Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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chocolate milk bottle

Drink of Champions--Chocolate Milk?

Several years ago, a high-school swimmer in Bloomington, Ind., handed his coach a sports drink to see what he thought of the beverage. The ingredients looked familiar to Joel Stager, an exercise physiologist at Indiana University Bloomington and director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming. But it took a trip to the grocery store to find the supplement's nonsynthetic cousin, chocolate milk.

Soon Stager was handing his swimmers, many of whom struggled with their twice-a-day practices, a glass of chocolate milk after their early morning workouts. The effect was dramatic. Many of their problems disappeared "almost immediately," he says.

The benefits did not escape the swimmers' parents, who didn't need academic research to convince them that low-tech chocolate milk was a super fuel for exhausted muscles, and kids.

"When I'd get to practice in the morning, there would be a couple of gallons of chocolate milk waiting for me," Stager recalls. "It was great. It sent a good message to the athletes that eating well is important."

Stager took chocolate milk into the controlled setting of his IU laboratory and tested its effect on cyclists. It performed as well as Gatorade and almost twice as well as another sports recovery drink, Endurox.

The results--which might seem too good to be true to the legions who consider chocolate milk an indulgence--were reported in newspapers across the country, magazines such as Sports Illustrated, on NPR's Morning Edition, and on health Web sites such as WebMD. In spring 2006, the findings were published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, resulting in a promotional campaign by the Milk Processor Education Program (Got Milk?). After that campaign overstated chocolate milk's performance compared to Gatorade, somewhat defiant Gatorade spokesmen entered the media fray, generating even more attention.

Stager is surprised by the amount of interest from researchers and practitioners since he first presented his research two years ago at an American College of Sports Medicine conference.

"This isn't Nobel Prize research. The basic premise was already in the literature in terms of what's appropriate post-exercise nutrition," he says. "But nobody ever thought, 'Gee, here's something that could work that everyone's familiar with. It's easily accessible, tastes good, and sends the right message.'"

As a result of news coverage for his research, Stager says, more people may now be aware of the importance of nutrition immediately after exercise. His research points to a short but critical window for refueling muscles, within 45 minutes to one hour of exercise. Beyond this window, the refueling effect of the chocolate milk or other recovery products is not as effective.

Stager, a coach, competitive swimmer, and professor in the IU Bloomington Department of Kinesiology, says the lure of sports drinks and supplements can lead athletes down a dangerous path as they look for any performance advantage.

"It doesn't take much for athletes to look for the silver bullet, the edge," he says. "Many think they can get it through a specifically geared product on the market. From the scientific side, most of these products don't have any beneficial effects."

Good nutrition, on the other hand, can make a big difference on performance. Some swimmers are talented from the beginning, while others have to work hard to be good. Coaches, Stager says, can change an athlete's performance "rather quickly" simply by teaching them how to eat well. Another Counsilman Center philosophy encourages athletes to be athletes 24/7, not just during practices. Eating right, Stager says, is part of being an athlete.

The Los Angeles Times began its piece about Stager's research with this: "One little milk study and everyone's having a cow." What's next for this noisy little milk study? More research. Stager plans to take a closer look at what makes chocolate milk so effective, examining all its different components, from the proteins to the chocolate. He wants to make comparisons with more sports products, particularly those that replace carbohydrates, and use more test subjects.

"It should help us come up with the answer to the question, 'What is the best way to refuel?'" he says.

--Tracy James