Fig Newtons and the Glycemic Index

Fig Newtons for Running

Many of us grew up eating Fig Newtons. Maybe our parents thought they were better because they had figs instead of frosting in the middle!

It turns out that Fig Newtons, and similar “fig loaf” cookies are loaded with sugar.

For runners and other endurance athletes this turns out to be a good thing.

These cookies are less inexpensive than gels and are a great way to fuel during training and competition.

Fig Newtons and Running Nutrition

I’ve been running for more than 18 years and like to experiment with training plans, shoes, clothes and nutrition. I’m always looking for something that works better or solves a problem that I have.

I’ve tried most of the gels on the market. I’ve tried pure honey and even ran a marathon with Snickers Bars! Not only were the candy bars tasty, they didn’t bother my stomach and provided the energy I needed.

A few years ago we had Fig Newtons in the house when I was getting ready for a marathon. I took a package with me to the race. I ate a few before the race, instead of a power bar, and took some with me instead of gels.

I had a good experience with the Fig Newtons so I decided to find out what they are made of and how they compare to gels and power bars.

Runners can burn 125 to 150 calories per mile, and during a marathon an athlete can burn around 4,000 calories. Runners need convenient high energy foods.

What is the Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating.

Foods with a high GI (over 55) are those which are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels.

Low-GI foods (under 55), by virtue of their slow digestion and absorption, produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels, and have proven benefits for health.

The University of Sydney’s Sydney University Glycemic Index Research Service has done extensive research and testing of many common foods. Their website hosts their research results, information on the glycemic index (GI) and the International GI database.

The above GI definition is paraphrased from their web site.

You can find information on many foods that you commonly eat on their web site. Understanding the GI of the foods you eat can help you make better choices.

For runners and other endurance athletes, understanding the GI of foods helps us make better choices when we prepare for an event. Using the University’s free database you can look up the Glycemic Index (GI) of just about any food. The database does not have every American brand but you can find equivalents for most items.

Fig Newtons and the Glycemic Index

Fig Newtons and all varieties and brands of “fruit bars” are cookies. They should not be considered a health food just because they contain fruit and or whole grain.

Nutritional data for President’s Choice Fig Bars

Serving – 2 bars 40g
% DV
Vitamin A 0%
Carbohydrate 31 g 10%
Sugars 14 g *
Fibre 1 g 4%
Sodium 110 mg 5%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 2%
Iron 6%
Trans 0 g *
Saturates + Trans g 0%
Calories 130 Cal *
Protein 1 g *
Fat 0 g 0%
Saturates 0 g *
Cholesterol 0 mg *

The University of Sydney analyzed President’s Choice Blue Menu Fig Fruit Bars (PC Bars) a few years ago.

It appears that the manufacturer, Loblaw Company, doesn’t make these cookies anymore. The nutritional information listed here was taken from their site when the product was still available.

Unfortunately, I do not have an ingredient list.

The University has not analyzed Newtons, so this is a rough comparison that assumes that the ingredients are similar.

The University of Sydney GI database shows that the President’s Choice Bars had a GI of 70 and contained 30g of carbohydrates.

President’s Choice listed 31g of carbohydrates of which 14g were sugar. Since we are primarily interested in the carbohydrates from sugar, the difference in total carbohydrates is not important. Sydney did not analyze for sugar content.

Newtons with a variety of fillings are widely available in the US. There is a flavor for everyone and hopefully this comparison will be helpful to you.

Newtons are now made by Mondelez International and the table below is from the Mondelez website.

Nutritional data for Fig Newtons from Mondelez.

Serving – 2 bars 32g
%DV
Total Fat 2g 3%
Saturated Fat 0g 0%
Trans Fat 0g 0%
Monounsaturated Fat 0g 0%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 110mg 5%
Potassium 95mg 3%
Total Carbohydrate 22g 7%
Dietary Fiber 2g 8%
Sugars 12g *
Protein 1g *
Vitamin A 0%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 2%
Iron 4%

The University of Sydney analysis showed a GI of 70 for the PC Bars with 30g of carbohydrates and 14g of sugar.

The Newtons have 22g of carbohydrates and 12g of sugar from a 20% smaller serving (32G vs 40g)

The Newtons have fewer total carbohydrates (22g vs 30), but the ingredient we are interested is sugar.

Newtons have 12 grams of sugar out of a total serving size of 32 grams.

PC Bars had 14 grams of sugar out of a total serving size of 40 grams.

While Newtons have fewer calories and grams of sugar, their serving size is also 20% smaller than the PC Bars.

Comparing sugar content to total serving size it would appear that the Newtons with figs should have a higher GI than the PC Bars.

Newtons are 37.5% sugar and PC Bars were 34% sugar. If PC Bars had a GI of 70 and were 34% sugar, than Newtons should have a higher GI as they contain approximately 10% more sugar.

Newton PC Bar % Diff
Serving 32g 40g +20%
Carbs 22g 31g +29%
Sugar 12g 14g +14%
% Sugar 37.5% 34% -10%

Using simple math, if the GI of PC Bars was 70 and Newtons contain 10% more sugar by volume, than the GI of Newtons with figs should be around 77.

Here is information published by the Harvard Medical School on The Glycemic Load of 100+ common foods. The glycemic load of a food is effected by a number of factors such as other nutrients in the food. An interesting chart to take a look at.

In Glucose and the Endurance Athlete I give a laymen’s explanation of how your body uses glucose and one of my running experiments.

Live well my Friends.

Andy

Glucose and the Endurance athlete

Glucose and the Endurance Athlete

Glucose is a simple sugar or monosaccharide that is an extremely important form of sugar for your body. All other carbohydrates and forms of sugar need to be broken down into glucose before your muscles and brain can use them.

Muscles and other tissues can use fat and protein as an energy source but glucose is a much more efficient form of energy. For your brain and red blood cells, glucose is the only source of energy they can use.

Glucose Metabolism

During digestion, starches and sugars are broken down into glucose. Under normal conditions, the body cannot use all of the glucose produced during digestion.

Glycogen, glucose, monosacharides To store the excess glucose your body turns it into glycogen.

Glycogen is a complex molecule made up of multiple glucose molecules linked together in long chains and hydrated with three or four molecules of water, as seen in this diagram.

The liver is an important storage site for glycogen. The liver can hold as much as 6% of it’s weight in glycogen. A well conditioned athlete may be able to store up to 8% of their liver’s weight in glycogen A healthy adult liver weights between 1.2 and 1.5KG and can hold about 100 grams of glycogen or 400 calories.

Muscles can hold up to 2% of their weight in glycogen or 350 to 500 grams. This provides 1,400 to 2,000 calories.

When energy is needed right away, glycogen stored in the muscles is converted to glucose right in the muscle. This allows for an instant source of energy. Most muscles lack the enzyme required to release converted glycogen into the blood stream, so all glucose is used in those muscles.

To replenish the muscles, glucose can be obtained through digestion or from the liver. Glycogen stored in the liver is converted to glucose and released into the blood stream for your body to use.

Glycogen in the liver is converted to glucose by gluconeogenesis when the blood glucose concentration is low. Glucose may also be produced from non-carbohydrate precursors, such as pyruvate, amino acids and glycerol, by gluconeogenesis.

But it is gluconeogenesis of glycogen that maintains blood glucose concentrations over extended periods of time, and especially for endurance athletes.

The endocrine pancreas

The pancreas has both endocrine and exocrine functions. The endocrine tissue is grouped together in the islets of Langerhans and consists of four different cell types each with its own function. Alpha cells produce glucagon. Beta cells produce proinsulin. Proinsulin is the inactive form of insulin that is converted to insulin in the circulation. Delta cells produce somatostatin. F or PP cells produce pancreatic polypeptide.

This information is from www.caninsulin.com, but I think it explains things clearly. If you click on the “Glucose Metabolism” header you can read their full article which includes some easy to understand diagrams on how the processes work. This stuff can get very technical.

Glucose and the Endurance athlete

Most runners use some form of gel, chew, beans or beverage to replenish their carbohydrates while performing an endurance activity. The supplement business has exploded over the past few years. Nestle owns the PowerBar, PowerGel product lines. Jelly Belly makes Sport Beans. Honey Stinger has a line of gels based on honey. Hammer Nutrition has the Hammer Gel line of gels.

running, nutrition, GI

Some have caffeine. Some have various electrolytes in various quantities. Everyone has the best combination to help you achieve at your highest level. Like most things, each athlete should try different products to see what their system tolerates best and is the most effective at delivery energy to their bodies.

All of these products contain sugar in various forms. Cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, invert sugar – all sucrose. Other ingredients include maltodextrin, glucose syrup from wheat, fructose.

I’ve used many of these products while running marathons or distances of at least 12 miles. There is general agreement that these supplements are not needed if you are running or working out for less than an hour.

My experiment

For my recent Sunday Long run of 17.8 miles I tried something new. I’ve heard from other runners that glucose tablets work really well at restoring energy levels. I went to a local drug store and purchased a bottle of glucose tablets. Since I’ve never used these, I spoke with a pharmacist.

I told her why I was interested in these and how I planned to use them. She seemed a little chagrined. These tablets are normally used by diabetics when they need to boost their blood sugar levels. Here I was in my Boston Marathon jacket, the picture of health.

She told me most people take four at a time. They hit the system pretty quick since they are basically pure glucose. She warned me to be careful of my blood sugar levels but then said I probably do not need to worry about that if I’m out running.

This stuff is nothing to play with. If you sat around and ate these like sweet tarts your blood sugar would spike. The Glycemic Index of these tablets is 100, the same as table sugar. Diabetics can eat some candy to increase their blood sugar levels but glucose tablets are more efficient.

Repeated spiking of your blood glucose levels through over consumption of carbohydrates can eventually wear out your beta cells. Once they are gone or overwhelmed you have problems. These tablets are not candy.

Someone please correct me if I have this wrong.

During a marathon I often take four or more gels. Like many people, I experience “gastric distress” during a long run or marathon. Maybe it is all of that bouncing around that makes things move through the digestive process rapidly. Maybe it is what I am eating while I am running.

The Boston Marathon is about three weeks out. Now is the time to experiment with food and supplements. I had a 17.8 mile long run on Sunday and this seemed like the perfect time to try something new.

I took four tablets and put them in a sandwich bag. About four miles into our run I took the first one. It chewed very easily and dissolved in my mouth quickly. It wasn’t chalky or anything like that.

Within a few minutes my running felt less labored than it had a few minutes before. This is how my body reacts to commercial gels also. Not bad I thought.

At the first two water stops I only had a cup of water. No Gatorade, food or gels. At the third stop I had a mix of water and Gatorade and continued with that mix at the last two stops. I ended up only taking three of the tablets.

My stomach seemed to do better than normal. 17.8 miles is a long run and it’s not unusual for runners to look for a McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts to visit on a run of this distance. I never had that urge.

I managed to get through all 17.8 miles without needing to use the facilities until I got home an hour or so later. Pretty normal.

Conclusions

Drawing conclusions from a single data point is pointless. I have the Eastern States 20 Miler next weekend and one more club SLR. I’ll do the experiment again and see how I feel.

The one draw back that I see to using these tablets is that they are just glucose. No electrolytes. That could be a problem. My marathons usually take over four hours, so I need to replace my electrolytes. Perhaps I could use these tablets early in the race to delay any adverse intestinal reactions to gels and Gatorade.

I could also save one or two for that last mile or so. That quick boost of energy could be just what I need to finish strong.

Questions

Run well my friends!

Andy

Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002. Chapter 21, Glycogen Metabolism. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK21190/

2013 in Review

2013 in Review

As 2013 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on the past twelve months. At this time last year I wrote a post called “New Year’s Resolutions” and discussed setting goals before New Year’s Eve. It is easy to have big dreams and set high goals after a few beverages and while others are boasting of their impressive resolutions.

My main point was to seize the day and set realistic goals while you are in a rational state of mind. My focus was to encourage my readers to change their diets and increase their physical activity. The combination of the two is the best way to control your health and achieve your weight and fitness goals. Trying to achieve these goals with only one method requires too much work and often fails.

Here is a review of how this approach worked for me in 2013.

Continue reading “2013 in Review”