Usually when we are debating about what carbohydrates are best, it is centred around comparing food groups like fruit, grains, cereals, lollies and things like potato and rice. Instead, this time we are going to look at the many options of carbohydrate powders and discuss what each carbohydrate type offers before finishing with my recommendation on which one you should choose.
It’s time to get the sweet SWEET low down on all things carbohydrates.
- Which one is the best?
- What makes it the best?
- And should there be anything we need to look out for?
Often when people discuss carbohydrates, one of the primary aspects of consideration brought up by people debating the varying forms of carbohydrates is their GI.
If you’re not sure on GI and want to learn more, read this article first and then come back to here and take off from where you left.
Everyone else, carry on reading…
By focusing on GI as the primary aspect of carbohydrate quality when determining what food sources are best, some would argue that you are in fact missing the forest for the trees.
What do I mean by that?
Well, to miss the forest for the trees, it means you focusing too heavily on the smaller things (the trees) and missing the bigger picture (the forest).
Now…Normally I would agree with this statement, as comparing carbohydrate food sources in isolation is often missing how they are implemented into an entire diet regime, but for the point of this article, this is exactly what I am going to do.
We are going to focus on the minutia!
There are 3 key elements to consider when determining what carbohydrate powder is the best for you.
- Speed of gastric emptying
- Speed of blood glucose rise and fall
- The reason for implementing carbohydrate nutrient timing
These 3 key factors are what will help you decide which carbohydrate is best for your desired outcome.
Now… where to first?
Currently there are a small handful of commonly used products on the market, which include but are not limited to:
- High Molecular Weight
- Waxy maize (corn) and
- Vitargo (barley)
- Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin (HBCD) (cluster dextrin – corn)
- Low Molecular Weight
- Dextrose (DE), glucose and other monosaccharide’s
- Maltodextrin (MD)and other disaccharide’s/polysaccharide’s
Now what does all of this mean?
Well…The higher the molecular weight of an ingredient, the lower its osmolality generally is and similarly the lower its osmotic pressure within the stomach it causes.
Again what does that even mean?
High molecular weight with low osmolality and low osmotic pressure means the carbohydrates can pass the stomach with ease and enter the small intestine at speed.
This allows for fast initial blood glucose levels, which are then sustained over time for steady state energy availability.
Conversely, a lower molecular weight generally requires more digestion in the stomach, which comes with a potential increased risk of gastric stress.
This allows for fast initial blood glucose levels, as well as potential peak in insulin with a sharp but short availability of energy.
Which brings us back to the 3 critical factors of consideration when determining whether or not using a carbohydrate powder is first of all, necessary, and secondly which type of carbohydrate suits your requirements most appropriately.
Based on the research, the following can be said about high molecular weight (HMW) carbs versus low molecular weight (LMW) carbohydrates.
- The molecular weight of a HMW carb ranges between 500 000-700 000
- The molecular weight of common LMW carb ranges between 180-24 000
- The best performing HMW carbohydrate with the most research is Vitargo, followed by HBCD
- Karbolyn has very limited research
- Despite being a HMW carbohydrate, Waxy Maize Starch is a slow digesting, low GI carbohydrate that acts characteristically similar to white bread more than it does a normal HMW carbohydrate
- HMW carbohydrates may help maintain increased lipid oxidation due to a reduced impact on insulin levels
- LMW carbohydrates tend to spike blood glucose a little faster with a coinciding rise in insulin to facilitate carbohydrate absorption
Now…If you were reading those points in isolation, one may postulate that it is easy to see that HMW carbohydrates are better than LMW carbohydrates, however, what about the bigger picture?
Their theory is great, but what about their actual application?
Utilising the information derived from multiple studies, the current research suggests that there is very little benefit for promoting the consumption of HMW carbohydrates if your goal is to simply improve carbohydrate intake or even to replenish glycogen levels over time.
In a study completed by Pannoni et al (2011), they compared the blood glucose impact of Vitargo, Dextrose (DE), Maltodextrin (MD) and Waxy Maize (WM) in order to determine which form is better for performance and glycogen storage.
Measuring blood glucose post prandial, Vitargo, DE and MD all increased blood glucose levels above placebo at a similar rate, however, Vitargo caused a slower decline in blood glucose while MD and DE declined far sharper.
Waxy Maize (WM) on the other hand never made it within 30% of the peak levels of MD, DE and Vitargo, yet maintained the highest levels of glucose at 180min post consumption.
Previously it was hypothesised that this effect on blood glucose from WM may reduce appetite and prevent energy consumption, however, this was found not to be true in the study conducted by Sands et al (2009). To this date, my only foreseeable use for WM starch in isolation may be for individuals looking for a carbohydrate to provide super sustained blood glucose levels, however, it is notorious for causing gastric issues.
What about Performance?
Looking at an exercise bout in isolation, Vitargo, DE, MD and HBCD all tend to perform within the same statistical range, however, in repeat bout training where an athlete is required to perform at peak levels soon after an initial bout of exercise, HBCD and Vitargo have been linked to a potential improvement in performance for those specific scenarios only.
So, in essence, both LMW and HMW are great for providing energy immediately, whereas HMW carbohydrates may help facilitate improved glycogen retention for repeat exercise bouts.
Based on this, it is fair to say that all carbohydrates in this instance are pro performance, with minor differences between the HMW and the LMW products.
But does that mean all are created equal?
There are a few take home points to consider here.
- If you experience no gastric stress and are budget conscious, using MD or DE for your pre/intra or post workout carbohydrate source is perfectly fine
- If you do experience gastric stress such as bloating or diarrhea on MD, WM or DE, opting for a HMW product like Vitargo or HBCD would be encouraged
- Regardless of the product you choose, ensuring your carbohydrate solution is mixed between 5% and 10% solution is vitally important for supporting an isotonic environment and improving blood glucose utilisation as well as reducing the risk for stomach stress. This equates to 5-10g of carbs for every 100ml of water
- If not consuming a meal within 3-4 hours of your training session, HMW carbohydrates will generally provide you with a more sustainable release of glucose into the blood and may be advantageous for individuals raining 2x per day.
Outside of those 4 considerations for powdered carbohydrates, there are 2 primary take home messages I want you to understand.
- Daily calorie and macronutrient distribution will have the greatest impact on strength, performance and recovery
- HMW carbohydrates offer fast gastric emptying and a sustained blood glucose level without a concomitant rise in insulin
Understanding these two principles will allow you to choose a carbohydrate that suits your preference the most.
You simply can not beat daily nutrition consistency, however, should you wish to optimise your approach, using a HMW carbohydrate may be slightly more beneficial than your traditional MD or DE if your budget allows it and the aforementioned carbohydrates cause you gastric stress.
Otherwise, all carbohydrates are pro performance and can help you work harder, faster and go for longer!
Sands, A., Leidy, H., Hamaker, B., Maguire, P. and Campbell, W. (2009). Consumption of the slow-digesting waxy maize starch leads to blunted plasma glucose and insulin response but does not influence energy expenditure or appetite in humans. Nutrition Research, 29(6), pp.383-390.
Pannoni, N. (2011). The effect of various carbohydrate supplements on postprandial blood glucose response in female soccer players. University of South Florida (Thesis submission).
Almada, A., Van Eck, L., Shah, M., Jones, M., Jagim, A., Dalton, R., Mitchell, J. and Oliver, J. (2015). Effect of post-exercise ingestion of different molecular weight carbohydrate solutions. Part 1: The glucose and insulin response. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(S1).
Takashi Furuyashiki, Hidenori Tanimoto, Yasuhiro Yokoyama, Yasuyuki Kitaura, Takashi Kuriki & Yoshiharu Shimomura (2014) Effects of ingesting highly branched cyclic dextrin during endurance exercise on rating of perceived exertion and blood components associated with energy metabolism, Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, 78:12, 2117-2119, DOI: 10.1080/09168451.2014.943654
Qin, L., Wang, Q., Fang, Z., Wang, T., Yu, A., Zhou, Y., Zheng, Y. and Yi, M. (2017). Effects of Three Commercially Available Sports Drinks on Substrate Metabolism and Subsequent Endurance Performance in a Postprandial State. Nutrients, 9(4), p.377.