While talking endurance nutrition with run coach and sage-like blogger George Anderson for a video we made exposing maltodextrin as the nasty piece of work it really is (you can see that one here), acesulfame K popped up.
It was in the ingredients list on the back of an SIS gel 33's Warren was using as an example of a gel packed with maltodextrin (basically they all are, apart from our own Chia Energy Gels) and it sparked a thought: we should investigate this.
Well, we did. And just as with maltodextrin, the results are deeply unpleasant. Bear in mind, this stuff is a very common additive in a broad range of traditional sports nutrition products - from gels and bars to protein shakes and sports drinks.
Also known as acesulfame potassium and E950 (the E at the beginning gives you the first hint this stuff isn't going to be good for you), acesulfame K was discovered in a lab by a German chemist in the ’60s. So it's about as natural as plastic.
Research also suggests it may affect prenatal development and impair cognitive function.
And it gets better (or worse if you're eating the stuff) because there's a big cancer-causing questionmark hovering over acesulfame K's ugly head despite it being approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other government bodies.
- Acesulfame K: loved by the traditional sports supplement industry despite large cancer-causing questionmark and other major health issues
The report 'Testing Needed for Acesulfame Potassium, an artificial sweetener' explains how the FDA's approval of the ingredient was based on studies showing it did not cause cancer.
The same report then goes on to explain:
"The 1970s tests of acesulfame – two tests carried out in rats and one in mice – are inadequate to establish lack of potential carcinogenicity*"
Not only were the test groups of rats in these trials not randomised correctly potentially skewing the results, the trials were also too short and poorly monitored. And just in case you thought this was all a bit flimsy, here's the killer blow.
Drum roll please...
"Even with the flaws in design and execution... results indicated an association between treatment with acesulfame and carcinogenesis**".
In other words: even the crappy tests held up as examples of how acesulfame K does not cause cancer, suggest it might actually cause cancer. Great.
To sum up: it might cause cancer, needs further research to prove its safety for consumption and also has potential to harm prenatal development and impair cognitive function.
So what the bloody hell is it doing in mainstream sports nutrition?
Rather depressingly, and just as with maltodextrin, it's all about the price. Even as a private buyer, you can pick up a metric ton of acesulfame K for £3000, or £0.003/gram. And, being 200 times sweeter than sugar, you don't need much - way less than a gram is all you need per regular energy gel for example.
It's a bargain for the manufacturer, little short of awful for the consumer.
Quite how huge nutrition companies such as SIS with their massed ranks of supposedly highly-educated sports scientists and nutritionists can put such potentially dangerous junk into any food, let alone food specifically designed for health-conscious individuals is beyond us.
All we know is we'll never do that, or anything like it.
We started 33Shake because we wanted maximum performance with maximum longterm health and sustainability and we couldn't find that anywhere so we set about making it. We have only ever, and will only ever, use the absolute best ingredients we can lay our hands on, we will always use only 100% natural ingredients, and we'll never stick the cheap lure of making a fast buck in front of making truly excellent products that deliver serious results.
Call us old-fashioned, but we believe sports nutrition should actually be good for you.
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*definition: the ability or tendency to produce cancer
** definition: the initiation of cancer formation