Potato-power: According to a new study of bicycle enthusiasts, potatoes make a savoury alternative to sweetened commercial gels used by athletes for a quick carbohydrate boost during exercise. Graphic by Michael B. Vincent
It’s a story of 12 cyclists, a two-hour endurance challenge, and the humble potato.
In a bid to discover new foods that will fuel athletes without the “flavour fatigue” caused by over-sweet carbohydrate gels, researchers at the University of Illinois pitted potato puree against commercial gels.
To find out the pedal-power potential of potatoes, they recruited 12 keen cyclists. All had been training for years, averaging 165 miles (267 kilometres) per week on their bicycles. The cyclists all ate the same thing for 24 hours before they underwent a 120-minute cycling challenge and time trial, designed to mirror typical race conditions.
During the “race”, they were randomly assigned to either consume just water, to consume a commercially available carbohydrate gel, or to consume an equivalent amount of carbohydrates from potatoes.
The conclusion? That consuming pureed potato during prolonged exercise works just as well as a commercial carbohydrate gel in sustaining blood glucose levels and boosting performance in trained athletes.
"We found no differences between the performance of cyclists who got their carbohydrates by ingesting potatoes or gels at recommended amounts of about 60 grams per hour during the experiments," said Nicholas Burd, kinesiology and community health professor at the university. "Both groups saw a significant boost in performance that those consuming only water did not achieve."
Plasma glucose concentrations went up by a similar amount in those consuming potatoes and gels. Their heart rates increased by a similar amount over the water-only cyclists, and they were speedier on the time trial.
"Potatoes are a promising alternative for athletes because they represent a cost-effective, nutrient-dense and whole-food source of carbohydrates," the researchers reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology. "Furthermore, they serve as a savoury race fuel option when compared (with) the high sweetness of (carbohydrate) gels."
There was a downside: the potato-powered cyclists experienced significantly more gastrointestinal bloating, pain and flatulence than the other groups, perhaps because more potato was needed to match the glucose provided by the gels.
"Nevertheless, average GI symptoms were lower than previous studies, indicating that both (carbohydrate) conditions were well-tolerated by the majority of the study's cyclists," the researchers wrote.
"All in all, our study is a proof-of-concept showing that athletes may use whole-food sources of carbohydrates as an alternative to commercial products to diversify race-fueling menus," Burd said.
Real food for sports is something many athletes are increasingly keen on, as they seek to avoid artificially-sweetened performance foods. It’s a trend that’s powering the success of brands like Veloforte and Soreen in the UK, and Barnana in the US. You can read more about it in our report "Real food": the strategy that's transforming sports nutrition”
The Alliance for Potato Research & Education supported the study.