An Objective Comparison of Chocolate Milk and Surge Recovery.
By Alan Aragon
INTRODUCTION TO CENSORSHIP
Recently, a member of the t-nation.com forums posted a question about whether or not it’s safe for her 12 year-old son to have a postexercise product called Surge instead of chocolate milk. Bill Roberts, a product formulator for Biotest (the supplement company behind t-nation.com), said essentially that the carb source in chocolate milk (sucrose) was inferior to the carb source in Surge (dextrose). I then challenged him to justify his position. My position was that using sucrose isn’t any more of a nutritional compromise than using dextrose. His answer was that “everyone knows” dextrose is superior to sucrose for postworkout glycogen resynthesis, and that sucrose is inherently unhealthier than dextrose. I countered his position by presenting scientific research refuting his claims. He then got all bent out of shape and started hurling ad hominems at me, obviously frustrated that he was losing a public battle.
In one of Bill’s posts, he literally said “everyone knows” more than a dozen times – while failing to provide a single trace of scientific research supporting his claims. If indeed everyone knew, and was in agreement with him, he would have had at least a handful of cronies sticking up for him, if for nothing else but to pad his fall to the mat. But alas, he received support from no one except one moderator, who I’ll quote as saying, “I refuse to back up my claims, so sue me”.
To Bill’s credit, the soccer mom who asked the original question wouldn’t listen to anyone but him, so kudos to Bill on his politician-like rhetorical skills. In the mean time, several members expressed their disappointment in Bill’s neglect for citing research evidence to back his stance. I also know for a fact that a good handful of posts from innocent observers (supporting my side of the debate) were censored from posting in the thread. This was presumably because their posts made Bill look even more uninformed.
It’s not surprising that people’s posts were blocked from appearing in the thread because eventually, my own posts never made it into the thread. At that point, I knew that continuing the debate was just not going to happen. Nevertheless, all of the key posts made it through; all of the posts that clearly showed Bill’s inability (and unwillingness) to engage in scientific debate were right there, plain as day. Ultimately, Bill ended up looking as prideful as he was ignorant. In order to save face, either Bill or administrators of t-nation.com had the thread deleted.
Ironically, I recently wrote an article for t-nation.com (A Musclehead’s Guide to Alcohol). If I may say so myself, it was a hit, judging by the reader feedback and frequent links back to the article. Given that, it was downright humorous to be censored by the forum administrators shortly after contributing to their library of wisdom. In the following sections, I’ll compare the components of Surge with chocolate milk for postexercise recovery. For the sake of simplicity and context-specificity, I’ll judge the application of the two products to the target market of Surge, which consists of general fitness and bodybuilding fans.
MEET THE COMPETITORS
In the brown corner, we have chocolate milk. The ingredients of chocolate milk vary slightly across brands, but in general, the ingredients are: milk, sugar (or high fructose corn syrup), cocoa processed with alkali, natural and artificial flavors, salt, carrageenan, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D3. Like regular milk, chocolate milk is available in varying levels of milk fat. For the purposes of this comparison, I’ll use the one most consumers are most likely to choose, the low-fat variety.
In the red corner, we have Surge Recovery (which I’ll continue to abbreviate as Surge). The ingredient list is as follows: d-glucose (dextrose), whey-protein hydrolysate, maltodextrin, natural and artificial flavors, sucralose. Other ingredients include L-leucine and DL-phenylalanine.
Research behind the products
What’s exciting about this comparison is that both of these products have been highly heralded and hyped in their respective arenas. Surge in its exact formulation doesn’t have any peer-reviewed research behind it. However, Berardi et al reported that a solution of similar construction to Surge (33% whey hydrolysate, 33% glucose and 33% maltodextrin) was slightly superior for glycogen resynthesis at 6 hrs postexercise compared to a 100% maltodextrin solution. Effects on muscle protein flux were not measured.
Chocolate milk has thus far had an impressive run in the research examining its applications to various sporting goals [2,3]. It has performed equally well for rehydration and glycogen resynthesis compared to carb-based sports drinks, and it has outperformed them (and soy-based drinks) for protecting and synthesizing muscle protein. A standout study in this area was a comparison of chocolate milk, Gatorade, and Endurox R4 (a sports drink with a 4:1 carb to protein ratio) . Chocolate milk was equally effective as Gatorade for total work output and prolonging time to exhaustion. Interestingly, both of the latter products outperformed Endurox R4 in both tests. The researchers speculated that the use of maltodextrin rather than sucrose (yes, you read that correctly) as the dominant carbohydrate source was the Achilles heel of Endurox R4. More on the virtues of sucrose instead of straight glucose for exercise applications will be covered.
QUANTITATIVE MACRONUTRIENT COMPARISON
Product Serving Kcal Protein Carbohydrate Fat
Surge 3 scoops 340 25 grams 46 grams 2.5 grams
Chocolate Milk 17.3 oz 340 17.3 grams 56.3 grams 6.5 grams
When isocalorically matched, Surge and lowfat chocolate milk have the expected similarities and differences. The suggested serving of Surge has 7.7 g more protein than chocolate milk, while chocolate milk has 10.3 g more carbohydrate. While the lesser protein content of chocolate milk might on the surface seem like a point scored for Surge, this is actually a non-issue.
Recent research by Tang et al found that as little as 10g whey plus 21 g fructose taken after resistance exercise was able to stimulate a rise in muscle protein synthesis . Considering that an isocaloric serving of lowfat chocolate milk has 17.3 g protein plus 56.3 g carbohydrate, a hike in muscle protein synthesis (as well as inhibition of protein breakdown) would be easily achieved. Chocolate milk has 4g more fat than Surge. Again, this might be viewed as a detriment for those conserving fat calories, but it’s still a low absolute amount of fat. This also may have a potential benefit which I’ll discuss in a minute. Bottom line: there’s no clear winner in this department; there’s too many contingencies to make a blanket judgement.
QUALITATIVE MACRONUTRIENT COMPARISON
Surge uses whey protein hydrolysate (WPH). In theory, WPH is favorable because it’s already broken down into peptide fragments. This spurred the assumption that it would have faster absorption and uptake by muscle, which in turn would result in greater net anabolism. However, a recent study by Farnfield et al observed the exact opposite when WPH was compared with whey protein isolate (WPI), which consists of intact whole protein . WPH not only was absorbed more slowly, but its levels in the blood also declined more rapidly, resulting in a much weaker response curve. Leucine and the rest of the BCAAs were significantly better absorbed from WPI than WPH. The researchers concluded that total amino acid availability of WPI was superior to WPH.
Of note, Surge is fortified with leucine, a branched chain amino acid (BCAA) that plays a critical role in muscle protein synthesis. An isocaloric serving of chocolate milk has 1.7g leucine. This may or may not have any impact, especially within the context of a high protein intake typical of the athletic population. It’s important to keep in mind that most high-quality animal-based protein is 18-26% BCAA . Adding a few grams of supplemental BCAA to a pre-existent high intake within the diet is not likely to yield any magic. Surge is also fortified with phenylalanine, presumably for the purpose of enhancing the insulin response. Again, this is an unnecessary tactic since insulin’s primary action is the inhibition of muscle protein breakdown. This antiproteolytic effect of nutrient-mediated insulin response is maximal at elevations just slightly above fasting levels .
Chocolate milk’s protein is no different than that of regular milk. Milk protein is roughly 20% whey and 80% casein. Thus far in the scientific literature, comparisons of casein-dominant proteins with whey for sports applications are evenly split. Some studies show casein as superior (in spite of a higher leucine content in the whey treatments) [9,10], while others point to whey as the victor [11,12]. The only certainty is that it can’t be assumed that faster is better when it comes to promoting net anabolism. An acute study on post-ingestion amino acid kinetics by LaCroix suggests that milk protein is best left as-is rather than isolating its protein fractions . Compared to total milk protein, whey’s amino acid delivery was too transient, and underwent rapid deamination during the postprandial period. The authors concluded that milk proteins had the best nutritional quality, which suggested a synergistic effect between its casein and whey. Bottom line: chocolate milk gets the edge; WPH has thus far bit the dust compared to WPI in a head-to-head comparison, and whey has not been consistently superior to total milk protein.
Surge has dextrose (synonymous with glucose) as its sole carbohydrate source, while chocolate milk has an even mix of sucrose (in the form of either sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup) and lactose. While it’s common to assume that dextrose is superior to sucrose for postexercise glycogen resynthesis, research doesn’t necessarily agree. A trial by Bowtell et al showed a glucose polymer to synthesize more glycogen by the 2-hr mark postworkout . However, two other trials whose postexercise observation periods were 4 and 6 hours respectively saw no significant difference in glycogen storage between sucrose and glucose [15,16].
Perhaps the most overlooked advantage of a fructose-containing carbohydrate source (sucrose is 50% fructose) is that it supports liver glycogen better than a glucose-only source, as in the case of Surge. A little-known fact is that hepatic glycogenolysis (liver glycogen use) occurs to a significant degree during exercise, and the magnitude of glycogenolysis is intensity-dependent . Illustrating the potential superiority of sucrose over glucose, Casey et al saw no difference in muscle glycogen resynthesis 4 hrs postexercise . However, there was more liver glycogen resynthesis in the sucrose group, and this correlated with a slightly greater exercise capacity.
One of the potential concerns of consuming a large amount of sucrose instead of glucose is how the 50% fructose content in sucrose might be metabolized from a lipogenic standpoint. Answering this question directly, McDevitt saw no difference in de novo lipogenesis (conversion to fat) between the massive overfeeding of either glucose or sucrose at 135g above maintenance needs . Another potential concern is the use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in chocolate milk. The common fear of HFCS being some sort of special agent that undermines health is simply not grounded in science. HFCS is virtually identical to sucrose both in chemical structure and metabolic effect . Independent researcher John White eloquently clarified HFCS misconceptions in a recent review, which I’ll quote .
“Although examples of pure fructose causing metabolic upset at high concentrations abound, especially when fed as the sole carbohydrate source, there is no evidence that the common fructose-glucose sweeteners do the same. Thus, studies using extreme carbohydrate diets may be useful for probing biochemical pathways, but they have no relevance to the human diet or to current consumption. I conclude that the HFCS-obesity hypothesis is supported neither in the United States nor worldwide.”
It bears mentioning that lactose intolerance can prohibit regular milk use for certain susceptible individuals. However, this can be remedied by using Lactaid brand milk, or by using lactase pills or drops. Bottom line: For those who can digest lactose or are willing to take the extra step to make it digestible, chocolate milk wins. But since there are those who can’t or won’t do what’s required to tolerate lactose, I’m calling this a tie.
Coincidentally, Surge and chocolate milk have identical proportions of saturated fat. Lowfat chocolate milk has more fat than Surge, which would cause some folks to call a foul for postworkout purposes. However, a trial by Elliot et al found that postexercise ingestion of whole milk was superior for increasing net protein balance than fat-free milk . The most striking aspect about this trial was that the calorie-matched dose of fat free milk contained 14.5g protein, versus 8.0 g in the whole milk. Apparently, postworkout fat intake (particularly milk fat) is nothing to fear, and may even be beneficial from the standpoint of synthesizing muscle protein. Bottom line: it’s a tie, since there is very little evidence favoring one fat profile/amount versus the other. On one hand, you can be saving fat calories by going with Surge. On the other hand, postworkout milk fat might potentially enhance protein synthesis. Things come out even.
MICRONUTRIENT COMPARISON (per 340 kcal serving)*
Surge Recovery Chocolate Milk
Calcium 180 mg 624 mg
Cholesterol 75 mg 16 mg
Leucine 4000 mg 1714 mg
Magnesium 20 mg 70 mg
Phenylalanine 2000 mg 844 mg
Phosphorous 120 mg 558 mg
Potassium 400 mg 920 mg
Sodium 200 mg 329 mg
*This comparison is limited to the micronutrients on the Surge label. And yes, I realize that not all of the above are technically micronutrients.
A quick glance at the above chart shows that chocolate milk is markedly more nutrient-dense, with the exception of a higher content of leucine and phenylalanine in Surge, whose significance (or lack of) I discussed earlier. As an interesting triviality, both have a low cholesterol content, but Surge has 4.6 times more. Chocolate milk has more sodium, but it also has a significantly higher potassium-to-sodium ratio. Bottom line: chocolate milk wins this one decisively.
Chocolate milk by the half gallon (64oz, or about 2000 ml) is approximately $3.00 USD. Sticking with our 340 kcal figure, this yields 3.7 servings, which boils down to $0.81 per serving. A tub of Surge costs $36.00 and yields 16 servings (3 scoops, 340 kcals per serving). This boils down to $2.25 per serving. That’s 277% more expensive than chocolate milk. Even on a protein-matched basis, Surge is still roughly double the price. Bottom line: chocolate milk is many times easier on your wallet.
Convenience & taste
Convenience is the single area where Surge wins. Being a powder, it’s non-perishable, requiring no refrigeration. This makes it more easily portable. Taste will always be, well, a matter of taste. I highly doubt that in a blinded test that Surge would win over chocolate milk. Bottom line: Surge is more convenient, but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that chocolate milk would taste better to most people.
I have no vested interest in glorifying chocolate milk, nor do I stand to benefit by vilifying Surge. My goal was to objectively examine the facts. Using research as the judge, chocolate milk was superior or equal to Surge in all categories. The single exception was a win for Surge in the convenience department. So, if the consumer were forced to choose between the two products, the decision would boil down to quality at the expense of convenience, or vice versa. I personally would go for the higher quality, lower price, and strength of the scientific evidence. Chocolate milk it is.
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