Value for money

Prepare to be astonished.

Consumers could be wasting their money on sports drinks, protein shakes and high-end trainers, according to a new joint investigation by BBC Panorama and the British Medical Journal.

The investigation into the performance-enhancing claims of some popular sports products found “a striking lack of evidence” to back them up.

Surely not! Surely the more expensive a shoe is, the faster you can run when you wear it. You would think so, but the BBC says alas, we have been deceived

A team at Oxford University examined 431 claims in 104 sport product adverts and found a “worrying” lack of high-quality research, calling for better studies to help inform consumers.

But not Lucozade, I’m sure. Of course that totally works.

In the case of Lucozade Sport, the UK’s best-selling sports drink, their advert says it is “an isotonic performance fuel to take you faster, stronger, for longer”.

Dr Heneghan and his team asked manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) for details of the science behind their claims and were given what he said scientists call a “data dump” – 40 years’ worth of Lucozade sports research which included 176 studies.

Dr Heneghan said the mountain of data included 101 trials that the Oxford team were able to examine before concluding: “In this case, the quality of the evidence is poor, the size of the effect is often minuscule and it certainly doesn’t apply to the population at large who are buying these products.”

But it probably doesn’t actually make people weaker or slower – so that should be good enough. GlaxoSmithKline has to make a living you know. Lighten up.




  1. Millicent says

    GlaxoSmithKline just was fined $3 billion by the US govt for their fraudulent marketing schemes. And they paid it out of cash they had lying around.

    I think the implication is clear: someone is buying WAY too much Lucozade.

  2. says

    Well… I used to be a pretty serious athlete back in my youth, and those sports drinks and expensive shoes and such were vitally important to me. On Mondays I’d run for 90-100 minutes and then an hour in the gym, Wednesdays and Fridays would be 4-5 miles for a warm-up, a 30 minute workout, 3 mile cool-down, and then an hour in the gym, and the rest of the week and weekends would be 6-7 easy miles plus gym and/or basketball for an hour or so. At that level of daily exertion or higher, some benefit can be had from sports drinks, shakes, and expensive shoes. Since most of the customers of these products are doing 20 minute on the treadmill 4 days a week, whatever benefit that these products have is wasted on them.

  3. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    I’m a gym rat and a (new) runner. I worked out A LOT and love it. I’m TOTALLY the dupe who would fall for these things.

    Except: Having run in both inexpensive sneakers and my $100 Brooks, they can pull my Brooks from my cold dead hands.

    Now, that said, I subscribe to this women’s fitness mag called Oxygen that is wall to wall adverts for all these supplements, protein powders, fat burners, etc etc They certainly make every possible effort to make it seem sciency. I know I’ve considered buying this fat burner or this energy booster based on the ads.

    Now I’m compelled to buy them and try them just to see IF they do work . . . .

  4. Dunc says

    The really important question about isotonic sports drinks is not whether they improve athletic performance, it’s whether they help with a hangover.

  5. Kevin says

    Probably the worst offender is GatorAde.

    Their most-recent product is an “energy chew” that you’re supposed to eat just before you go onto the field.

    It’s basically just a gelatin-and-sugar cube. Peanut M&Ms would probably be way more beneficial.

  6. anthrosciguy says

    Except: Having run in both inexpensive sneakers and my $100 Brooks, they can pull my Brooks from my cold dead hands.

    But that’s not “expensive”. Do a Google shopping search for “running shoes” and sort by most expensive first, and you’re up between fifty percent more and twice what you paid for your Brooks shoes.

    The question is also not whether some sort of sports drink or shoe is good: they’re not saying compared to cardboard strapped to your feet and plain water (now if they said water you make up with a dash of salt and sugar in it…). The thing is, there is very little difference between good enough and very expensive in clothes and sports drinks. A little OT but I’m always reminded of Shania Twain talking about her when her career took off and she could really afford to spend, so she went out and bought an expensive coat, figuring it would be so much better than what she’d been able to afford before. And she was damned annoyed, in that funny self-deprecating way she has, that the buttons fell off in a few months just like the cheap stuff.

  7. sambarge says

    The investigation into the performance-enhancing claims of some popular sports products found “a striking lack of evidence” to back them up.

    In other breaking news, fire is hot and scissors are sharp.

  8. says

    The amount of snake oil and flim flam in and around fitness culture is pretty incredible.

    I’ve heard trainer-type guys trying to sell their clients on ‘supplements’ at the gym, on and off. I always kinda feel I’m letting the side down by not interrupting, telling ’em, listen, do read what actual dietitians say about these things, first, and how, realistically, it’s very, very unlikely you really need a lot more protein in your diet, if, y’know, you’re living on this particular continent. And we also have these peculiar, exotic things called ‘meat’ and ‘eggs’ and ‘cheese’ which, y’know, do generally provide rather dense doses of amino acids, if your body happens to be looking for those, and, generally, besides providing them for rather a more attractive price than does your average bullshit shake, also taste a whole hell of a lot better.

    Anyway, me, my ‘supplements’ are mostly just made of heavy things, and the way I take ’em is by picking ’em up and putting ’em back down again, repeatedly.

    (/See this here, pal? We call this ‘steel’. And it works.)

  9. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    feralboy12 – 100% co-signed. I used to drink protein shakes (I actually HAVE to drink them*), Boost, etc. Then I noticed how much freaking sugar is in them. Chocolate milk has much less, which I still find mind boggling.

    anthrosciguy – I shudder to think how much more expensive they get. I thought $100 was ridiculous.

    And, just to be clear, I’m not arguing against the premise of the piece, at all. It’s plainly clear there’s a lot of snake oil in the fitness industry. But being told there’s little evidence makes me want to try some experiments of my own.

  10. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    ooopss forgot the *

    * – I’m a bariatric surgery patient. Since I literally can’t ingest the amount of food it takes to meet the daily nutritent requirements, especially because of all the exercise, I have to do vitamins and protein shakes. I’m monitored via blood work every other month to make sure there’s nothing being dropped, as it were.

  11. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Protein shakes can be a good way to add more protein to your diet without adding too much fat, and they’re especially nice when you don’t have time to eat proper solid food. The problem is that all the “premium” brands do is take the same powder you can get for $12/lb (less if you buy bulk), add a bunch of science sounding words (don’t forget anabolic, no one really knows what it means but it’ll make them think of steroids), and sell it for forty bucks. Or premixed at $5 bucks a serving (looking at you, MuscleMilk).

    You can make your own sports drinks at home. Just add a bit of salt to your beverage of choice – poof! Instant electrolytes!

  12. eric says

    Dr Heneghan said the mountain of data included 101 trials

    Ah, the old ‘keep flipping a coin until you get 10 heads in a row, then claim magical powers’ trick.

    Product trial cherry picking is a problem that’s much wider than sports equipment and supplements. In the US, the FDA doesn’t track all the tests pharmaceutical companies do, they only review the tests that are voluntarily submitted. If a company sinks billions into a drug’s development, and it fails its first big efficacy test, what makes more sense – kill the product, or do 2, 5, 10, 100 more million-dollar efficacy tests and let random chance and statistics give you a positive result?

  13. Forbidden Snowflake says

    I just know that government intervention is the only thing standing in the way between us consumers and a low-calorie energy bar.

  14. Black Antelope says

    @dysomniak, darwinian socialist [14]

    Adding salt is probably a bad idea. Western diets are overloaded with Na anyway (which is toxic if you have too much (well, everything is toxic, its just toxic in levels that are eatable without noticing)). You’d be better off adding ~5:1 ratio of KCl to NaCl, and some reducing sugers to make up it isotonic.

    As for anabolic, thats just the opposite of catabolic.
    Anabolic -> build up, energy requiring (aa->protein)
    Catabolic -> breakdown, energy yielding (aa->urea, H2O, CO2, energy)

    What would be fun would be to get a test kit and find the N conc in your urine, then start taking protein supplements and seeing how it changed. An increase would suggest the majority of the aa were just being broken down for energy (ie not anabolic, and since humans cannot use N as a terminal electron acceptor, you’d secrete all the N groups from the aa as urea.)

    {Note: I’m not actuly sure how much of a protein powder is aa, and so how much of a difference in urine [N] would be significant. May be too low to be readily detectable even if all the aa were catabolised, and it would vary more with water status, so you’d need do do a time curve of not drinking and subtract one from the other or something}

  15. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    Or premixed at $5 bucks a serving (looking at you, MuscleMilk).

    OMG that stuff is VILE. so incredibly disgusting. My brother (also a workout fanatic) drinks it like water. it’s incredibly disgusting.

  16. says

    When I was a kid, you had to be in hospital and at death’s door in order to receive lucozade. Grapes had to have been tried and failed to revive you. There was a recession on, and a three day week. You couldn’t go around giving lucozade to people who were likely to survive.

    Now you can just buy it whenever you want in shops that aren’t even inside hospitals. It doesn’t seem right.

  17. says

    Adding salt is probably a bad idea.

    There’s a reason salt is added, or why people take salt tablets (or just plain take some salt). When you sweat you sweat out a combination of water and salt (and some other goodies of course, but those are the main things). You do not sweat out a hypertonic (more salty than plasma) solution, so you wouldn’t need to add salt if you weren’t then refilling your body with water. But naturally you do refill your body with water, assuming you have access to some. So you can, through this process of sweating out a water+salt solution and refilling with water without salt, upset your body’s salt-water balance. This can make for problems. In extreme cases — fully within the possibility for prolonged exercise, esp. in high heat — this can lead to stomach upset, cramps, and even renal shutdown, which can be very very serious.

    (I’ve read up quite a bit on this as part of my “aquatic ape” critiques, part of which deals with salt, sweating, and tears.

    One other reason either salt and/or salt can be handy in a sports drink (or when making your own) is that it doesn’t upset your stomach as much as just fresh water can. This is especially so the more you drink at any one time. I used to race motorcycles and the hottest race I went to was in New Hampshire in the summer (why that was so hot compared to races in Virginia is a bit of a mystery, but it was). Wearing full leathers, boots, and gloves, plus a full coverage helmet, tended to make for a hot weekend. I’d go through a few gallons of sugared iced tea and Gatorade in a couple of days. Not mixed; I’d buy a bottle of Gatorade (back in the day when it was just one kind of Gatorade) and when I was done with that start in on the iced tea. They’d slide down easy and without the stomach upset I’d get with just water.

    All that said, sports drinks can be fine, but there’s nothing magical about them, nothing they do you can’t effectively duplicate with a little watery drink and stuff like salt and sugar that you’ve got in your cupboard.

  18. SAWells says

    1 litre of clean water.

    As much sugar as you can scoop up in three fingers (fold thumb and index, extend other fingers, use hand as scoop).

    As much salt as you can pinch between the tips of three fingers (thumb, index, middle).

    Dash of orange juice to taste.

    Use to treat dehydration caused by exercise, heat, or dysentery.


    I also liked Panorama’s investigation on exercise methods, from which it appeared that an exercise routine of twelve minutes per month seemed pretty effective. (Exercise: cycle as hard as you can on an exercise bike for twenty seconds, then take a breather. Do Exercise three times then get off bike. Repeat three times weekly. Works far better than I thought remotely plausible.)

  19. Amphigorey says

    I did a stint as a character performer at Walt Disney World. Disney provides a minifridge filled with PowerAde in all the character break rooms, and yeah, we drank a lot of it. We were running around in bulky, heavy costumes outside in the Floridian heat. You change your undercostume (a t-shirt and shorts) between every set, because even 20 minutes under those conditions is enough to soak it thoroughly with sweat.

    I was heartily sick of the lemon-lime flavor by the time the summer was over.

  20. davidmc says

    I think Panorama must have searched high and low to find the oxford people who thought the EFSA approved, evidence based, health claims process was not strict enough, thousands of claims have been rejected. All claims without EFSA approval will have to be removed soon, from foods and supplements packaging and adverts.
    For anyone interested all allowed and disallowed health claims can be found here

  21. says

    A gigazillion years ago (or 50, anyway) when I was a burn patient, my doctors were trying out a concoction to replace electrolytes (which you lose a lot of with 3rd degree burns) made up of, as best I remember, orange juice, grapefruit juice, salt and baking soda. I do not know the proportions. It didn’t taste too bad ice cold, but since I had to drink a lot of it the nurses made it up and kept it near my bed, so it got warm. It was nasty, and it also left me totally un-tempted by sports drinks. In fact, when I first heard of Gatorade, I wondered if it was a commercial version of the stuff I drank.

  22. maureen.brian says

    I was only half listening while I crocheted but one product had as its sole “scientific evidence” a badly-designed experiment conducted in 1930 on a small number of rats!

    The home-made oral rehydration fluid from SA Wells is not only used in all the best famines but will sort out coleslaw’s electrolytes and works equally well for a hangover. What more could anyone need?

  23. Alukonis, metal ninja says

    Energy chews are an alternative to whole foods. I’m an endurance athlete and sure, I could hypothetically get some carbs and protein from a sandwich, but if you’re riding a bike for hours it can be really not good for your stomach to try to eat whole food like that (this depends on the individual, it’s very much try stuff until you find what works for you.)

    I personally love energy chews (I like shot blox) and Hammer Perpeteum in my bottle, along with Nuun in my other water bottle to replace my electrolytes, and then if it’s really hot a camelbak with ice water, too.

    Of course the best recovery drink is beer.*

    *anecdotal >_>

  24. chakolate says

    I can’t get too upset about GSK bilking idiots who believe their advertising – it’s more or less a tax on stupid. What I get upset about is GSK overcharging for drugs they’ve falsified reports on, letting sick people pay to die.

  25. HM says

    to SAWells #22 – I just saw an episode of BBC Horizon saying the same thing. To do 3 mins of high intensity a week. From the episode, it seems that HIT improves insulin sensitivity. It was a pretty cool episode.

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