There have been few new buzzwords to come to the scene of carbohydrate products in recent years, as it was for decades debates about optimal carb ratios, carb types etc., recent years have brought about an interesting scientific addition to carbohydrate drinks and gels, and that is hydrogel technology. Let’s take a look at exactly what this is. You may have heard the term but are not sure what exactly hydrogel technology is, you wouldn’t be alone in this regard – hydrogel technology basically refers to the addition of two compounds, sodium alginate or pectin, to a carbohydrate gel, drink or powder. These items add no change in texture or to the structure of the product, until they reach your stomach, as the lower acidity (PH value of 2) in your gut activates both sodium alginate and pectin to form a gel like structure around the carbohydrate molecules in the matrix. Just to reiterate, hydrogel technology results in the formation of a gel around the carbohydrate molecules in sports products once they reach your stomach acid.
That’s all very interesting, but why would researchers and sports nutrition companies go to all this effort to make a product that has this very specific characteristic? Well, in a nutshell, it all boils down to gastric emptying rate, and how this is effected during exercise and sensors in your intestinal tract. To explain this before moving forward, it is pertinent to note that exercise itself reduces gastric emptying rate, and gut function in general, due to a major loss of gut blood supply and change in nervous system activation that is all part of the normal response to exercise.
To further explain, the presence of nutrients, namely glucose and other carbohydrate molecules, at the wall of your intestinal tract results in an increase the hormone GLP-1, which slows down gastric emptying rate (think of it as a feedback loop in your body to make sure you have a constant stream of nutrition trickling into your intestines, if this mechanism did not exist you would have a lot of diarrhoea, frequently!).
Hydrogel technology does a number of things, number one, some research to date has shown it can improve the rate of gastric emptying rate by up to over 50% in some trials, which can result practically in an athlete having superior delivery rates of carbs to be absorbed and used, secondly, the fact that the carbohydrate molecules are covered in a gel coating “sneaks” them into your intestinal tract without raising the GLP-1 alarm and resulting in the aformentioned feedback loop kicking in. These factors point to the possibility that hydrogel products such as Maurten or Beta Fuel may improve carbohydrate delivery during exercise and may reduce the risk of stomach upset during exercise, though these factors still need to be fully explored, as does the idea that individuals using antacid medications may not be able to benefit from hydrogel technology products.
I hope this article was informative and that you now have a good grasp as to what exactly hydrogel is, what it does and what effects it might have.
Happy trails, Evan Lynch – The Aid Station dietitian & performance nutritionist.