FORT KENT, Maine — Health question for the day: Is a vice actually a vice if it’s good for you?
When it comes to chocolate milk, a treat often associated with childhood naps and story time, good science supports its use outside of story hour as a go-to, post-exercise recovery drink for everyone from elite athletes to weekend warriors.
In the world of athletics and exercise, there is a magic 30- to 45-minute window after a workout to refuel the body for optimum muscle recovery, ideally eating or drinking something with a 4-to-1 carbohydrate to protein ratio, according to Dr. Joel Stager , professor of kinesiology at Indiana University’s school of public health and co-author of “The Efficacy of Chocolate Milk As a Recovery Aid,” a study appearing in the 2006 International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Metabolism.
“The human muscles never met a carb they didn’t like,” Stager said.
In 2003, Stager and his fellow researchers surveyed two groups of athletes: cyclists getting ready for a two-day, 100-mile ride and runners preparing for full and half marathons.
“We asked them what they knew about recovery,” he said. “We asked them what should they do and then asked what they actually did.”
Those answers were very different and showed, Stager said, a real disconnect between recovery knowledge and actual practice.
Stager said he came away from that survey with the idea popular television and media advertising was doing a good job “teaching” people about sports nutrition and recovery, but often in terms of using sports drinks and related products.
“A lot of those drinks, from the physiological perspective, are really engineered for rehydration,” he said. “Turns out science actually suggests you do recover faster with a sports drink than just plain water, but it is a small difference and is really more about replacing water.”
So then Stager’s group began looking around for other recovery aids.
“We read the [recovery] recommendations within the [scientific] literature and what it suggested was necessary for recovery based on cellular physiology,” he said. “Then we wandered up and down the aisles of the grocery store, saw the chocolate milk and said, ‘Huh, look at this.’”
At 95 percent water, chocolate milk was already great for rehydration, but beyond that, Stager said, it has three to four times the complex carbohydrates of regular milk, plus a good ratio of protein.
“We did not have to invent anything or develop anything,” he said. “Lo and behold, here is a product on the shelf right now available to virtually everyone.”
Subsequent tests in a laboratory setting showed the chocolate milk performed as well as any of those engineered sports rehydration drinks, and in some cases even better.
“When the workout intensity is high, the muscles are using carbs as the predominant fuel source and it is limited,” Stager said. “The chocolate milk is easy to digest, easy to absorb and an easy way to restore those carbohydrates within the muscles.”
All of this is old news to Team Houlton Farms Dairy, a cycling team born of chocolate milk.
For two years the team has been joined by local riders for what has become the “Tour de Houlton Farms Dairy Delivered by The Flying Cow Inc.,” a 70-mile ride from Caribou to Houlton.
This year, 16 cyclists took the challenge to ride with the Houlton Farms Dairy team on June 22.
“One of the best parts of the ride is making it to Houlton, and just knowing that Houlton Farms Dairy chocolate milk is waiting with your name on it,” team member Brad Baker said. “I mean, Houlton Farms chocolate milk is the staple of our team; it is literally what founded the team. We have always used chocolate milk as our recovery drink of choice. It has all the ride components for us: carbohydrates and proteins to repair and replenish tired muscles, a high water content to hydrate and replace the fluids lost due to sweat, and a little sodium and sugar, which have negative connotations, but actually help your body retain water and regain energy.”
While not officially sponsoring the team with financial support, the dairy allows the cyclists to use the business name and trademark on its jerseys and related cycling wear. Not to mention supplying plenty of chocolate milk post-Houlton Farms Dairy tour.
“It really is a quite comprehensive and natural source of carbs and protein,” Chelsea Fyrberg, a certified holistic nutritionist based in southern Maine, said. “It has it all right in there for us.”
Chocolate milk, she said, not only delivers that golden 4-to-1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, it also restores glucose that is depleted through exercise.
“We need those carbs and that protein,” she said. “Those carbs transport the protein to the muscles [and] I describe it as the carbs hug the protein into the muscle fiber.”
Both Stager and Fyrberg agree there has been an explosion of sports nutrition products and fad diets over the last decade. Both say not all are the best choice.
“It drives me nuts when I hear people say they want to go to zero net carbs,” Fyrberg said. “You need those carbs to recover properly.”
At the same time, many of those products contain sugars or artificial sweeteners to improve the taste.
“Those artificial sweeteners are just so toxic,” Fyrberg said. “We see so much evidence now that they can lead to cancer.”
Why then, she wonders, would anyone choose commercially produced recovery drinks over chocolate milk?
“The science behind chocolate milk’s effectiveness is based on legitimate peer reviews,” Stager said. “Plus, it’s really palatable and people like to drink it.”