Is fructose in energy gels and sports drinks bad for you?

The lowdown on whether fructose really is a problem, and what the alternatives are

Energy gel

With most energy gels/sports drinks on the market containing fructose, and some media reports claiming that the ingredient may be a contributor to the suffering of gout and arthritis, we take a look at what it is and whether there are any alternatives.

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Fructose is a sugar – a monosaccharide or ‘single sugar’ to be precise – that doesn’t require enzymatic breakdown prior to absorption into the bloodstream. It readily crosses the gut lining and is quickly available as an energy source. Fructose occurs naturally in fruit where it’s bound to fibres and present with many nutrients and plant compounds that work to effectively metabolise the fructose, as well as help to slow its absorption, avoiding ‘spikes’
in blood glucose.

Where fructose can be a problem is when it’s processed, or taken in excess as ‘added sugar’. Certain susceptible people (for example, diabetics) also need to watch their intake via ‘natural’ sweeteners such as honey, maple sugar and agave nectar. In this case, you’re right, it’s linked to insulin resistance and associated with metabolic syndrome.

Too much fructose can also increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It may also drive up uric acid levels, the substance that causes gout. Plus, because fructose is metabolised in the liver, excess amounts can lead to fatty liver and high triglyceride levels, as well as weight gain and obesity. 

The main ‘fructose’ to avoid, at all costs if possible, is a highly processed form called high-fructose corn syrup or HFCS. HFCS is a fructose-glucose liquid sweetener alternative to sucrose (white table sugar) and is used as a cheap sugar replacement in many packaged food products and drinks. Experts also believe that HFCS is strongly linked to disease. Gels often do contain fructose, but before you avoid them totally, just remember that we take gels because they’re effective at raising blood sugar levels quickly. 

Plus, the quantity of fructose (or other types of sugars such as glucose and maltodextrins) in gels and sports drinks is there in amounts scientists know is needed and effectively utilised during or after exercise. As an alternative to gels, I’d suggest you take ‘sugar’ in its most natural form in fresh fruit. Bananas are easy to digest and the fructose (and glucose) naturally present is fast absorbed along with electrolyte minerals, such as potassium and magnesium.

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For lots more advice on all things fuel-related, head to our Nutrition section