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High-Fructose Corn Syrup Vs. Sucrose and Dextrose in Sports Drinks

By Steve Hamilton

Hydration is important when exercising, but if you wait until you're thirsty your body has trouble catching up. Sports drinks attempt to make fluid consumption more appealing with vibrant colors, energizing names and a pleasant taste. To sway you toward their brand, drink manufacturers use many different formulations. Whichever flavor you prefer, with ingredients such as fructose, sucrose and dextrose the one thing you can count on is that it will most likely be sweet.

Shallow Water

Water is good for you, especially when you're exercising. Depending on the intensity and duration of your workout, however, water alone might not be enough to keep you going at peak efficiency. With their balanced combination of electrolytes and carbohydrates, sports drinks can speed up fluid absorption in the body, thus increasing hydration and boosting energy levels at the same time.


While the electrolytes in sports drinks aren't normally a concern, the carbohydrates can be. Carbs in sports drinks come from sugars such as sucrose, dextrose and fructose, among others. They all make beverages taste good. The main difference between these nutritional sweeteners is how hard your body has to work to make use of them, which in turn impacts how well they are tolerated as well as your athletic performance.

Sucrose and Dextrose

Sucrose is otherwise known as table sugar. It has a familiar, pleasant taste, is easily digestible and readily absorbed by the body. In an article for The Sport Factory's Nutrition News, dietitian Ilana Katz states that when consumed in moderation, sucrose has positive qualities as a fuel source in sports drinks. Dextrose is quite similar in taste to sucrose, but has a higher glycemic index. That means it causes a more rapid increase in blood glucose levels, which provides a quick energy boost but can eventually result in low blood sugar. Dextrose is therefore often mixed with other sugars to help temper those effects. Indeed, finding the correct mixture and balance of carbohydrates is a major concern of sports drink manufacturers.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

High-fructose corn syrup is another concern of drink manufacturers, as well as a subject of hot debate among researchers and dietitians. HFCS is made by converting half of the glucose in corn syrup to fructose. Manufacturers like it because it is a very cost effective sweetener. Proponents point out that HFCS is not that different chemically from sucrose. However, researchers at Princeton University argue that what differences there are between the two are significant. In the Princeton studies, rats fed HFCS gained more weight than those fed on sucrose.

The Right Amount of a Good Thing

Too much sugar of any kind can blow your diet, so it's a good idea to use sport drinks for their intended purpose and in moderation. Although the debate concerning HFCS and excess weight gain is far from over, it is well known that fructose has a slower absorption rate and can cause gastrointestinal distress in some individuals. For that reason alone, it would seem prudent to avoid sports drinks that use HFCS as the predominant carbohydrate. At least one major brand of sports drink no longer uses HFCS in its products, citing athlete preference for a sucrose-dextrose blend.

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