About a month ago, I wrote about the surprising finding that energy drinks could improve performance in cycling time trials without even being swallowed, only tasted. This week the papers have been awash with articles deriding sports drinks as overpriced, and no more effective than cereal.
‘Milk and cereal as good as expensive sports drinks in boosting performance‘, claims the Telegraph. ‘Forget your costly sports drinks, try a bowl of corn flakes instead‘, advises the Mail. ‘Gym fans are better off skipping costly sports drinks for a bowl of cereal after workouts’, The Sun tells us.
The source for this story is a paper in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (which you can see yourself for free here). The authors had 12 cyclists fast for 12 hours then do two hours of moderate exercise, after which they were given either wheat cereal with milk or a sports drink. As the Telegraph tells us:
They found that the traditional breakfast was just as good at replenishing blood sugar and insulin levels and that protein production was even better than with the so-called energy drinks.The milk also helped reduce lactic acid levels in the blood, the compound that causes stiffness after exercise.
I’m not quite sure how those results led to the headline about ‘boosting performance’, but never mind. The results don’t seem especially surprising. You go without food for 14 hours, the last two of which are spent exercising, you eat something, and blood sugar goes up. Insulin goes up too – it generally follows blood sugar pretty closely. Milk, unlike energy drinks, is rich in protein, so it’s not surprising that protein synthesis was boosted, too. I would imagine that you’d see a similar effect on these parameters if you eat anything with carbohydrate and protein in it under those circumstances. Why did the University of Texas team want to show us the benefits of eating cereal?
The answer can be found in the acknowledgements section of the paper: ‘This project was supported by Wheaties and the General Mills Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition’. General Mills, if you weren’t aware, is the giant food company that produces various cereals, including Cheerios and Wheaties.
Newspapers are supposed to be struggling for advertising revenue. It’s not surprising when they publish editorial content that gives companies a more ringing endorsement than anything they might pay the paper to put in as an advert. All General Mills had to do was cough up 12 bowls of cereal and have some scientists publish a tiny study in a not-too-scrupulous journal.