October, 2012

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Athletes Benefit From Bananas

By David C. Nieman, Drph, Facsm, Director, Human Performance Lab,
North Carolina Research Campus; Professor, Appalachian State University (Boone, NC)

A newly published study in the prestigious journal, PLoS ONE [a peer-reviewed, open-access online resource reporting scientific studies from all disciplines], confirms that bananas are an effective and healthy energy source for athletes. My research group from the Kannapolis-based Appalachian State University Human Performance Laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus used a new technology called metabolomics and showed that bananas provided fuel to the working muscles just as well as a popular sports drink. Metabolomics using mass spectrometry-based techniques to measure the shift in hundreds of metabolites, or small molecules in the body that occur in response to nutrition and exercise interventions. 

Bananas are common at road race events because they are a cost-effective energy source for athletes, and contain high amounts of the sweat electrolyte potassium. A direct comparison of bananas with sports drinks as a fuel source during exercise had not yet been investigated. In the PLoS ONE publication, we theorized that bananas offered several unique advantages for athletes.  One medium banana contains about 27 grams of carbohydrate (half as sugars), 105 calories and is a good source of potassium and vitamin B6. Potassium is an important electrolyte during exercise, and the sugars in bananas are a mixture of glucose, fructose and sucrose, similar to what is found in sports drinks. The glycemic index of bananas is 51 (low-to-medium rating), meaning the sugars in a banana are not released too fast or too slow, an important potential benefit for the exercising athlete. The antioxidant value of bananas is higher than most athletes perceive, and is equal to levels found in kiwi fruit and orange juice. Thus, as hyothesized, bananas appear to be a unique mixture of carbohydrates, nutrients and antioxidants that may provide good nutrition support during prolonged and intensive exercise. 

Trained cyclists from the Charlotte, NC, metropolitan area were recruited and agreed to engage in two 75-kilometer cycling race trials in the Human Performance Lab. In randomized order, cyclists either ingested specified quantities of a sports drink or bananas. Results from this study support the perception of athletes that bananas are a healthy alternative to sports drinks.  We had trained cyclists race 75 kilometers on their bicycles on CompuTrainers (RacerMate, Seattle, WA) in the lab. In randomized order, subjects exercised once while drinking about one cup of sports beverage every 15 minutes or a second time while consuming one-half banana every 15 minutes with water. An in-depth metabolomics analysis of blood samples obtained from the athletes showed that bananas provided all of the fuel needed for intense exercise, and equaled the rate of the sports drink.

The typical increase in inflammation and oxidative stress following intense exercise was attenuated to a similar degree by bananas and the sports drink, significantly below levels experienced when just water was consumed. Bananas also provided added nutritional benefits including a boost in antioxidant capacity, and significant potassium and vitamin B6.

We concluded that ingestion of bananas before and during prolonged and intensive exercise is an effective strategy, both in terms of fuel substrate utilization and cost, for supporting performance.  Most athletes are health-conscious, and try to consume nutrient-dense diets to support their heavy training. The data from this study supports the growing trend of athletes to use fresh and dried fruit as substitutes for sugar-laden sports drinks. We are currently conducting similar studies using watermelon slurry, a blended fruit and vegetable juice, and selected flavonoids from blueberries and green tea to determine their efficacy in helping the athlete meet the physiologic demands of prolonged and intensive exercise.

Marketing Push Needed

The question of how produce ought to be promoted continues to vex the industry. The effort to launch a national generic promotion program, similar to those for beef, milk and other industries, collapsed due to little enthusiasm by those who were expected to pay the bill. The Produce for Better Health Foundation, which led the national 5-a-Day campaign and now heralds the Fruits & Veggies: More Matters campaign, certainly has earnest leadership, but there is just not a lot of evidence that broad-based health marketing on this scale boosts produce consumption.

One way of addressing this dilemma is to move away from health-based marketing. We championed this position in the July, 2012 issue of Produce Business when we wrote a column titled Two Cheers For Bacon.

Another approach is to identify the health benefits of specific produce items or the health benefits of use under specific circumstances and promote in a more focused manner. As we have written before, the key point to keep in mind is that it is impossible to increase produce consumption generally unless we increase the consumption of specific produce items at specific times of the day and in specific places.

This research is intriguing because it points to that type of opportunity for bananas. What’s more, the opportunity identified — having runners consume bananas instead of commercial sports drinks — is associated with a healthy activity, running. This means that succeeding in boosting banana consumption at athletic events would not only have specific effects but, also, would provide a kind of halo effect on bananas that would probably translate into higher consumption at different times and in other places.

The opportunity is one in which sharp marketers always seek out. In 1916, Nathan and Ida Handwerker launched a hot dog stand on Surf and Stillwell Avenue in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. In those days, before the establishment of many food safety regulations, hot dogs — with the uncertainty of what was actually put in them — were particularly suspect. The brilliant marketing idea was to go to the nearby hospital and offer the residents, interns and doctors free food and drinks on one condition — they had to wear their white doctor’s coats to the hot dog stand. The doctors thought it was a form of ID — to prove they were entitled to the promotion — but it was actually a brilliant form of marketing to associate Nathan’s hot dogs with people who the public identified as experts in health. If it was good enough for all these doctors, well, then, surely it was good enough for me. Thus was born Nathan’s Famous, now a New York institution.

Similarly, the win here is not just an opportunity to sell bananas to athletes, but also to associate bananas more closely with healthful activity and healthy people.

All over the country, in athletic events ranging from peewee soccer to professional sports, athletes consume massive amounts of sports drinks, such as Gatorade and Powerade. This research is saying they could just as well go for a banana. The research holds the prospect that the same is true for other fruits.

What really drives this? It is hard to believe that a few electrolytes are so inherently valuable that athletes at all levels flock to the products because they enhance their athletic performance and recovery after athletic work. When you really look at the subject, it seems that water is the best source for hydration, and the trick with sports drinks is that the typical sweet/tart flavor doesn’t quench thirst and so people keep drinking after they would have stopped with water.

This points to a need for further research. It may be true that bananas, when consumed in set quantities at set times, have benefits that equal or exceed sports drinks. What is uncertain is whether athletes, free to choose what and when to eat and drink, would in fact choose to eat bananas on such a schedule where these benefits would be realized.

Gatorade was developed on the football field at the University of Florida, so perhaps there are real benefits for athletes working at that intensity level. Of course, if the benefit of sports drinks is actually quite modest, what accounts for their wild success? Well, sports drinks have a legitimate story on hydration and electrolytes, and they have the flavor profile that increases the propensity to stay hydrated.

It is, however, a fairly modest story. Of course, Gatorade alone — just one brand — spends around $200 million a year on advertising. It is everywhere, from product placement in video games to the Super Bowl and, most important, Gatorade has a large number of endorsers of the highest caliber including Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade and Misty May-Treanor, among many others. This points to the big draw for Gatorade — it is not the electrolytes; it is the wish fulfillment.

Perhaps this is the biggest issue for the produce industry. There are many studies showing lots of benefits to consumption of different items. Marketing takes that kernel of a benefit and turns it into a dream that one can relate to. Bananas need a marketing push so that peewee athletes don’t just think that bananas are good for them. They should think that if they eat bananas, they will be the next Michael Jordan. If we don’t focus on that, studies about the benefits of eating one thing or another in one circumstance or another are likely to have only modest effects on consumption.