The Pop-Tart Displacement

After many adult years of Pop-Tart-free living, they came back into my life. Let me explain, but first….

I should “reveal” that a large percentage of my calories in my childhood developmental years was comprised of Pop-Tarts. I can still easily conjure up the aroma and sensory experience in my memory. Kind of like fried chicken or bacon, the Pot-Tart Waft is hard to forget once you’ve been around it countless times. My personal favorites were the Brown Sugar Cinnamon (my Dad would add butter… oh yeaaahhh) and the Strawberry flavors. Hellooo, salivary glands!

Calling all the Pop Tarts: Get in my belly!

Calling all the Pop Tarts: Get in my belly!

Were those “good for me” breakfast items for growth and development? Nah, but I mention it so that you know my roots were born out of Anti-Pot-Tart-Snobdom.

I did wean my Pop-Tart habits in my early 20s when I realized bagels were more healthy. Ha ha!

Joking aside, my first reconnection with a Pop-Tart (PT) came about during a 60-mile road bike event around Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a number of years ago. A dear friend, whom I’ll call PopTartFan, started chowing on one of these at an aid station for refueling calories. “Interesting”, I said with my inner voice, as I experienced sudden, somewhat fond flashbacks to childhood and yet a counter mental battle of “Whoa! I wouldn’t have chosen THAT for refueling on this challenging ride in the mountains!”. At the next aid station, PopTartFan wasn’t feeling so hot in the tummy. Of course, it could’ve been a combination of many factors that contributed to his Yuck Level, but that fueling choice (or “Note to self, adult athletes eat Pop-Tarts while exercising”) got tucked back into the deep dark memory pool.

What’s in the infamous Pop-Tart? If you were to look at just the Nutrition Facts label, you’d notice:
210 calories
7 gm fat (2.5 gm saturated)
35 gm carb (15 gm sugar)
2 gm protein
Alright, but what do you notice from the ingredients:
- enriched flour
- corn syrup (which essentially is sugar)
- soybean and palm oil
- dextrose (which essentially is sugar)
- high fructose corn syrup (which essentially is sugar)
- leavening agents
- cinnamon
- wheat starch
- gelatin
- caramel color
- soy lecithin

The cinnamon ain’t bad, eh? But really, this combination of ingredients offers us little on the spectrum of nutrition quality, especially for daily eating. What we get is a couple hundred calories of processed carbohydrate, added sugars, and no bueno fat sources.

Which is kinda sorta how the PT came back into my life recently. A competitive, frequent podium-placing age group masters athlete, was referred to me for gastrointestinal issues she had been having in her long course triathlon races in the past year. As it turns out, her coach had recommended solid food for her, with the standard recommendation for female athletes of 200 calories per hour, and lo and behold… the you-know-what was recommended by her coach. In theory, PTs should be easy to digest and deliver a mix of starch and sugar. Just what the athlete needs!

Now, I’m not trying to dis the coach, but it’s not okay when an athlete has been dealing with nausea, vomiting, and associated malaise on her runs during tri races. She and I got down to work super fast given another upcoming “A race” in 2.5 weeks from our initial meeting.

Solid foods can certainly work for some athletes during racing. Someone pointed out to me: “Sugar is sugar though!” implying that it shouldn’t matter if the 200 calories comes from the Pop-Tart or other sports nutrition products. Except I disagree. Just like a bike isn’t a bike or a 140.6 race isn’t a 140.6 race. There can be subtle differences or huge differences with these things when we dig deeper. Then, when you combine the individual tolerance and workability factor, the outcomes can be quite different.

Long story short and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, we ended up replacing the PT with a cleaned up version of a semi-comparable food: The Honey Stinger Waffle. She had tried these sporadically before with no gut issues, so it was a somewhat familiar calorie source in the short time we had to give it a few trials before her next race. Interestingly, the Nutrition Facts label for the Honey Stinger Waffle looks similar to the Pop-Tart:
- 150 calories
- 7 gm fat (3 gm saturated)
- 21 gm carb (11 gm sugar)
- 1 gm protein

And the Waffle ingredients may not appear all that different from the PT:
- organic wheat flour
- organic palm fruit oil
- organic rice syrup (which essentially is sugar)
- organic cane syrup (which essentially is sugar)
- organic honey (which essentially is sugar)
- organic whole wheat flour
- organic soy flour
- sea salt
- soy lecithin
- organic spices
- baking soda

Yes, there are still processed ingredients, sugar (it IS a sports nutrition product, after all) and it does contain gluten and soy. However, the quality of these carb/sugar calories can be considered different and therefore, possibly play a role in her gut tolerance level. I did reduce her calories per hour by 35-40% and adjust her hydration strategy based on my assessment of her needs.

She rocked her next race with no stomach upset and a solid pace throughout the run. Success!!

But was her success due to the displacement of the Pop-Tart, the other adjustments, or the combination of factors? Was it because she believed this new plan would work? Was it due to the different race course? Environmental conditions? What she ate the day before? etc, etc….

We will never know for sure. One thing I do know is that it can’t hurt to upgrade the quality of calories that athletes ingest. We can argue ad nauseam about the gluten (wheat), sugar level, mix of sugar and carb sources, whether a calorie is a calorie, blah blah, but why not make the teeny-tiny upgrade when we have a choice… like from the Economy section to the Economy Plus section on the airplane. It just may make a difference in your journey.