All of us in the Endurance world look for that little extra edge as well as the essentials of nutrition. In 2021 a little known company out of Sweden launched a new form of energy gel and fast forwards to 2023 and that brand is one of the biggest in the world of endurance nutrition. Maurten® is currently making an estimated £1mn a week and projected to hit annual reviews of £27.5mn.1 With its global visibility bolstered within the endurance market due to it being a key nutrition sponsor of Ironman® and marathons (such as Berlin) then should this be your brand of choice for carb gels and drinks?
The history of the brand & its science
Olof Sköld brothers wife sisters husband (;-)) was called Mårten (Maurten®) and wanted to create a better sports drink, so he and Olof Sköld come up with the use of a pharma based delivery technology of sodium alginate + pectin.2 From this others (Karl Sköld, Henrik Wingstrand and Sven Mårten Fryknäs are listed as co-founders) where brought on board and with the help of the academics Martin Ahnoff and Anna STRÖM helped develop, patent and bring to market Maurten AB and its carb gel and drink2 (Note: Maurten AB is a subsidiary of Laminaria Group AB, which holds all the IP for Maurten from April 2016).
At this time of launch no public data other than anecdotal evidence from athlete testimonials was available to demonstrate efficacy such as well controlled research that was peer reviewed studies.
The Kiphoge effect
One of the smartest moves was the approach of Maurten® to work with Professor Yannis Pitsiladis on the ‘Breaking2’ project, where World and Olympic gold medalist runner Elliud Kiphoge would attempt to break the 2 hour barrier in the marathon. In addition, to their work with Kenenisa Bekele for the 2016 Berlin marathon and the ‘development of the real world’ application of the Gel technology (and likely the result that got them in the door for Breaking2), it was the global recognition from the ‘Sub2’ event in 2017 propelled them onto the world stage. Maurten® was now recognised as an “ultra” premium, science-based, endurance product and brand.
Image Source: https://www.holabirdsports.com/pages/maurten
In addition to the success from Sub2, some nice marketing with unbranded gels that suggesting athletes want to use Maurten® even if sponsored by other endurance product brands made some headlines. The result of this innovative marketing was in effect a “No ‘independent’ proof before promises” approach that on the back of athlete testimonials propelled Maurten® from a regional brand to the multi-million £ global brand we recognise today.
A Closer look at the “REAL” science
It’s a true story of low tech gorilla marketing against the brand led traditions in the endurance market. It also takes a page out of the designer clothing market that it’s not just about the cost of goods but about developing true brand value. Beyond the food marketing and product promotion aka “the hype”, what does the REAL science say about these products? As the founders of Maurten® would say, is their product a leap in science that has not changed that much from the 1960’s?
Well let’s take a look at the published evidence using the following search terms in Pubmed:
[Search terms: Sodium AND Alginate AND Hydrogel AND carbohydrate]
[Limits: Clinical trial, Meta-analysis, Review, Systematic review]
Following a search using the above inclusion / exclusion criteria and then reading over each related paper we find there are 11 published peer review studies and in addition we note 1 abstract that was surplus to the search above. So let’s take a dive into the outcomes of these studies as summarised in the table above.
What did the evidence tell us?
We have 10 papers (excluding the review paper) that are relevant to the use of the Maurten® Hydrogel. Of these we should really look at 3 key areas.
1. Does Hydrogel enhance performance above that of a none-gel forming carb drink?
2. Does HydroGel increase Carb oxidation, decrease use of stored carbs or enhance fat use?
3. Does Hydrogel result in less GI issues?
Key area 1 – Performance enhance: Of the 10 relevant papers 5 do not contain any assessment of the effects of HydroGel on physical performance. Of these remaining 5 only 1 study (Rowe et al 2022) demonstrates any performance benefit.
Summary 1: So on the face of it we can conclude that Maurten Hydrogel on the basis of the performance tests within these studies as a general view is no better that carbohydrate formulations that don’t form a gel following ingestion.
Key Area 2 – Spares glycogen (stored carbs): Of the 10 studies 9 measured either rates of CHO/Fat oxidation and or Endogenous use of Carbs. Of these 2 demonstrated a decrease in endogenous oxidation of carbs (burning stored carbs for energy) and 7 showed no difference in whole body oxidation rates.
Summary 2: So whilst we see some evidence that Hydrogel can in certain exercise conditions spare muscle glycogen, which may enhance performance later in competition, that data is weak.
Key area 3: – Less GI issues: Finally, we should consider one of the main issues faced by many an endurance athlete and especially those involved in long course triathlon. Of the 10 studies, 8 measure Gastrointestinal (GI) stress / discomfort to some degree. Of the 8 studies measuring GI stress, 2 showed increased discomfort and 2 showing less from Hydrogel and the others no difference.
Summary 3: So we can conclude on balance there are based on the study designs no consistent benefits on GI complaints that what we see using none-gel forming carbohydrate sources.
Conclusions: Should you hang your hat with Maurten®
At this point all we can really say from the published research (as reviewed in this blog) does not demonstrate any consistent performance, biochemical nor gastrointestinal comfort benefits against carb matched alternatives. There are a number of issues to consider in drawing such a conclusion:
- Not all studies use the same exercise protocol or performance tests
- The type of exercise (run, cycle) and its duration is not the same
- Dietary controls and fitness of the participants are different
- Some of the chemical/physiological techniques used to assess some of the proposed benefits differ between papers.
The results of such methodological difference mean we don’t see consistency in the data and what we are likely to see is Maurten® cherry picking the data supporting its views and distractors or business competitors the opposite.
My own view is I am on neither side here. The fact is the difference between conventional 2:1 carb products (none-gel forming) vs. Hydrogels are neither here no there…based on the published peer reviewed evidence. The choice of what to go for training and race day are really one of personal preference and in this case likely also one of price point.
What Maurten® need to do going forwards its to invest in relevant study designs that replicate what endurance and indeed ultra-endurance athletes need for a marathon and or long distance triathlon. To date we really don’t have that evidence.
I hope you find this assessment of use and we did contact Maurten® science team who kindly provided comment in relation to the available studies before we wrote this review.
NOTE: We do see an addition 4 references in the published literature that are of interest but do not fall within the scope of the article but will include in reference list to ensure completeness of the review. Interesting is the publication of Leiper et al that seems to pre-date the Maurten® products (Interesting from a novelty standpoint).
- New energy drinks – without all the nasties (7th October 2023) Accessed online 17th October 2023 at: https://www.ft.com/content/d6f1d56d-ca86-43df-b14c-de076c76cc91
- The Entrepreneurs Maurten (25th September 2019) Episode 415. Accessed online 17th October 2023 at: https://monocle.com/radio/shows/the-entrepreneurs/415/
- Pettersson S, Edin F, Bakkman L, McGawley K. Effects of supplementing with an 18% carbohydrate-hydrogel drink versus a placebo during whole-body exercise in -5 °C with elite cross-country ski athletes: a crossover study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2019 Oct 26;16(1):46. doi: 10.1186/s12970-019-0317-4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31655603/
- Marciani L , Lopez-Sanchez P , Pettersson S , Hoad C , Abrehart N , Ahnoff M , Ström A . Alginate and HM-pectin in sports-drink give rise to intra-gastric gelation in vivo. Food Funct. 2019 Dec 11;10(12):7892-7899. doi: 10.1039/c9fo01617a. PMID: 31793602. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31793602/
- McCubbin AJ, Zhu A, Gaskell SK, Costa RJS. Hydrogel Carbohydrate-Electrolyte Beverage Does Not Improve Glucose Availability, Substrate Oxidation, Gastrointestinal Symptoms or Exercise Performance, Compared With a Concentration and Nutrient-Matched Placebo. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2020 Jan 1;30(1):25-33. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2019-0090. https://tinyurl.com/yckezb2f
- Barber JFP, Thomas J, Narang B, Hengist A, Betts JA, Wallis GA, Gonzalez JT. Pectin-Alginate Does Not Further Enhance Exogenous Carbohydrate Oxidation in Running. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Jun;52(6):1376-1384. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002262. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31977640/
- Pettersson S, Ahnoff M, Edin F, Lingström P, Simark Mattsson C, Andersson-Hall U. A Hydrogel Drink With High Fructose Content Generates Higher Exogenous Carbohydrate Oxidation and Lower Dental Biofilm pH Compared to Two Other, Commercially Available, Carbohydrate Sports Drinks. Front Nutr. 2020 Jun 12;7:88. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2020.00088. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7303329/
- Mears SA, Worley J, Mason GS, Hulston CJ, James LJ. Addition of sodium alginate and pectin to a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution does not influence substrate oxidation, gastrointestinal comfort, or cycling performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2020 Jun;45(6):675-678. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2019-0802. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31967853/
- Sutehall S, Galloway SDR, Bosch A, Pitsiladis Y. Addition of an Alginate Hydrogel to a Carbohydrate Beverage Enhances Gastric Emptying. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Aug;52(8):1785-1792. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002301. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32079920/
- King AJ, Rowe JT, Burke LM. Carbohydrate Hydrogel Products Do Not Improve Performance or Gastrointestinal Distress During Moderate-Intensity Endurance Exercise. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2020 Sep 1;30(5):305-314. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2020-0102. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32707564/
- Flood TR, Montanari S, Wicks M, Blanchard J, Sharp H, Taylor L, Kuennen MR, Lee BJ. Addition of pectin-alginate to a carbohydrate beverage does not maintain gastrointestinal barrier function during exercise in hot-humid conditions better than carbohydrate ingestion alone. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2020 Oct;45(10):1145-1155. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2020-0118. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32365303/
- Sutehall S, Muniz-Pardos B, Bosch AN, Galloway SD, Pitsiladis Y. The Impact of Sodium Alginate Hydrogel on Exogenous Glucose Oxidation Rate and Gastrointestinal Comfort in Well-Trained Runners. Front Nutr. 2022 Jan 20;8:810041. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2021.810041. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8811475/
- Rowe JT, King RFGJ, King AJ, Morrison DJ, Preston T, Wilson OJ, O’Hara JP. Glucose and Fructose Hydrogel Enhances Running Performance, Exogenous Carbohydrate Oxidation, and Gastrointestinal Tolerance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2022 Jan 1;54(1):129-140. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002764. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34334720/
Other Studies of Note
Leiper JB, Aulin KP, Söderlund K. Improved gastric emptying rate in humans of a unique glucose polymer with gel-forming properties. Scand J Gastroenterol. 2000 Nov;35(11):1143-9. doi: 10.1080/003655200750056600.
Lopez-Sanchez P, Martinez-Sanz M, Bonilla MR, Wang D, Gilbert EP, Stokes JR, Gidley MJ. Cellulose-pectin composite hydrogels: Intermolecular interactions and material properties depend on order of assembly. Carbohydr Polym. 2017 Apr 15;162:71-81. doi: 10.1016/j.carbpol.2017.01.049.
Lopez-Sanchez P, Fredriksson N, Larsson A, Altskar A, Strom A. High sugar content impacts microstructure, mechanics and release of calciumalginate Gels. 2018; 84: 26-33. Doi: 10.1016/j.foodhyd.2018.05.029
Lopez-Sanchez P, Assifaoui A, Cousin F, Moser J, Bonilla MR, Ström A. Impact of Glucose on the Nanostructure and Mechanical Properties of Calcium-Alginate Hydrogels. Gels. 2022 Jan 22;8(2):71. doi: 10.3390/gels8020071.