Why nutrition labels are not useful for athletes

This blog is about current nutrition labels on sports nutrition products and why they are not helpful for athletes. Nutrition labels may make sense from a health point of view but are fairly meaningless for an athlete.

Food labels are means for the general population who is inactive. For athletes the labels are less useful.

The purpose of this blog is to discuss the usefulness and problems of nutrition information on sports nutrition products. The purpose of this blog is not to question the recommendations or the nutrition labels from a health perspective, although in some areas there is a lot of debate about these as well. I will stay clear of the health debate and focus on the relevance for athletes.


Nutrition labels and their values

Nutrition labels on food products need to comply with strict guidelines. These guidelines may vary from country to country, but most guidelines require listing of the total carbohydrate, fat and protein amounts as well as a few other key nutrients. For example, food labels need to list the amount of sugar specifically and in some countries (like the US), the amount of added sugar needs to be listed. In addition, salt content may need to be listed. Then nutrition values are expressed in different ways: per 100 grams of a product, per serving and as a percentage of recommended daily intake. All estimates are for a person who expends 2000kcal per day. Please note that this is a (very) inactive person (because it is unfortunately the reality that our society is (very) sedentary on average.


Requirements for some nutrients increase with energy expenditure

Athletes may expend 2000 kcal (or more during their training alone) and athletes who are in training will rarely expend as little as 2000 kcal. For the average person in our society who hardly moves, the percentages on the package may be appropriate, they may not be for the athlete.


Salt

It is generally thought that the general population eats too much salt and this may increase blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease in a select subgroup of the general population. However, athletes sweat more, lose more salt and therefore will also need to replace more salt. This usually happens automatically as they eat more, but the general advice we see on packaging is meaningless for an athlete who may have slat requirements that are many times the daily recommended amounts for the general public.


Sodium

Although salt content is often mentioned on packaging, what really matters is the sodium content. This is the electrolyte that will affect absorption and therefore it would be more useful to know how much sodium is in a food then how much salt. Some countries will only lost total salt, Other countries will list sodium and perhaps one of two other electrolytes, but it would be useful to know total salt and sodium.


Sugar

The indication of sugar on sports nutrition products and gels is also questionable. What is more important is what the behaviour is of a particular carbohydrate. Here are some examples:

Fructose and galactose are both sugars but behave very different than glucose. Ingestion of these sugars results in a much lower insulin response and will deliver energy much slower. Yet, they are all grouped under “sugar”.


Another example: maltodextrin is not a sugar and neither is amylopectin starch. But, they behave identical to glucose. They result in a similar insulin response and are rapidly used as energy. So why make the distinction?


The label also suggests that sugar is always "bad" independent of the context and that is of course a wrong message. A rider in the Tour de France will go past the recommended sugar intake in the first hour.... with 5 more hours to go.... and would unlikely be finishing the stage without further sugar intake. Context is important and generalising can be dangerous.


Missing information

It would be much more useful to know about the exact ratios of different carbohydrates. How much fructose is in a product and how much maltodextrin for example because this will affect function. Glucose:fructose mixes (in the right ratio) can be ingested at high rates without gastro-intestinal problems and can give some benefits, whereas inappropriate ratios can cause more problems and have no or even negative effects on performance. These ratios are discussed in a previous blog.


Consumption guidelines

Manufacturers of sports nutrition products also have to indicate use of products on packaging and this means generalising so much that the advice is often wrong. For example, a gel may have the message consumes 2 gels per hour. But if you are running a 10k, this is really unnecessary, if you are doing an ironman it depends on whatever else you are consuming. I don’t have a solution for what the advice would have to be, but a generic message like: consume 1-3 gels per hour as part of your overall nutrition plan depending on your goals, your activity and the level of athlete you are. Such messages are too long to print on packaging, but would be more helpful.


Conclusion

Of course, lawmakers have to consider the general public in first instance (although I wonder who in the general public would buy an energy gel to consume whilst watching television?). However, at present the nutrition labels lack a lot of information for athletes that is meaningful. Many manufacturers of products do not list their ingredients in enough detail and therefore it is difficult to judge the behaviour (absorption, energy delivery, fluid delivery of the product).


The unhelpful labelling of sports nutrition products adds to the confusion as health and performance messages are getting mixed, athletes and non-athletes are being treated the same and someone using 2000 kcal per day is treated the same as someone using 4 times as much per day.


The bottomline is that some of the values on a label are good to know, but the guidance is usually irrelevant for an athlete, who trains hard.

Physical activity and especially hard training changes the requirements for macronutrients, for sodium, salt and likely several other micronutrients. There is also information that is misleading or irrelevant (such as the amount of sugar versus other carbohydrates) and information that would be useful is missing (carbohydrate ratios). Overall, the labels are not that useful for an athlete who trains hard.



Related blogs:

Carb mixes and benefits https://bit.ly/3mqIqEZ

Not all carbs are equal ‪ https://bit.ly/3iEy3er

Carbohydrate recommendations during exercise https://bit.ly/3kqYjJD