Soft drinks; we all tend to love them, our bodies tend to hate them. For many soft drink regulars there is the added conundrum of sugar versus sugar-free. While they realty should be avoided all together; on this episode of 32Gi Sports Nutrition, hear why natural is always better.
Welcome back to 32Gi Sports Nutrition with myself Mr Active, David Katz and Mark Wolff. We talked about sugar in the previous one. Today we’re going to give you the lowdown on soft drinks or in South Africa as we like to call them, cooldrink. You go overseas, you ask in a shop for a cooldrink and they give you a very funny look. But very common phrase for a soft drink in South Africa.
You get, of course, ones with a lot of sugar in, but over the years there are the sugar-free ones. So we’re going to look at it across the board and if there are any benefits to it. First of all, Mark, that’s my opening question to you; is there a case when soft drinks are actually good for you?
Mark Wolff: I don’t think anything unnatural is good for you, that I need to state upfront. That word ‘soft drink’ it might be soft from a drink point of view, but it’s hard on the system. So it should maybe be a hard drink. The problem is that it’s basically, if you’re looking at the sugar based drinks and not the alternatives like you’ve mentioned.
As far as the sugar-free products go, I think there’s a very big problem here, and that’s what I tell people. Even when you make a smoothie, sometimes you can put too much health into a smoothie. When you swallow it, the amount of calories that are in that particular drink are excessive, they can be in the thousands.
The problem is that when somebody consumes a soft drink, they land up doing the same thing, they over-consume. Maybe also because of the addictive properties, but the amount of calories that are in there are also, they become very excessive.
Because they don’t stop at one glass, they can go 2, 3, 4, 5 and it goes on and on. I think that’s something that’s important to realise. If you are going to drink a soft drink, I would say it needs to be a treat drink, very rare. As far as a proper nutrition programme goes, not something that should be consumed frequently.
The danger of sugar-free soft drinks
Since sugar got the bad rap we’re seeing more and more people switching, as you mentioned earlier, switching to sugar-free soft drinks. Those can be far worse because of the unnatural properties of those drinks. They’re very much chemical. To me consuming chemicals is just not what we’re meant to be consuming as far as human beings go. Because we don’t know what the damage is going to be on a physiological level.
It’s a very big problem. People want to lose weight, they love their soft drinks, so they switch to a sugar-free version and is it better? Not necessarily. Fizz has also got its issues, in actual fact, consuming carbon dioxide, even fizzy water can cause weight issues. In fact, there has been that research that has shown that it actually assists in generation of fat production and that’s soda water for example.
The question is not just soft drinks, it’s also a carbonated drink that we should be talking about. If you look at the components of these drinks, they’re very much unnatural, most of them are unnatural. If you’ve got the choice between a sugar drink which is natural. A soft drink which contains sugar and is natural and a non-sugar based drink which is unnatural. I would say rather go for the sugar based drink which is natural. That to me would be a better solution. But again, and I mentioned this in the podcast we spoke about sugar, limit the intake and take it at the proper time as well.
DK: Mark, yes, you can overload your system with sugar, put your liver under some real stress. But it’s something natural, it’s something that your liver does know how to breakdown and work through the system. Looking at the stuff that’s not natural, what happens in the body when these things are added?
You talk about the difference, for people who want weight loss and they don’t want the sugar. But from a brain point of view, what message do they tend to see? Or is that research not quite clear yet? Could the research show that your brain is thinking the same thing? But at the same time your body can’t process it?
The danger of putting chemicals in your system
MW: I think it’s a very interesting question. I’m not sure how to answer it exactly accurately but I do want to say a few things. Firstly, when you’re consuming a replacement sugar drink, again, you’re still training your brain to crave sugar. So you’re not really getting away from that. You are taking in something that’s unnatural.
Interestingly enough, I’m actually studying through another university and one of the courses that I’m doing at the moment is something called epigenetics. It is how consumption of certain nutrients or foods can trigger a disposition, a gene to specific disposition. If you’ve got a gene that has got a cancer disposition, for example, certain foods that you take in could trigger that cancer gene.
It’s a very interesting course and when I think about natural versus unnatural, the chances of triggering these things would come probably mostly from glutens to the body. I would say that is in an unnatural format. Taking chemicals, the risks of triggering such a thing would be a lot higher than taking in something that’s natural.
You mentioned it, yes, our bodies know how to break down sugar. Many years ago Asker Jeukendrup, a very top sport scientist, did what’s called the mouth-rinse test. What they did, they took two sets of athletes, during exercise. They basically wanted to measure performance with carbohydrate intake.
The one group of athletes, all they had to do was consume the drink completely and they would measure a slight increase in performance with that intake. Then when they went to the other group of athletes, they didn’t allow them to consume the drink, they only allowed them to do what’s called the mouth-rinse.
In other words, put it into the mouth, swirl it around and spit it out, so they weren’t allowed to swallow. Both sets of athletes reached the same level of performance after consumption or non-consumption. Just the mouth-rinse which shows you that the minute the palate touches something sugar like that, the brain already identifies it and knows exactly what it needs to do to the body.
The question is, what is the brain going to do when something that mimics a sugar goes into the body and then tries to process it. Because it’s going to try and process it in a specific manner and we don’t know how it’s processed in the body and what it exactly does.
Yes, there’s a lot of science and evidence and research before these things are released in the market to show what happens with the body. But over time, like I mentioned this epigenetics is, we don’t know what kind of trigger it will cause at a later stage or what kind of health issues it will bring up later in life. I’m very against any unnatural soft drinks. I’m against soft drinks completely, but again, if you go for something, rather go for something completely natural.
Sweetness is only part of the soft drink problem
DK: Another problem, sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners aside is the weird and whacky and wonderful colours that soft drinks tend to come in. So it’s not just sugar that’s an issue.
MW: That’s something that I always think about. Because I am in the sports nutrition industry and I understand colours and flavours in products, one of the things that 32Gi that we do, we make sure that our colours and flavours are completely natural.
Just as an example, if you’re looking at our raspberry drink, yes, you might see E numbers. But the E number that is for our raspberry drink, from a colour perspective, is actually beetroot, which is a natural derivative. We use carrot in our orange products and in our blue products we actually use Spirulina.
Which is extremely expensive but one of the colours in the world that is very common is something called ‘brilliant blue’. If we had to put that colour into our products, we would be forced from a European standard, we would be forced to label the product ‘this will cause concentration issues in children’. That is not something I would ever want to have on a product.
That has been researched and proven by the European Food Safety Authority. There’s a lot of things that go into products. South Africa, I don’t think is at the level of the European standards right now. But consumption of unnatural colours is definitely going to impact you from a health perspective, there’s absolutely no doubt at all.
If you are going to consume a drink and it’s got colour to it, make sure it’s completely natural. Parents will come to me and say to me: What soft drink is suitable for my children? I’m like water is a brilliant soft drink, it’s absolutely brilliant, it’s the source of life!
From a treat perspective I would look at something that’s a clear liquid and probably got sugar. It’s sugar water. Why don’t you just add a teaspoon of lemon and honey and make your own lemonade at home or something, that’s just a brilliant drink. But if you take something that’s a clear liquid, as far as a soft drink goes, it’s got no unnatural additives to it, you’re far safer.
Some people have said to me: What about a purple compared to a black. The interesting thing is, is that purple and orange and green and all these colours are generally very unnatural. Black is generally caramelised sugar, so it’s burnt sugar, so it’s probably more natural than going with a different colour. Colour represents taste, so it’s a very good marketing tool. When people see colour, that taste is already inside of them and they know what to expect.
Does the risk outweigh the benefit for sportsmen?
DK: Mark lastly, when it comes to soft drinks, it can be a favourite for a lot of sportsmen. Be it a runner, be it someone who cycles, mountain biking or road cycling. There’s a culture in South Africa, a running culture, of guys just running on a little bit of soft drink mixed with water. Yes, it can spike the sugar and it does do that, but in that case, I don’t know what to say. There is obviously a benefit, but is the benefit of having it worth taking it?
MW: I think there’s a big legacy where people are drinking soft drinks combined with water. In the States as well, it’s been quite a thing through some races but South Africa has definitely got a culture. It does work for some people, for some people it doesn’t work.
I always say: The way you train is the way you should fuel yourself. Everybody’s stomach has got different rates of absorption. It’s got a different impact on the system. Again, you’ve still got to worry about these endurance events, the long endurance events, taking Comrades into account etc, about blood sugar spiking and dropping all the time.
Because all these people are considered to be sometimes wow, they’re such great athletes or elite athletes and they do so well in what they’re doing. The truth of the matter is, maybe some of them can get away with quite a bit. But the thing is that later in life you see that a lot of these people do land up with health issues and they do land up with diseases like diabetes for example and that’s just a simple example.
You just never know how it’s going to impact you. The choices you make when you’re younger are definitely going to impact you when you’re older. I think it’s very important to try, I still believe in trying to keep it as natural as possible. One of the other things we haven’t spoken about is the flavours in the drinks.
I think flavours are another issue. You get different types of flavours. You get natural flavours, you get nature identical. Which is actually as close to natural as it will come, from a molecular structure. But then you also get unnatural flavours. Unnatural flavours generally, there’s a much broader range of unnatural flavours across the globe.
Obviously you’ve got so many different strengths of unnatural flavours but again, it’s chemical. If you’re going to look at a product, especially if it’s a soft drink or whatever drink it is, rather go for a natural flavour as opposed to an unnatural flavour or at least natural identical. At the very least because that’s probably a lot better for your health in the long run than something that’s unnatural.
I think the bottom line is, from what we’re discussing here is that sugar has been given a bad rap. But again, it’s natural. Why should you go to a chemical based drink to avoid something that’s natural because you’re worried about maybe weight gain etc. Again, everything in moderation and I’d say keep it as natural as possible, but if it’s in moderation, I think you’ll be okay.
DK: There you have it, some valuable advice. One thing I like, I also try to stay away from the soft drinks, I know you talked about the carbon issue as well. But to have a soda water with lime. Again, a decent lime, not a cheap lime. One that’s made with, as Mark talked about, more natural colourants and more natural flavours. So that’s a good alternative possibly, if you are looking. From Mark Wolff and myself, Mr Active, David Katz, we will catch up with you again on the next edition.