Just like a chocolate milkshake, only sporty

Sometimes science tells you really cool things. Like how there are times – certain times – that chocolate flavoured milk can actually be beneficial.

Three published clinical trials, one from 2006 and two from 2009, have shown that chocolate milk is at least as good for exercise recovery as specially-designed sports drinks, and probably better (read these reports via The Cochrane Library).

Why chocolate milk works so well is not certain, but there a number of things that might be responsible, some of which it shares with sports drinks:

  1. Water – pretty much any drink will help to rehydrate you, which is rather important after exercise.
  2. Sugar – helpful for replacing the energy you’ve burned. But in particular chocolate milk contains sucrose, which seems to be good for replenishing glycogen, which an important reserve energy source for muscle cells.
  3. Salt – it’s good to replace salt you’ve sweated out, particularly if you’re prone to low hyponatremia. And while it’s true that chocolate milk has less salt than most sports drinks, that mightn’t be too bad considering most of us eat too much salt already.
  4. Protein and fat – the protein is good for repairing muscle damage, and it’s something sports drinks don’t have. But the fat content of milk helps too (even low-fat milk still have some), possibly as an extra fuel source.
  5. Taste – chocolate milk has an appealing, chocolatey flavour, so you want to drink more of it.

This last one might sound trivial, but it’s been confirmed in studies and is actually one of the main justifications for the benefits of sports drinks – people will voluntarily consume more fluid if a drink tastes better (see, e.g. Passe DH, Horn M, Stofan J, Murray R 2004, “Palatability and voluntary intake of sports beverages, diluted orange juice, and water during exercise”, Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab., vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 272-84).

And indeed, this is one of the main reasons the Australian Institute of Sport recommends using sports drinks.

Now, I’m not saying we’ve rigorously proven that chocolate milk beats sports drinks in this category, but it did score highly in our informal experiment.

John choosing chocolate milk over a sports drink and water
John demonstrating his preference for chocolate milk over water and a sports drink

Once again, ground-breaking on-air research from the Lost in Science team.

(Oh, and of course I need to point out that if you’re not doing heavy exercise, then you probably don’t need the extra sugar and salt of sports drinks or chocolate milk. They’re good as a treat, perhaps, but plain water will do to get you through the day.)

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