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The Science Behind High Molecular Carbohydrates

A revolutionary product is changing the way athletes fuel for endurance events.

A revolutionary product made of high molecular carbohydrates is changing the way athletes fuel for endurance events. 

Glucose, sucrose, fructose, and maltodextrin; all simple sugars that, when ingested and broken down by the body, provide you an immediate source of energy. The process also causes a sudden flood of insulin to the body by way of the pancreas; as the sugars are digested this insulin level then takes a nosedive, at which point your muscles again crave energy.

These sugars are the basis of nearly all sports drinks, gels, and performance supplements. They are the means by which endurance athletes thrive because they are a means of quick energy and help stave off bonking.

But what if there was something else; something that prevented blood glucose and insulin levels from constantly spiking and dropping like a wayward EKG? To even avoid insulin being released at all? Theoretically, if we were able to avoid the ups and downs and instead keep the body fueled with a constant, even supply of energy, it should be able to run more efficiently.

Secondly, the slow-time release approach to blood glucose levels would provide longer lasting energy. This means you wouldn’t need to ingest nearly as much of a certain starch to get the same results; more bang for your buck, so to speak.

RELATED: Race Fueling Made Simple

Enter a high molecular ‘Superstarch’ that is the basis of Generation UCAN, a sports drink launched in 2010 that claims to revolutionize the entire approach to endurance fueling. Lofty words which, if true, certainly should pique the interest of all competitors. But how exactly is this Superstarch unique?

My aunt is an artist and has a term, ‘accidental art,’ which describes instances where masterpieces are created more out of chance. Such is the case with the origins of Generation UCAN, as the quest for a slower metabolized starch started with a boy named Jonah and a rare disease in which his body can’t naturally produce glucose.

Scientists eventually were able to create this remedy, saving Jonah’s life as well as others afflicted with Glycogen Storage Disease. However, further tests seemed to imply that this new Superstarch could be put to use outside of managing this single disorder. “We wondered what maintaining fasting glucose levels for a long time in the body would do, in particular, for athletes,” explains Peter Kaufman, executive vice president of Generation UCAN.

Taking The Pancreas Out Of The Equation

Being metabolized differently than any other sugar, this Superstarch is broken down in the intestines rather than the stomach due to its high molecular weight. It also negates insulin being produced and released by the pancreas, meaning there is no sudden spiking and dropping of insulin levels, which athletes feel as a burst of energy quickly trailed by a crash.

Another benefit of insulin not being released is that the body is triggered into burning fat stores already present for energy rather than first breaking down and metabolizing the newly ingested sugars. Even a 180-lb male athlete with a mere 3% body fat carries 22,000 calories worth of energy; that alone could carry one through even an intense, prolonged workout or race such as a marathon.

Putting It To The Test

Cyclists at the University of Oklahoma took part in a 2 ½ hour test ride to compare ingesting this Superstarch 30 minutes prior and then again after the ride, versus a maltodextrin-based product. It was revealed that in the case of taking in the Superstarch, the riders’ blood glucose levels were maintained eight times longer and, as initially theorized, they also were able to compete at a higher peak performance level. “Maltodextrin affects the blood glucose levels over 60% within 30 minutes,” explains Kaufman. “Every spike is followed by a crash, which, if you didn’t re-ingest them, as these other products recommend, for 2 hours you’d find yourself 24% below fasting level.” It is below fasting level that dizziness and similar effects due to lack of energy are experienced by athletes. The Superstarch further kept the riders above these fasting levels much longer and proficiently post-workout.

Scientists noted that because the intestines, not the stomach, digests the Superstarch, there wasn’t the same kind of GI distress many endurance athletes typically complain of. Krista Austin, Ph.D, cites UCAN as her top choice of liquid for the world-ranked athletes she works with. “It doesn’t sit heavy in their stomach or cause GI distress…[but] it will give them the long-lasting carbs to sustain blood glucose levels.” Despite getting into the system quickly, UCAN is slow-burning and stays in the system much longer.

The main difference between taking UCAN or another starch-based product is that UCAN needs to be consumed 30 to 60 minutes before the workout. “It’s different for everyone but typically you should take it 30-60 minutes before your workout,” suggests Kaufman, “Amy Yoder Begley’s found that she is able to do a 20-mile run off of 1 ½ packets an hour before. She then saves the second ½ packet as a recovery drink after.” Austin, also working with Yoder Begley, encourages drinking it 60-90 minutes prior to the workout.

Looking Ahead

The dual fat-burning effect alone has a far-reaching scope outside of sports performance. At Yale, Catherine Yeckel, Ph.D is using the product in her work with the aging and obese children population. University of Connecticut’s Jeff Volek, Ph.D, RD is similarly heading more research, but with diabetes, both athletes and non. “We have triathletes with Type-1 [diabetes] turning off their insulin pumps, exercising 2-4 hours on the product, with blood glucose level readings that are completely steady, almost as if they didn’t have diabetes,” explains Kaufman.

This ‘accidental art’ continues to reveal a potential to affect more markets; however, for the competitive athlete alone, it begs to question if we all shouldn’t think high molecular when it comes to our choice of carbohydrate consumption before a workout.


For more from on the science of fueling, click here.


About The Author:

Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.