Does cola products aid athletic performance? Anectotal evidence from ultra events is very supportive of their limited supplemental usage. In many races sodas are consumed "de-fizzed" toward the end of the event to provide energy boost (as the only beverage or in conjunction with some other type of sport drink). Some athletes prefer colas (Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, etc.) for their taste and quickly assimilated carbohydrate calories and coffeine. Some prefer Mountain Dew which, in addition to sugar and caffeine, contains the flavoring brominated vegetable oil (which may act as a stimulant and/or "stomach settler" in some people). To use colas or not, it is your decision but see below what it made of.
WATER: Almost 90% of cola is carbonated water. Unexceptional stuff, although cola is a good bet in locations with poor and dangerous quality of drinking water. Adding carbon dioxide to water produces carbonic acid which, although weak, can erode teeth.
SWEETENER: Normally sugar, about 35 mg. in a 330 ml-ca, equivalent to 7 teaspoons in a mug of tea. This packs some 140 calories. It has been argued that cola raises blood sugar levels and so decreases your appetite for more nutritious foods. What's more, sweeteners may impair the body's appetite control. Sugar is also the great teeth rotter due to their acidity. Diet colas contain artificial sweeteners, mainly aspartame (Nutrasweet). In the USA, sugar packet with Nutrasweet contain warnings that it may be carcinogenic. Additional concern is the relatively high carbohydrate content of some colas which may decrease gastric emptying. Individuals vary in their ability to absorb sugars, with some more than capable of consuming colas' typical 10% solution of sugars (primarily sucrose and/or high fructose corn sweeteners).
FLAVORINGS: Phosphoric acid balances the cola's sweetness to provide the characteristic tart taste. This acid is so strong that it can desolve human tooth in 48 hours. Phosphorus has a tendency to bleach calcium stores from the bones in order to maintain blood serum minimum levels. But it may provide additional phosphate to assist energy production. The primary muscle fuel is adenosine tri phospate (ATP). As fatigue builts, phosphate is lost for the adenosine molecules. Adenosine is also absorbed on receptors located on cell walls as a protective measure. That means there is less adenosine around to be re-phosphorylated. One way to get that adenosine back in circulation is to provide molecules which bind more tightly to the receptors that does adenosine. One particular family of molecules which will do that is the xanthines found in coffee, tea and chocolate. So it maybe that the caffeine gives athletes a lift by making adenosine more available when in a state of fatigue. The sugar provides the energy for bringing the adenoisine back to the useful ATP form. Certain parallel can be drawn with sport specific nutrition. For example, chocolate flavored gels have maltodextrine to provide the caloric energy, and the chocolate provides the xanthine theobromine to bind to adenosine receptors. A similar action could be available from sport nutrition products which contain xanthines in other forms (Guarana, for example). Caffeine is water soluble, so it provides a fast boost/fast fade combination. Theobromine (the xanthine in chocolate) and Guarana (a vegetable source of xanthines) are less soluble, so are slower to act but also slower to fade. On other side, during the race we already produce acids, which our bodies are continually trying to eliminate, so additional acidity maybe harmful to the performance.
STIMULANTS: Between 40 mg. and 60 mg. of caffeine are added to each can (a cup of instant coffee contains 60-65 mg) as a stimulant. Most studies on the effects of caffeine done by researchers during what they define as "endurance event" (typically less than one hour), so their studies are not really relevant to the truly endurance distance athletes.
COLORING: The brown color comes from caramel, basically burnt sugar, which has a bitter taste. Caramel is widely used in soft and alcoholic drinks, sauces and canned meats. There have been suggestions that it is carcinogenic and causes white blood cell problems in animal tests.
PRESERVATIVES: Sodium benzoate stops contamination by microbes. It's considered safe, although there have been claims that it provokes allergies, asthma and skin reactions.
While conventional scientific wisdom might not support consumption of Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, and other sodas, consumption of such beverages by athletes remains pervasive. It may be the cellular science or just the taste and the availability that contribute to the popularity of such drinks for endurance athletes.
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