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All carbohydrates are sugar. It doesn’t matter if it is classified a “sugar” or a “starch” or even “fiber,” all types of carbohydrate are formed from 3 simple sugars – glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Since we are only dealing with, essentially, 3 different molecules, how do we have so many different types of carbs?
Well, we can have different sequences of sugars, which means a glucose could be linked up with another glucose then another glucose in a linear chain, or glucose could be linked up with a fructose then a galactose. These would both be 3 sugar molecules, but they would be fundamentally different in their biological effects including absorption, osmotic load, and glycemia.
While different sequences are possible, most starches are composed of glucose.
Maltodextrin, for example, is all glucose (and also found on supplement labels as “glucose polymers”), mostly linked together in straight lines. This introduces another concept – branching.
Branching is kind of like sequencing, but because we are almost always dealing with glucose, branching is a better “difference maker.” Notice how we keep saying “linear” and “chains” of glucose and other sugar molecules?
Carbohydrates are mostly straight in their structure with one sugar molecule following another sugar molecule following yet another sugar molecule etcetera. Under normal conditions, every once in a while the carbohydrate chain will “branch.” This means it takes off in two directions instead of continuing in one straight line.
Usually, the branch is not very long and when cleaved from the main chain, it would be an oligosaccharide by itself. Different branching patterns and lengths makes different sources of carbohydrate unique.
Branching carries an especially important function for endurance athletes and other athletes replacing carbohydrates, particularly during exercise.
Branching increases carbohydrate digestibility.
Have you ever had a sugar-based drink during exercise and it just sits in your stomach, feeling heavy? Sugars (as simple sugars and labeled as sugar on the nutrition facts – not to be confused with all carbohydrates) have low molecular weight and high osmolality.
Osmolality basically means how much water the carb will suck into the intestines during absorption. Starches have high molecular weight and low osmolality. They do not pull as much fluid into the gut, but they are digested more slowly, which is why they are recommended as healthier carbs – because they have a slower release of glucose into the blood.
For the endurance athlete, there are pros and cons to both sides.
In the scientific literature, this is referred to as “gastric emptying time.” Although the stomach usually gets the credit, it is actually in the intestines where carbohydrates are absorbed into the blood stream, so until the carbohydrate passes the stomach, blood glucose will not be increased and muscles will remain “hungry.”
Carbohydrates with more abundant branching have a faster gastric emptying time.
If you’ve ever had a carbohydrate such as cyclic cluster dextrin (CCD – also known as highly branched cyclic dextrin [HBCD]), Ucan, or vitargo, you may notice that you almost feel hungry ~30 minutes afterwards. This is because the stomach has mostly emptied its contents and you can actually sense the emptiness.
I, for one, love this effect because having to eat near exercise always feels like a burden to me. Having a fast gastric emptying time doesn’t only increase absorption and decrease potential for GI stress, it improves performance to a greater extent than starches like maltodextrin and sugars like glucose.
Now that we know about sequencing, branching, gastric emptying time and a bunch of other interesting aspects of carbohydrates and their metabolism, let’s talk about what is likely the best carbohydrate for athletes – cluster dextrin, aka cyclic cluster dextrin, aka highly branched cyclic dextrin, aka the spicy chicky choop choop. Okay, not that last one – I’ve officially seen too many Taco Bell commercials, but we know cluster dextrin is a hot customer just because it has so many aliases!
Cluster Dextrin® is research-proven to:
When compared head-to-head with maltodextrin, simple sugars, and other sources of carbs, cluster dextrin has a much faster gastric emptying time.
This has been documented to reduce athletes’ sensations of GI stress. Better yet, cluster dextrin increases total glucose absorption from the gut. It is slower to peak than pure sugar, yet slightly faster than other starches, but because of its highly branched structure, it is very easily metabolized and absorbed.
When cluster dextrin is consumed before or during exercise, its superiority for increasing total glucose absorption enhances the fuel supply to active muscles, which improves their ability to continue performing at high work rates.
Yes, and we believe it to be cluster dextrin. No carb is best for performance when ingested alone, but if there were to be a single source, our money is on cluster dextrin. It is faster than other starches but doesn’t carry with it the risk of GI stress, and its easy digestion makes it easier for the athlete to keep on fueling through an entire race.