How ordinary sports nutrition got stuck in the 80s

How ordinary sports nutrition got stuck in the 80s

The 80s had it all. Tie-die, neon, synth pop, hair metal and eurodisco and, for the first time, exercise became a thing for everyone. Joggers pounded pavement while road biking, mountain biking, marathons and triathlons hit the mainstream. Here, sports nutrition was born. Sport has come a long way since, yet ordinary sports nutrition is still stuck in its leggings listening to Culture Club on its Walkman...

Brace yourselves because it's time for some sports nutrition history.

The first ever energy gel was released in 1987. Called the Leppin Squeezy, it was co-developed by legendary sports scientist Tim Noakes and contained two carbohydrates for energy - maltodextrin and dextrose.

The theory, as detailed by Noakes in his seminal book 'Lore of Running' was that carbohydrates were our main fuel source during endurance effort, and therefore loading up on them before running, and getting plenty in during running was the way to go.

By the early '90s, sports nutrition was big business and 'innovation' followed. What sort of innovation? It was truly incredible. The dextrose ( a sugar) in energy gels and drink powders was swapped for fructose (another sugar).

Oh. Was that all? 

Yes. Sorry about that. 

The basic recipe for energy gels and powders then became 'maltodextrin + fructose'. It hasn't changed since

Claims, marketing, celebrity endorsement and many 1000s of pages of 'science' have poured forth from the ordinary sports nutrition industry in this time.

But the products? 

They're still in the 80s while innovation routinely passes for little more than a gentle facelift. 

As examples, two of this year's biggest new sports nutrition products are Maurten's Drink Mix 320 and Science in Sport's Beta Fuel. 

Both are carb drink mixes, both are 90%-plus maltodextrin and fructose.  

How these are meaningfully different to old products like High5's Energy Drink (also 90%-plus maltodextrin and fructose), is hard to tell. 

The ads and marketing look very different, but the ingredients labels? Rather less so. 

You wouldn't hop online on a 1987 laptop

Let alone tackle your next race on a 1987 road bike or in 1987's running kit...

 

Why would anyone want 1980s nutrition for today's challenges?

 

Ordinary sports nutrition maltodextrin fructose old triathlon

 

The passing of time hasn't been kind to early triathlon

Could it be that when Noakes and co first hit paydirt with the Leppin Squeezy, they also alighted upon the one and only nutritional paradigm in the world to deliver the best possible results for athletes everywhere?

Maybe the good old maltodextrin/fructose combo is just so darned awesome there's simply no way to improve it? 

Sadly, no.  

Maltodextrin and Fructose - not special athlete fuel 

Even Noakes himself has long since renounced carb-focused nutrition, explaining in 2012 how anyone with a copy of his book 'Lore of Running' should "tear out the section on nutrition".

Just as Noakes's own professional studies lead him to change his mind on carbs, so an increasing body of evidence is suggesting that both maltodextrin and fructose can be damaging for anyone, let alone athletes in search of health and performance. 

Maltodextrin is linked to poor gut health and chronic disease, while fructose (fruit sugar), once processed and removed from the fruit/veg/plant it originally came from is now better known as 'alcohol without the buzz' thanks to hitting the body with the same negative impacts as booze including liver damage and high blood pressure. 

These two ingredients are junk food staples. Cheap, legal filler for thousands of products worldwide - nothing wrong with that if that's what you want.

Where both begin to - literally - leave a bitter taste in the mouth is when they're being sold as health and performance fuel to athletes looking for the best for their bodies. 

As US maltodextrin producer Bell Chem explains: 

"Maltodextrin "is generally used in the production of sodas and candy... [and] can also be found in many other processed foods..."

They add:

Maltodextrin "contains almost no vitamins and minerals to assist with turning carbohydrates into energy... consuming maltodextrin may actually reduce the amount of vitamins and minerals in the body... Over time this can lead to a net decrease in a person's vitamin and mineral levels".

Actively removing your body's vitamins and minerals is hardly helpful when you're taking things to the limit. 

It's a bit like Lewis Hamilton taking to the track while towing a caravan.

Meanwhile Dr Robert Lustig has done huge work on the issues with fructose - if you're interested to know more his lecture 'Sugar, the bitter truth' has racked up an astonishing 7.8 million YouTube views and is well worth a watch.  

Back to the Future

Deciding that rehashing the same formulas as everyone else while dressing up processed food additives as something special wasn't for us, at 33Fuel we came at sports nutrition from a blank slate instead. 

We'd suffered all the common issues with ordinary products in our own racing and training - the stomach trouble, the immune issues, the yo-yo energy, the sheer hideous taste of most stuff - and had worked out the low grade nature of the ingredients was at the heart of this. 

Real, natural whole foods provided the antidote, particularly superfoods ('superfood' simply means any food with an above average concentration of beneficial nutrients). 

And so we set about creating products that brought the power of these natural ingredients to the convenience of sports nutrition. 

Our Elite Pre and Post Workout Shakes and Chia Energy Gels were among the results. They transformed our own performance, started our company and have been transforming the performance of many thousands more athletes ever since. 

sports nutrition 80s chia energy gel

A gel with just four natural ingredients that delivers stable energy all-day long and tastes good? Yes, yes and yes - when you bring sports nutrition into the 21st century the upgrade is significant

More performance-boosting content

From the 33Fuel Podcast

From the 33Fuel Vlog

Related content

Maltodextrin side effects

Better sleep for athletes

Coffee and performance - maximise caffeine benefits in your training and racing

Diet and mental health - the food mood connection

The best sugar for athletes

Alcohol and athletic performance - all you ever wanted to know

Overtraining - five signs you're overcooking it