The science of nutrition: on the factory floor at SiS

Hairnet. Overall. Shoe covers. Soap. Hand cream. Ready.

No one simply walks on to the factory floor at the 38,000 square foot facility of SIS Nutrition in the Nelson suburb of Burnley. Not the staff, and certainly not visiting journalists. The route to the production facility takes the visitor past numerous framed jerseys and a life-sized replica of Sir Chris Hoy, immortalized in cardboard. It is Hoy’s reputation and those of the jersey winners which are protected by a concern with hygiene that can seem obsessive to the outsider. As supplier to a sport routinely fighting a rearguard action against doping scandals, however, the prospect of accidental contamination is one SiS takes very, very seriously.

Its range is comprehensive. Carbohydrate, electrolyte, and proteins. Powders, bars, and gels. Energy, hydration, and recovery. Almost every product is made at the factory in Nelson, and on a bitingly cold day in February, RCUK is shown around the premises by New Product Director, Luke Heeney.

In a competitive market, SiS holds a significant position. The firm is supplier to three UCI WorldTour teams in Astana, Katusha and Trek, and two of Britain’s five UCI Continental teams: Madison-Genesis and Rapha-Condor-JLT. It’s come along way since 1992, when founder Tim Lawson delivered café stop nutrition lectures to club-mates on the back of a napkin and rolled the company’s first energy bars by hand.

Team players

Pay close attention to the gels guzzled by the likes of Astana leader Vincenzo Niabli, the bars wolfed down by world number one, Joaquim Rodriguez, or Ronde Van Vlaanderen winner, Fabian Cancellara, and you’ll notice that they are SIS products. Beside the obvious promotional advantage of exposure in the sport’s most prestigious races, and association with its best athletes (Cancellara, in particular, seems to have made the casual intake of a gel in the heat of battle a psychological weapon) what other advantages accrue to SIS from their sponsorship of Astana, Katusha, and Trek, all big players, even by WorldTour standards? The support demanded from SiS is, after all, not insignificant, running into tens of thousands of products a year (another SIS athlete, Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, gets through seven thousand 50g sachets each year, we’re told).

For the team in Nelson creating and developing the products, the athletes’ greatest value lies in their feedback. New products are continually developed. A chocolate mousse with a 100 kilocalories and 15 grams of protein is among the most recent creations. There is no guarantee that any will make it to production, but development – and testing with the teams – is constant.

Heeney describes the relationship as a “two-way engagement”. The team doctor is typically the point of contact, but when dealing directly with riders and non-medical staff, attempting to explain the science behind the product before they have tried it is not always a productive method. “Sometimes leading with the science isn’t always the way through,” Heeney explains. Telling the riders that the product tastes good, has been HFL tested (more of which below), and will benefit them in both the training cycle and on race day, is often sufficient as a starting point. “They come back in three weeks and say, ‘ We think that has a benefit, now tell us what it’s all about.’” Riders are open to new products, he says, but more likely to try them at the beginning and end of the season. “Other times of the year, they’re fixed in: they’ve got a routine, they just want more of the same,” he summarises. “It changes. It’s fairly dynamic.”

Risk management

In the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, and the countless doping dilemmas that have afflicted the sport before and since, cyclists, perhaps more than competitors in other sports, must be convinced that the sports nutrition products they are taking conform with the stipulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency. It’s not overstating the case to say that athletes’ careers depend on the purity of the products made in the Nelson factory, not to mention those of the team staff and, of course, those employed by SiS. In a factory producing millions of products a year, from ingredients sourced at home and abroad, and with the stakes so high, ensuring the integrity of the product is of paramount importance. So how is it done?

For Heeney, the answer has been to work in partnership with the Horseracing Forensic Laboratory (HFL), which runs the Informed Sport Laboratory near Newmarket. The laboratory runs a detailed programme to reduce the risk of contamination from products on the WADA list.

SIS began its relationship with HFL by registering its Nelson site, but decided 18 months ago that they wanted to do more. “We knew from conversations with teams how important it is,” Heeney says. ‘More’ has translated into an intensive and ongoing programme that involves testing every new batch of ingredients arrived at Nelson, ‘blind tests’ of the finished products by HFL staff, who buy them off the shelf without warning, and visits made to the factory to swab and check the entire site, made with as little as 24 hours notice.

If the schedule seems excessive, it’s worth remembering the calibre of athlete supported by SiS and the irreparable damage that could be caused to their reputation by something as far from their control as a contaminated ingredient in an energy gel.

Heeney points again to the SiS model, where the company’s supported athletes and its paying customers receive the same product. If it is the punter who benefits from products of a standard to fuel Olympic champions, it is the elite athlete who benefits from an ‘everyone gets the same’ philosophy when it comes to protecting the integrity of the product, he argues.

“We don’t make the distinction. Everybody gets the same standard. If Chris Hoy gets it, or the GB rowing team, you get the same. We’re dealing with athletes’ careers. It’s just easier for the whole site to be done as opposed to trying to segment things. It’s a much bigger effort in totality, but it’s something that we’ve all bought into, from the board down.”

The effort does not depend entirely on HFL and SiS hopes that its own tests will spot a rogue ingredient before it enters the production process. “We’re very specific about what we buy in very clear areas,” Heeney says. “If we’re looking at a new ingredient, we check it three times before we buy it – three different batches. Only then are we happy to take it on board. You don’t want the risk.”

It’s fair to describe HFL’s testing as thorough. Its methods allow batches of ingredients to be assessed to a level of 10 nanograms per gram, or to put it another way, one second in a 30-year lifetime. “Or a tea-spoon of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” Heeney chuckles. The statistics may be conveniently packaged for the layman, but they are impressive none-the-less.

Heeney remains realistic about the programme, despite its rigour. “This is a manufacturing facility. You’re talking about 1,000 tonnes of material. You have to do something that’s credible, that’s meaningful, but also manageable. We can’t test every 5g of material – it wouldn’t be practical. But equally not testing anything is not good enough either. You have to come to some kind of sensible procedure that allows you to manage the risk.” The net effect of the programme is a reduction in the risk of contamination of about 1,000 times.

Call us hopelessly optimistic, but is the obsession of firms like SIS with avoiding contamination a sign of a cleaner sport? After all, the impetus to do more came from the teams, Heeney says. Such concerns are hardly likely to be the hallmark of a teams unconcerned whether they fall foul of WADA.

For Heeney, the concern is not that teams are operating organised doping programmes, but that riders, particularly young riders, would alter their diet in naivety, without first checking with the team doctor, or with SiS. Diet, he points out, is not banned substance tested. Just ask Tinkoff-Saxo’s Michael Rogers, a vastly experienced rider who has seen his win at last season’s Japan Cup stricken from the record for a Clenbuterol positive, but suffered no further action after the UCI and WADA accepted it had resulted from contaminated meat.

“We try to get the message across to them and to their team managers that, if you’re going to try something – and they will, because diets aren’t always controlled exclusively – please check,” Heeney says. “If you’re buying something off the net or from outside of Europe, at least be aware of the risk, because you could be putting your career on the line.” He wonders aloud if the diets of elite athletes will become totally proscribed.

Consider all the nutrients in your food. Elite athletes don’t have their food checked. “In years to come, is that the way it goes?” Heeney hypothesises. “Do you have a diet that’s totally proscribed so you manage the risk even more? I don’t know.”

From tiny acorns…

SiS can be seen as a British success story: one man’s vision grown to an international concern with significant markets home and abroad.

“It’s about trying to capture what is established and emerging science, and making an honest appraisal of it, and converting that into a product that has a benefit against a particular need,” says Heeney. “It’s not just a case of, ‘We’ll make something different because it’s different’. We’re trying to attach it to a genuine need for that product.” The staff at Nelson have been working on savoury gels for Rapha-Condor-JLT, for example, responding to the team’s request for something different from an unbroken diet of sweet-tasting products.

The factory in Burnley is of significant scale, but it is not the size of the facility but its cleanliness that creates a lasting impression. Overalls and disposable hats and shoe covers are ‘must wear’ accessories for anyone stepping on to the factory floor and the seemingly numberless hand washing stations and the frequency with which they must be used is dizzying.

The factory floor is home to four ‘lines’ – one each for bars and gels, and two for powdered products. The gel machine fires out 92 sachets per minute: an annual total of 20m a year, that, unsurprisingly, makes gels the largest part of  the business. Bars are still made by hand as per Lawson’s original model, but the scale has increased: some 1.5m are now produced each year. And powdered products – sources to be mixed with water to create carbohydrate, electrolyte, or protein drinks – are produced in sizes from 50g sachets to 1.6kg tubs.

It’s an enterprise that keeps 55 people employed on a production schedule that runs 24 hours a day, five days a week, serving markets from the SiS heartland – traditional bike shops – to grocery, where customers include supermarket giants such as Tesco.

So who is using all these products? Heeney describes a “pyramid of influence” among SIS’ UK market, with about 1,400 elite athletes at its pinnacle. These include Sir Chris Hoy, the aforementioned UCI WorldTour and UCI Continental teams, and the GB rowing team. Following the elites are ‘serious amateurs’, a constituency that Heeney estimates at anywhere between 500,000 and 750,0000 ‘active users’. Behind them are those he describes as ‘endurance lifestyle users’ – riders (and typically it is riders, SIS serves more cyclists than any other type of athlete) who might tackle one or two events each year. This group Heeney estimates at five million strong. Only in the ‘recreational’ category, more likely to buy energy products in supermarkets, are cyclists outnumbered by runners.

Significantly, Heeney describes the needs of each class of athlete as the same. SiS does not create different products for its elite constituency, for example. Only the educational needs differ. Those who depend on their athletic endurance for a living are likely to have far more questions, on far more involved topics, than the rider tackling a weekend sportive. “Elites will want to understand, what is the difference between those two protein fractions? Will it be absorbed quicker? What is the benefit for muscle?” Heeney confides. “Further down the pyramid it might be: Why do I need 20g of carbs? If I take 100g of carbs, will there be any benefit?’”

Question time

Questions, received for the most part on the company’s ‘careline’, centre around the ‘three Ts’ – type, time, and total. “What should I take? When should I take it? How much should I take?” Heeney summarises. Enquiries are often related to food (“If this was a piece of chicken…”) which highlights an important distinction. SIS does not recommend any of its products as meal replacements. “We advocate a good, healthy diet – it’s the basis for everything,” Heeney says. And like food, exercise is required to burn off the calorific intake. “One of the very famous questions we get is, ‘What will happen if I consume your products and do nothing?’ and the answer is, ‘You will gain weight’, because they’re nutrient rich.”

Other common misconceptions with nutrition concern the type of product, Heeney continues. A popular enquiry on the careline concerns the amount of Go Energy – the company’s maltro-dextrin energy product – that an be found in the Go Hydro hydration tablet. “We say there’s none,” Heeney says. “In a tablet, which is four grams, there’s only seven kilo calories. It’s about electrolytes.”

Cynics and sceptics

There are many who are skeptical about the sports nutrition industry and question the need for products such as those made by SiS. Heeney argues that endurance events, long by definition, come with a requirement for “replenishment nutrition” to replace nutrients depleted by the effort of taking part. “Food isn’t able to deliver it because it isn’t energy dense enough and doesn’t sit well in your stomach. If you’re on a bike for four hours and you have burned your glycogen reserves, you need something that is palatable, concentrated, and isn’t going to give you wind or an upset tummy. During the event, I think it [the need for sports nutrition] is very clear.”

It’s not always possible to find the mix of particular elements – carbs, protein, electrolyte – in a given food during the recovery period, he continues – a period in which the body’s requirement for nutrition exceeds that from what you might eat normally. “After you have finished, we would encourage you to recover up to the first 30-minutes and probably go and have a meal an hour or two hours later.”

In the case of hydration, many people do not understand the level of hydration required before the event, Heeney believes; that they may not “taken on enough electrolyte to give themselves the best chance.” Expanding the theme, he believes nutrition needs for an event need to be considered days, even in weeks in advance.

Training is another area where Heeney believes sports nutrition is an important supplement to a healthy diet. “You spend far more time training than you do racing. Understanding your nutrition needs during training and how they relate to the race event are massively important.” He offers the example of the Great Britain rowing team, another squad supplied by SiS. The team, he says, train on a 21-day cycle, which becomes more intense towards the end, vastly increasing their nutrition needs. “You’d need to eat an enormous amount of bananas or an enormous amount of a particular food element to give you the same nutritional composition.”

He concludes: “If you’re just going to go and run for 10 minutes, you probably don’t need anything. But if you’re doing a very intense training exercise to get you to be able to run quickly for 10 minutes, then you probably do.”

Untold story?

The success of sports nutrition companies like SIS and their competitors seems at odds with the perennial “fat Britain” stories so beloved of the mainstream news media. For a country alleged in the grip of an obesity epidemic, Heeney’s estimated 750,000 ‘active users’ and the giant ‘recreational’ group – an estimated five million strong, and tackling one or two sportives each year – seem an unreported phenomenon.

Heeney points to a significant increase in the percentage of ‘direct sales’  – those made online – as evidence of a growing constituency of sporting newcomers, who might feel intimidated buying from a traditional bike shop. That said, he places nutrition third on a three-strong list of priorities for newcomers, behind equipment and clothing. Nutrition, he says, is unlikely to be a “primary consideration” for the recreational athlete.

SIS and its teams will remain a presence at the biggest races in cycling this year, as well as at key domestic events. Products made in Burnley will fuel those seeking glory in races like the Tour de France, passing through the next county this July.

When Fabian Cancellara pulls ostentatiously from a gel in a bid to master the will of his opponents as well as their legs, it is one made in Nelson that he raises to his lips. That riders like Spartacus, and by extension, companies like SIS, are sufficiently concerned by threat of contamination of their nutrition products with substances from the WADA banned list to implement systems like those of the HFL, is perhaps something to which we can all raise a glass.

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