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Pink-Colored Drinks Could Make Exercise More Pleasurable

Pink drinks may boost performance and enhance exercise's "feel-good" effects.

Key points

  • Previous research suggests that athletic performance is improved just by tasting a sugary sports drink.
  • A new study reports that the sight and taste of a pink-colored, sugar-free sports drink (without carbohydrates) made runners happier and faster.
  • Pink drinks are associated with sweetness, so the placebo effect may trick the brain into expecting a sugar-free pink drink to contain carbs.
nekomachines/Pixabay
Source: nekomachines/Pixabay

Sugar-free pink lemonade has always been one of my favorite guilty pleasures as a long-distance runner. I know this artificially-colored, low-calorie beverage isn't packed with carbohydrates and electrolytes like most sports drinks, but even though sports nutritionists might frown upon drinking this beverage after high-intensity physical activity, the artificially-sweetened pink stuff hits the spot for me psychologically. After a vigorous workout, nothing makes me happier than an ice-cold glass of pink lemonade with a twist of lime.

I've always thought my penchant for pink drinks was just a personal quirk. Suffice to say, then, that I was intrigued to see this news: "Pink drinks can help you run faster and further, study finds." My first thought: How could a pink-colored drink possibly help someone run faster and further? While I enjoy pink drinks, I was fairly skeptical.

Low-Calorie Pink Drinks May Trick the Brain Into Expecting Carbs

First, it's important to note that the latest research (Brown et al., 2021) into the psychophysiological mechanisms of non-caloric, artificially-sweetened pink drinks only used these beverages as a mouth rinse; runners weren't actually drinking the pink stuff.

That said, as the paper's title conveys, the researchers found that "mouth rinsing with a pink non-caloric, artificially-sweetened solution improves self-paced running performance and feelings of pleasure in habitually active individuals." These University of Westminster findings were just published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

Senior author Sanjoy Deb and colleagues at Westminster's Centre for Nutraceuticals found that runners who used a pink drink (as opposed to a taste-matched clear drink) increased their exercise performance by 4.4 percent. The pink drink also had a "feel good" effect, which made running faster and farther seem easier. According to the researchers, this is the first study to investigate the effect that a sports drink's color has on performance. The researchers chose the color pink for this pioneering study because pink beverages are typically associated with sweetness, which triggers expectations of sugar and carbohydrate intake prior to consumption.

Previous studies have shown that rinsing the mouth with a high-calorie carbohydrate solution can improve exercise performance by reducing ratings of perceived exertion during vigorous exercise. Therefore, first author Daniel Brown and colleagues wanted to assess whether rinsing the mouth with a low-calorie pink drink without carbohydrates could elicit similar exercise performance benefits via the placebo effect.

During this study, the researchers had participants run on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a self-selected pace while they rated perceived exertion (RPE) to subjectively convey how difficult the running speed they'd chosen felt at different stages of the half-hour run.

Throughout each treadmill workout, the researchers had runners rinse their mouths with a low-calorie, artificially-sweetened clear solution that looked like water, or a pink low-calorie, artificially-sweetened solution. Both drinks were identical, except the researchers had added a few drops of food dye to create the pink drink's appearance.

"Mouth rinsing with a pink non-caloric, artificially-sweetened solution improved self-selected running speed, total distance covered, and feelings of pleasure obtained during a 30-minute running protocol when compared to an isocaloric and taste-matched clear solution," the authors explained, adding, "Future exploratory research is necessary to find out whether the proposed placebo effect causes a similar activation to the reward areas of the brain that are commonly reported when rinsing the mouth with carbohydrates."

An article from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health "Nutrition Source" explains: "Sports drinks contain carbohydrates in the form of sugar (e.g., glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose) or contain no sugar and are flavored instead with low-calorie sweeteners. The specific amount of sugar and electrolytes in sports drinks is intended to allow for quick hydration and absorption. This type of nutrient depletion generally occurs only with high-intensity exercise that lasts an hour or more. For the non-athlete, a sports beverage is just another sugary drink."

Color in Sports Drinks and the Art of Gastronomy

"The influence of color on athletic performance has received interest previously, from its effect on a sportsperson's kit [uniform] to its impact on testosterone and muscular power," Sanjoy Deb said in the news release. "Similarly, the role of color in gastronomy has received widespread interest, with research published on how visual cues or color can affect subsequent flavor perception when eating and drinking."

He concluded: "The findings from our study combine the art of gastronomy with performance nutrition, as adding a pink colorant to an artificially-sweetened solution not only enhanced the perception of sweetness, but also enhanced feelings of pleasure, self-selected running speed, and distance covered during a run."

Disclaimer: This post is not intended as sports nutrition advice. Always use common sense and educate yourself on the pros and cons of using a specific sports drink by speaking with a registered dietitian (RD).

References

Daniel R. Brown, Francesca Cappozzo, Dakota De Roeck, Mohammed Gulrez Zariwala, and Sanjoy K. Deb. "Mouth Rinsing With a Pink Non-caloric, Artificially-Sweetened Solution Improves Self-Paced Running Performance and Feelings of Pleasure in Habitually Active Individuals." Frontiers in Nutrition (First published: May 12, 2021) DOI: 10.3389/fnut.2021.678105

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