That’s the question we’re going to try to answer by delving into the actual research studies during this interview with Evelyn of the Carbsane blog.
Evelyn is a research scientist who loves examining the actual scientific studies of nutritional products, specifically those that deal with carbohydrates. Given her very practical and scientific approach to nutrition, she is the perfect guest for us since we’re all about the research here at RunnersConnect.
In this interview we’re going to talk about the “super starch” called Generation UCAN and whether the research studies found on their site support it being a superior carbohydrate source for marathon racing.
Specifically, we’re looking to see if the research indicates using this product will or should change your approach to race day nutrition.
What we’re not doing in this podcast is recommending one product over another. We simply want to look at the research to verify any claims and see what we can really find.
As we move through this podcast you’ll here us referencing specific studies and graphs. These studies and the graphs can be found below.
The claim from Generation Ucan is that their super starch effectively provides a slow release glucose source that is low GI (doesn’t spike glucose much), doesn’t elicit a significant insulin response, and therefore doesn’t suppress fat burning. We’re going to address each claim specifically.
If you don’t want to listen to the entire interview or read the transcript, here is the one paragraph summary (my advice is to not comment unless you read/listen to the entire interview)
The research we’ve been able to find suggests that UCAN may potentially be marginally better than traditional gels and sports drinks. However, even this claim is weak since some of the studies were conducted at rest and not while running. More importantly, it should not change your approach to marathon nutrition; the physiology of how much glycogen you use and need does not change. Like all varieties of gels and sports drinks, UCAN may work better for your stomach than others, in which case it’s a great product. However, given how expensive it is, I wouldn’t recommend using it if traditional gels or sports drinks work for you.
Jeff: Thanks Evelyn so much for joining me today. I’m really excited to talk about the UCAN product, and specifically some of the research that it’s shown and what it can be. Thanks for joining me.
Evelyn: Thank you for having me.
Jeff: Great. For those that are listening, what we are going to talk about today is we’re going to talk about the product UCAN, which is a product that markets itself as a “super starch.” What they claim is that it provides a slow‑release glucose source, which is a low‑GI, so it doesn’t spike your glucose.
They also claim that it doesn’t illicit a significant insulin response, and therefore it doesn’t suppress fat burning and may actually contribute to burning fat more efficiently as a fuel source. What we’re going to talk to Evelyn about is some of the research that is on the UCAN site, and some of the holes that we found in the research and what she feels on the subject.
We’re not promoting one product over another. We just want to make sure that you, the listener, have the most, what we feel is a clearer picture of the research and the actual benefits that a specific product can have for you and what that means for your specific training needs and fueling needs.
Evelyn, where I want to get started is one of the first claims that I mentioned that the UCAN product is advocating or says that it can do is that it claims that this super starch of theirs is a patented process. We’ll talk a little bit more about that later. It basically says that it’s released more slowly and therefore it doesn’t spike insulin levels, and there
fore potentially reducing the call for glycogen.
You took a look at the research in one of your blog posts, and you noticed some anomalies in this specific research. Can you describe these anomalies in the studies and what the results mean to you, in more depth?
Evelyn: I think the studies that you’re talking about for this would be the ones where they compare the super starch to the maltodextrin, because what they did was they gave about a 25 gram dose and then they looked at the glucose curves.
In their literature, they say that the super starch is 100 percent accessible, like it gets digested 100 percent. I looked at the curves of the glucose versus time. The area under the curve is something that, in pharmacology and things like that, we use to look at the total exposure ‑‑ the glycemic load, as opposed to the peak level.
If you look at the area under the curve for the maltodextrin versus the super starch, there is kind of missing glucose there.
There’s only about like half of the total response or glucose that’s in the blood after the same dose over a period of, it looks like about one and a half to two hours that they measured it that it makes sense.
I’m not seeing where the super starch is kind of living up to the claim that it is a slow‑released glucose source because it’s not providing as much glucose, at least according to the curves that are in there in their paper for a similar dose of maltodextrin.
That was one of the anomalies that I noticed, was that it doesn’t seem to be providing the same amount of glucose at all.
Jeff: That makes a lot of sense then. For those who are truly listening, if you go to the website that this page is on, that this podcast is on, you’ll notice that we’ve posted the graphs that Eva is talking about here. If you look, now the maltodextrin formula is in blue, correct?
Evelyn: Yes. The maltodextrin in blue, and the super starch is in red. I don’t know if you have my curves up there where I colored in the triangles. You could see the maltodextrin has…the grey triangle is much larger for the amount of glucose is delivered.
It does have a kind of a hypoglycemic rebound as well. It goes down quite a bit below baseline. That may affect some people but, in terms of the glucose delivery, there seems to be more delivered in that “spike” of the first couple of hours that we’re looking at.
After probably about an hour, we’re not really talking about the product itself that you ingested that’s adding to the blood glucose. That would be something, what the liver is doing to regulate your glucose level.
It’s possible that the super starch formula is a replenishing glycogen stores at a more rapid rate, so that it keeps things more steady. I don’t think that they’ve provided any evidence that that’s the case. I don’t think that they make that claim. That might be what’s going on, but it just looks to me like you don’t have the full digestion of this starch. That’s just what it looks like to me.
Jeff: Gotcha. I think they’re maybe not…Mistake is probably a bad word for it, but there’s a difference between it releasing slowly and it probably not releasing all of the potential glycogen. Is that a fair way to say that?
Evelyn: Yeah. Glucose not the glycogen.
Jeff: Sorry. The glucose.
Evelyn: I would say, it’s the difference between…exactly. It would be less absorption overall, in terms of that, not just a slower release. Because if it was just a slower release, you should see kind of like that gray triangle kind of turned on its side.
You’d have a much longer exposure there. Basically, you’re back down to baseline almost in the same time frame between those two formulas. A little bit close, you’re not quite back down with the super starch. It’s ever so slightly elevated for, what? An extra half hour or so?
But you’re not seeing the glycemic load. You’re not seeing the glucose. Theoretically, it’s possible that it could be going into the glycogen. Usually, my understanding is that glucose and fructose…
The simple sugars are better at replenishing the glycogen than anything that would be slow‑release. That’s my understanding. I’m not really in to the whole exercise physiology side of things. That’s my understanding.
I would find it hard to believe that the mechanism of that blunted glucose reading has anything to do with replenishing glycogen.
Jeff: Right. It makes a lot of sense. I think, when you look at the graphs, it’s definitely very easy to see what you’re talking about here with that…after an hour, hour and a half, the glucose levels are very, very similar. It’s an interesting claim that it releases slower.
Also, I think, obviously the claim is also that it doesn’t have as much of a spike. It would seem that these charts definitely show that the spike for glucose definitely is not as pronounced as it is for a regular maltodextrin product. Is that correct?
Evelyn: Yes, that would be accurate.
Jeff: I think that goes on to our next question, because the bigger claim for the product is that it can in some way improve the ability to burn fat. I think that’s related to that glucose spike, because I think one of the reasons for those claims is that it’s going to reduce the insulin response to that, because the glucose spike isn’t as high.
They’ve also cited a University of Oklahoma study that says that the product itself can enhance the breakdown of fat during exercise. It can also enhance fat oxidation, and it enhanced breakdown of use of fat during recovery. Again, you took a look at this particular study and you found some anomalies again.
This is, I believe, the second group of graphs that you talked about. Let’s start with what did you find in those results? What did you find in those results that you found that they concluded that might be at odds with what maybe the UCAN product is claiming?
Evelyn: The biggest thing is that they’re confusing fat breakdown, which is lipolysis, with fat oxidation, or fat burning, which is the beta oxidation. Fats, in order to be burned, have to be broken down from triglycerides, so the triglyceride is broken apart and released into the bloodstream as the free fatty acids.
Those are the ones that can be taken up and then go into the mitochondria, and are burned. The fact that a fatty acid is released does not mean that it’s going to actually be burned.
What they show on their website ‑‑ and I could not find this study anywhere. It said it was supposed to be presented at some proceedings, but I’m only going by what is in some summary findings that Jeff Folick has, what I call a white paper on background and then the graph that comes from the UCAN website. What you’re looking at with the graph is the NEFA. That’s the non‑esterified fatty acids. That’s the free fatty acids.
Yes, the free fatty acid levels go up more, and statistically significantly more, following the super starch versus the maltodextrin. This would be expected, because yes, insulin would, if you ingest a carbohydrate, it’s supposed to kind of knock down the free fatty acid release from your fat cells because you have glucose around to burn.
Apparently, there is not enough of an insulin spike from the super starch to suppress the free fatty acid release and you can see in the graph that, yes, the free fatty acids go significantly higher. In this one, they actually were exercising for 150 minutes. The other curves that we were just talking about before apparently were just consuming maltodextrin versus the super starch.
That’s just kind of like an oral glucose tolerance test type of a scenario. It has nothing to do with what would happen if you were exercising while you’re doing this, so whether or not it would provide a lot more available glucose or keep your glucose more steady during the exercise. It says nothing about that.
In this study, we only have the graph for the fat “burning.” I didn’t see anything for the glucose there. It’s true, the non‑esterified fatty acids go up. I call them NEFA. That’s how I pronounce that acronym. Those go up and it’s statistically significant, but what I found disturbing is that the next line is, “There is also a trend towards lower‑respiratory exchange ratios during the super starch trial compared to the maltodextrin, indicating increased oxidation of fat.”
That’s what they said in the paper. Whenever you hear the word “trend towards,” without the words “significant,” it means that this difference did not reach a level of statistical significance. In essence, they shouldn’t even really say anything.
It would appear that perhaps there’s a little bit more fat burning going on, where the respiratory exchange ratio, maybe it’s down like 0.1 or something. I have no idea, because they don’t provide that information. Like I said, I could not find the actual study for this.
Lipolysis is not an indicator of fatty acid oxidation rate, it’s just not. It’s not a surrogate for it. It’s making the fat available for use, but your body’s only going to use it if you need it. If you have some glucose around, it will use the glucose first, which is not a bad thing.
I don’t know where people are getting the idea that it’s such a bad thing to burn that glucose first, but there’s always well in excess of the fatty acids that you need released into the bloodstream. If you don’t use them, they get packaged back up and go back into the fat cells or they can be stored locally in the muscle cells.
Jeff: Right. That’s a fantastic explanation, and I do appreciate you talking about, really getting down into ‑‑ especially for those listeners who may not be as familiar with research as you or maybe myself ‑‑ about the “trend towards” line in the graphs, or in the write‑up. You’re exactly right, that means there was no statistical significance and that’s important when we’re talking about what can actually be determined from a study like this.
I appreciate you really delving into that, and also going into the lipolysis. I’m just curious, why do you think that it’s kind of misunderstood that lipolysis equals enhanced fat utilization? Have you found that there’s kind of a reason for that…
Jeff: …or is it just something that people want to believe?
Jeff: OK. [laughs]
Evelyn: I actually had finally read the middle of the road Atkins book. I had never read the “New Diet Revolution” one, the one that had come out in like 2000. Basically, Atkins switched from ketosis being kind of a freebie fat burning, incomplete fat burning, in that you urinate out this incompletely burned fat. He switched from that to this enhance lipolysis, that lipolysis was fat burning.
Everybody does it. All of the low‑carb advocates confuse the two. It’s deliberate, because they know the difference and they know that lipolysis, is not fat burning. It makes for a nice gimmick, because you say, “Your fat cells are releasing the fat.”
They’ve created this idea that insulin has trapped fat in the fat cells and that your body can’t get at it to burn. That’s simply not true.
Jeff: No, it’s a great breakdown. I appreciate you going into depth about that. It’s important for those that are listening ‑‑ not only for this particular product, if they are considering using it ‑‑ but just in general, when it comes to understanding when people are talking about fat burning, especially when it relates to marathon training and marathon performance. Or in general, if they want to lose weight, this may be the thing. I think getting into depth about that is fantastic, so thank you for that.
Evelyn: No problem. One quick thing, for your listeners. The word that they want to look for is “oxidation.” There are these fat‑burning supplements and things like that. Some of them are not too great to use. If something is a fat burner, if it really does enhance fat burning, it has to increase the oxidation rate but it also has to increase the overall metabolic rate because, if it doesn’t increase the overall metabolic rate or the energy expenditure over a 24‑hour period of time, then it’s not fat burning.
You can burn more fat for an hour and then you go back to burning other stuff, whatever it is. You have to look for oxidation rate, because that’s really the bottom line. You have to have increase in fat oxidation rate and you’d have to have an overall increase in your overall energy expenditure.
Jeff: That makes a lot of sense. Like you were saying, when we look at the graphs from what we were able to find about the research, that’s when we go back to the statical significance portion. Where the super starch’s been claiming it enhances fat oxidation, but we’re not seeing that in the graphs and we’re not seeing that in the summary research.
Evelyn: I’m also thinking that the numbers aren’t there, because they didn’t even give the numbers. Because, a lot of the times, in weight loss studies, they’ll say, “Oh, the low carb group lost 5.1 kilograms and the other group lost only 4 kilograms. They say, “Oh, they lost 25 percent more weight,” or something like that.
It was not statistically significant, but at least the 25 percent more looks on paper, “Oh yeah, they did lose a couple more pounds in a week,” or whatever the time frame is that they are looking at. I just tend to think that the fact that there’s not any numbers on the oxidation rate, that someone could say, “Oh yeah, six kilograms per whatever versus four.” Even those numbers aren’t impressive.
That’s why they showed the diagram for the non‑esterified fatty acids and didn’t bother with the fatty acid oxidation rates.
Jeff: Interesting. That’s a great point. Switching gears a little bit. In part, what you’ve tried to all of this as well as try to figure out what the super starch is and learn more about it. One of the things that you looked at, one of the white papers, where it was preparing the ingredients, what the super starch is composed of, and comparing it to generic cornstarch.
You noticed some unimpressive data when it came to this comparison. Can you explain what this data means, in terms of what we were talking about, them comparing the super starch to the basic cornstarch or the generic cornstarch?
Evelyn: Yeah, so they compared the super starch to cornstarch. It’s a mystery, exactly what this cornstarch is. In their materials, they say that it’s some unique grain. Then, later on, they say, that it’s just cornstarch. Corn isn’t any unique grain that I’m aware of. They don’t give any particular brand, type or strain of corn that it comes from.
They say that it goes under some kind of wet cooking process. Then, they compare it to the Argo, and a couple of the things that they said. One of the main findings was that super starch decreased the acute glycemic impact by 13 percent. Let’s say that you start out from 100 and you go to 200, that’s very high, so let’s say that you start at 100 and you go to 150 milligrams per deciliter of glucose for the regular cornstarch, so you’d go to 147 or something like that.
13 percent lower acute, I’m assuming that by that they mean the peak level or the glucose “spike” that occurs. That’s hardly impressive to me.
Jeff: I just want to clarify for the listeners here. When you were talking about this specific claim, you’re talking about the glycemic impact, so basically the glucose load, almost in a sense of going back to that insulin response. How much glucose is going to be injected into the bloodstream immediately. Is that correct?
Jeff: What you’re saying is that they compared the super starch to cornstarch, and found that it is only 13 percent less. If you’re going from 100 to 150, you’re talking about a very small difference in the insulin spike or the glucose level.
Evelyn: Right. If you go back to the other study and ignore the multidextron for a second, the super starch doesn’t have much of a spike at all.
Jeff: It looks like in the graphic, it goes from 100 to 120.
Evelyn: Right. You’re talking about 20 units, so 13 percent of 20 units, two? We’re talking that the super starch maybe goes to 120, and the cornstarch would have gone…OK, let’s be generous and say 125. You’re talking about something that would be virtually indistinguishable, as far as anything is concerned. It would appear that super starch is not very much different at all from the regular generic cornstarch.
The second thing that they cite is even less impressive. It said that the glucose levels were maintained closer to baseline seven hours after ingestion of the super starch, minus four percent from fasting, versus minus 13 percent for the Argo. If you’re starting at 100, you’re talking seven hours later, the super starch, you’re down to 96 and, the Argo, you’re down to 87.
That’s kind of a ridiculous thing, because, who’s going to just ‑‑ like this one is like 75 grams, I guess it was. Who consumes 75 grams of starch and then doesn’t do anything else for seven hours? This one, again, I think this comparison was also, just eating, I don’t think this one involved exercise. I think that the only one that involved exercising was that one with the maltodextrin comparison.
Jeff: Right. I think that’s an important part, when you look at studies as well. This goes across pretty much any study when you look at running, because that’s what we’re talking about specifically. Yeah, in these particular studies, they are only talking about people only ingesting it and then, basically, not doing anything. Obviously, the dynamics and things are going to change, when people are actually running.
I think, sometimes, they are making leaps from the literature that might not necessarily make that jump, when you take it to performing at a high level, like you are with a marathon.
Evelyn: Yeah, I understand proprietary processes and all this sort of thing. It seems to me that there’s a little bit too much mystery surrounding what exactly the super starch is. Because I’m not aware of any cooking process, that would cause starch to polymerize. Starch thickens sauces and things like that, because the molecules come apart and then they get tangled up, trap water and stuff like that.
Hey, anybody who wants to watch that can watch an Alton Brown cooking show. He does wonderful demonstrations of that. I’m not aware of any process by which the starch molecule is elongated and made larger by this. I really do not know what is going on here. In the comments on my blog post on this, I had some people mention that resistance starch came to mind.
I wrote this post back in, I think it was 2 years ago. That whole resistance starch, which is a big thing in the paleo and the low carb communities on the Internet lately, wasn’t a big deal back then. Yeah, maybe, it’s resistance starch. Maybe they are cooking it and cooling it, so that it’s creating more resistance starch and getting rid of some of the starch that would otherwise be absorbed more rapidly. Maybe they do some kind of a separation.
It’s all a mystery, so we can presume. It seems like it’s cornstarch that’s a little bit ever so slightly less absorbed than the basic cornstarch that you can buy a tub for a buck in the regular grocery store.
Jeff: Yeah, and that actually brings me to the final point, or what I wanted to inject in terms of this conversation and what you’ve helped me understand. Hopefully, what you’ve helped the audience understand is that, again, Evelyn and I don’t recommend or not recommend a specific product, but what we want to be able to do is give you a real look at the research, an unbiased look, and to help you make a decision whether it works for you.
From what I can understand from, especially, a big part of this conversation, I don’t think that the super starch provides any real significant advantage to marathon performance, in terms of what you’re going to be able to do, in terms of insulin response or “a slow glucose delivery.” I don’t think it provides in any meaningful manner, in the sense that it’s going to change how you would approach a marathon nutrition.
A lot of people have found that UCAN works a lot better for their stomach. They can digest it easier. That’s perfectly acceptable. If it’s a product that works well for you and you don’t have digestive upset, then it’s a great product.
I don’t think that it necessarily changes how you approach marathon nutrition or marathon performance, in the sense that it’s not going to change the amount of glycogenic glucose that you need or how it’s used in the body. It doesn’t change any of the strategies that you would use to maintain a strong marathon, and to not [inaudible 31:12] .
That’s what I’m seeing from the research that we’ve been able to actually look at, and I think that Evelyn would agree that. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I think that’s probably what you would say or at least understand?
Evelyn: Yeah, I would agree with that, because it does not seem…I mean, I had a couple of people who do this sort of thing, that came out and contributed to the comments. They were talking about the [?] [inaudible 31:38] of the glucose and how that can cause some of the stomach upset. Then, some people, I guess, because you essentially get more glucose per particle, that this can help some people with gastric distress, or perhaps that the glucose is absorbed a little bit more slowly so it keeps the glucose levels more stable.
I don’t know. My gut feeling would be that maybe you actually want a glucose spike when you’re feeling the energy lagging, because that just seems to be what I have…
Evelyn: Why would you go and suck down a glucose gel in the middle of a marathon, if you’re a fat‑burning beast? It’s because you need the glucose. If it’s going to be going up a little faster and down a little faster, then I’d think you’d just have another glucose gel, unless there’s a serious gastrointestinal issue with all of that.
I don’t understand why that would be something else. It’s not really my field. I’m not an endurance athlete and I never have been, so it’s not something that I’ve experimented with personally. One of the favorite “poster athletes” for the fat‑burning beast is Tim Olson.
Steve Finney did a whole thing about him winning some great ultra‑marathon. On Tim’s blog, he was talking about how he ran out of the gels that he uses and he ended up drinking a lot of Sierra Mist, because I guess that has regular sugar in it.
I’m thinking to myself, “That doesn’t sound like he was worried about his glucose spike.” He was worried about getting some glucose in him, and he didn’t have the stuff that he needed at a certain aid station or whatever, so when he could get it in him, he went for the Sierra Mist. I don’t see where it would provide any sort of an advanced benefit.
Jeff: One of the things that I hear a lot, in terms of questions is should I use this product or how does it change my approach to marathon nutrition, because they claim that it’s slow‑release, they pretty much just take it. If they take more of it before the marathon starts, then they need to take less glucose during the race.
I think that’s been, at least what we’ve looked at from the research, we’ve seen that’s probably not true, because once you get over about an hour, it looks like the glucose release is almost the exact same as what the maltodextrin would be. It’s not really going to change. It’s not really going to slow release glucose and glycogen for you for hours and hours and hours after you do that.
Evelyn: Yeah. I would think that it’s pretty much about the same as really carbing up and topping off your glycogen stores. I don’t think ‑‑ in that study, they’re talking what, 75 grams? That one wasn’t the exercising one, or was that one the exercising one? I don’t remember.
Jeff: That was not the exercising one.
Evelyn: Even if you were to have 100 grams of super starch before the race, that, to me ‑‑ just from all the studies that I’ve seen where they’ve tried to look at the capacity for glycogen ‑‑ you could have some kind of a unique strategy to kind of carb up and have that 100 grams of glycogen in you.
I don’t see that it’s going to provide any more glucose as the race goes on, unless you’re going to go through the race without any aid stations. To me, that would be the only advantage, if they ran some sort of a race where you weren’t allowed to have anything but pure water for the entire race or salt water, or whatever.
Unless they were going to have some kind of a race where you weren’t allowed to fuel yourself any other way, then it doesn’t seem like there should be any advantage for that. If anything, just from what I know and what I’ve read, it would seem that having high‑glycemic carbs to store, to promote glycogen storage, would be a better way to go about things than just eating some kind of a slow‑release.
If it is indeed a slow‑release, it has to be from slow digestion because it has to be broken down into the glucose molecules to be absorbed. These giant glucose polymers are not being absorbed as is and then breaking down in your blood. They’re broken down in your digestive tract and then absorbed.
If it’s taking a long time to digest, you’ve got blood flow going to your digestive system there. That’s less blood flow going to your muscles. I don’t know. Your mom always told you, “Don’t eat half an hour before swimming” or whatever it was kind of for a reason, I guess. When you’re digesting food, blood flow is diverted to the digestive tract and therefore away from other things.
Therefore, if you’re in an elite competition, that could make a big difference. It’s not going to make much of a difference for somebody who is going for a stroll around the block, but I would think it could make a negative difference, if anything. I don’t know.
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a great summary, a great recap to everything we’ve talked about and what we’ve seen that the research shows. I really appreciate you kind of going into depth about this and really taking the time to walk us step‑by‑step through what you’ve been able to find about the super starch and really talking about the research in a way that I think makes sense.
I think a lot of listeners will be able to actually understand and kind of see how it connects, from looking at a graph to what that actually means for them. I actually appreciate you taking the time. For those that are interested, you can check out Evelyn’s blog. It’s at carbsanity.blogspot.com.
We’ll link that up in the show notes for this podcast, so you can go ahead and check it out. We’ll link to this post that we’re specifically talking about and then we’ll also link to the graphs that we’ve discussed in this episode, so that way you can see exactly what we’re talking about. You can either follow along or look it up afterward.
Thank you, Evelyn, so much for your time. It’s really, really appreciated.
Evelyn: Thanks for having me on. I enjoyed it.
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