteners in Performance Nutrition

By MUIR Editor Georgia Danielson

If you flip to the ingredients list of your sports drink, gel, or bar, you’ve likely seen a few of these sweeteners on the list: tapioca syrup, sucrose, maple syrup, stevia, etc.

If they’re all just aiming to sweeten a food, then why do so many types of sweeteners get used?

Because in performance nutrition, sweeteners serve more purpose than just enhancing flavor. 

What are the purposes of sweeteners in performance nutrition? 

1. Fuel
Sweeteners provided by carbohydrates have calories and provide fuel. On the contrary, no-calorie sweeteners do not provide any fuel.

2. Hydration
Adding solutes like sweeteners or salts can help your body take in more water, thereby more effectively hydrating you than just plain water.

3. Mental Boost
Both no-calorie and caloric sweeteners provide a mental boost.  If a food tastes sweet, no matter the reason why, it can provide a mental boost.

4. Mask undesirable flavors
Sweeteners can be added to drinks or foods that serve other purposes to make them more palatable. For example, electrolyte [sports] drinks, protein bars, protein shakes, etc.

What affects the speed of absorption of sweeteners into the bloodstream?

1. Degree of Complexity
The closer a carbohydrate is to isolated glucose, the faster it will absorb into your bloodstream.

2. Concentration
As concentration increases, the rate of absorption increases as well. When you’re choosing a sports bar or drink, make sure to check the total sugars listed in the nutrition facts.

Degree of Complexity in Common Sweeteners

One of the most useful ways to differentiate among sweeteners when you’re reading nutrition labels is by their degree of complexity. 

Sugar alcohols are an exception, because they do not contain calories and affect your body differently. 

From least complex to most complex:

Chemical Form

This is as isolated as you can get. These chemicals require a high level of processing to isolate them.

Sugar Alcohols

These are gaining a lot of traction in performance nutrition – especially with keto-based athletes – because our bodies can’t metabolize them, so they’re zero calorie.

Although they are naturally occurring, it takes a high degree of processing to isolate them to be used in food. They’re much sweeter tasting than caloric sweeteners.

Xylitol
Commonly used sugar alcohol.  It’s antibacterial, which is why it’s often used in chewing gum.

Erythritol 
The chemical found in stevia, but you may occasionally find it added as an ingredient in it’s isolated form. 

The Simplest Sugars

These are the simple molecules that make up all other sugars and can jet into your bloodstream the fastest.

Occasionally you may see these listed as ingredients, but it is not as common.

Glucose
Glucose is the sugar your body uses to generate ATP and NADH. You cells can metabolize glucose directly. 

Dextrose
Dextrose is just a ‘polymer’ – a chain of carbohydrate molecules – of glucose. 

Fructose
This is a sugar from plants that cannot be directly metabolized by cells. Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver. 

Simple Combos 

These are the simplest combinations of fructose and glucose that exist naturally. Isolating them does take a high degree of processing. They both are very sweet to the taste.

Maltose
Maltose = Glucose + Glucose.  

This is extremely easy for your body to metabolize.

Sucrose 
Sucrose = glucose + fructose. 

Your body cannot metabolize sucrose directly; it breaks down sucrose into glucose and fructose first, and fructose is broken down further by your liver while glucose is metabolized by cells or stored.  

It is very easy for your body to break down sucrose into glucose and fructose. 

Sucrose can be separated into glucose and fructose industrially as well, where each can be used as ingredients independently. 

Refined Sugars/Syrups

These ingredients are made up of the isolated sugars, but they may metabolize slightly slower because they have not been fully isolated. 

They coexist in a matrix with water and only trace amounts of other materials like fiber or nutrients left over from the refinement process.

Granulated Sugars

Granulated sugars are derived from plants that are already really high in sugar. Their compositions are very simple and all of them are nearly identical with compositions typically over 90% sucrose, and the rest made up of glucose, fructose, and trace nutrients.

Variations in the glucose, fructose, and trace nutrient compositions more likely depend on the refinement process than by the source. 

So it is more valuable to assess the degree of refinement rather than the source of sugar. Look for keywords like “raw” and “unrefined” for more trace nutrients. 

Your body easily breaks down sucrose into glucose and fructose, which offers your body a fast burning sugar (fructose) and the rapid burning sugar (glucose).

Granulated sugars are great sweeteners for performance nutrition products because they offer more stable energy release than their chemical counterparts.

No-calorie granulated sweeteners differ only in that the chemical that sweetens does not provide caloric value.

Granulated sweeteners include:

  • Beet Sugar
  • Cane Sugar
  • Coconut [Palm] Sugar
  • Palm Sugar
  • Stevia*
  • Monk Fruit*

*Natural no-calorie sweeteners. Both are added to performance nutrition products in a variety of forms including granulated or extract.

Starch-Based Syrups

These are made by breaking down a starch (complex carbohydrate) into sugar (simple carbohydrate) syrup.

Their compositions are very simple and only differ from each other in their trace nutrient profile. 

The composition of syrups differs from granulated sugar in that syrups contain a very high ratio of glucose, where granulated sugar contains approximately the same glucose as it does fructose.

The exception is high fructose corn syrup, where some of the glucose is converted to fructose.  

Because syrups are essentially pure glucose, your body metabolizes them very quickly and, in turn, they’ll raise your blood sugar rapidly.

Syrups typically do have a bit of fructose – more than granulated sugars and less than natural syrups and juice.

Trace nutrients are a benefit of syrups over pure glucose, sucrose, and fructose, some of which may contribute to more stable regulation of sugar in the body.

Just like granulated sugar, syrups don’t contain notable differences. The most common syrups found in sports nutrition products include:

  • Brown Rice Syrup
  • Tapioca Syrup
  • Cane Juice/Evaporated Cane Juice
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

    It’s an extremely common and controversial ingredient in American diets.  

    HFCS is much sweeter than glucose or sucrose, and can’t be directly metabolized by cells like glucose. It must be processed by the liver, which extends the time of processing. 

    Delay in sugar metabolism is typically a good thing. However, the concentration of fructose in processed foods like soda, sports drinks, and pastries overloads the liver. Fructose concentrations in natural foods like fruit are much more manageable by your liver.

    Fructose is natural, but in high concentrations it can cause problems. 

      Natural Syrups/Juice

      These ingredients are a step up from the refined versions, where the matrix that they exist in is slightly more complex, which may affect the rate of absorption and the nutritional content. 

      There is also more variation in the sugar compositions.

      Maple Syrup
      Typically around 60% sucrose, with an array of other sugars including fructose, glucose, and other higher level sugars.

      It contains much higher traces of minerals and vitamins than other sweeteners. 

      Honey
      Very similar to maple syrup, but the main sugar component is fructose rather than sucrose. 

      Typically around 30% fructose, with an array of other sugars including fructose, glucose, and other high level sugars, as well much higher traces of minerals and vitamins.

      Fruit Juice
      Although juice can come in many different forms – filtered, unfiltered, raw, etc – it’s typically very filtered and pasteurized when it’s used as an ingredient to sweeten foods.

      Apple juice and white grape juice are the most common fruit juice sweeteners. 

      Both feature fructose as the main sugar, which typically accounts for over 50% of the sugar profile.  Glucose, sucrose, and trace minerals account for the rest.  

      Starch

      Usually, starch is not used as a sweetener. There is one exception: 

      Maltodextrin
      Branched chains of glucose that are very easy for your cells to metabolize.  You can think of maltodextrin as the ingestible version of glycogen. 

      Typically, ingredient manufacturers will start with a starchy raw food like potatoes, corn, or wheat and process it far enough to yield maltodextrin.  It is similar to granulated sugars in this way. 

      Maltodextrin will release energy into your bloodstream slower and steadier than the other caloric sweeteners.