You might be surprised to hear that Sir Edmund Hillary’s first expedition to summit Mt. Everest in 1953 carried Kendal Mint Cake as their primary energy bar. What’s in Kendal Mint Cake? Sugar, mint oil, and advertising. Sugar works, but only if you use it well. According to the expedition accounts, Kendall Mint Cake was the favorite food on the outing, but the people who made it to the top of the mountain “nibbled” it. There’s wisdom in nibbling sugar, in any form.
The first piece of advice about energy food that I ever paid close attention to was wrong. I was eight and trusting nearly everything I read, and what I happened to read that morning was a “Did You Know?” blurb on the back of some breakfast cereal box like Sugar Pops or Frosted Flakes. I recall it said something like, “Did you know that Indian warriors put lots of sugar on their food in the morning so they’d have plenty of energy all through the day?” Well, no, I had not realized that; so I put on extra sugar even though there was already a syrupy layer on the top of the previously sugar-coated cereal, just in case I didn’t have enough. That started a sugar addiction that lasted about 15 years.
I’m not sold on sugar as a staple food, even though I grew up on sugar, Karo corn syrup and marshmallows and seemed to do all right. I feel lots better now than I did then, and now I don’t eat much sugar. The four hummingbirds on the front porch literally eat more sugar than I do. In spite of the historical inaccuracy of the factoid on the sugar-coated cereal box, sugar was and is a primary short-term energy food. I’m sad and surprised that it actually works well. We all run on sugar — glucose in the blood and glycogen in the muscles. When your blood sugar plummets and you’ve burned up the short-term glycogen supply in your muscles, you stagger around and get really stupid. Your brain depends on sugar as much as your muscles do. So, you can’t get away from the need for it, and if you don’t eat sugar your body will make sugar from something else, or start inefficiently tearing down muscle tissue and burning fat. Your body would much rather burn sugar, because muscle and fat are hard to accumulate in a normal prehistoric world.
What goes wrong with sugar as an endurance tonic stems from its abundance in today’s society. It’s cheap and it’s everywhere. We like it so much we’ll eat crap with sugar on it just because it’s sweetened. We’ll spend our pay checks on sugary treats even though we’d get the same benefit from a cheap five pound bag of sucrose. A little sugar actually works well as an energy tonic, quickly restoring blood sugar levels and the building blocks of muscle-driving glycogen. We just never ever eat a little sugar. We eat sugar so fast we literally get sick from it.
You don’t have to be diabetic to suffer from sugar problems. If you eat too much sugar, suddenly your body faces a crisis, because too much sugar in your blood can put you into a coma. In response to overindulgence in sweets, your pancreas floods your bloodstream with insulin, putting all that sugar into storage, and that sudden insulin spike drops your blood sugar down to where it would be if you had just run at your best speed for an hour. Suddenly, even though you just ate three energy bars, you’ve got nothing. You get pale, shaky, weak, and your heart beats in odd patterns. Usually if you lie down for a couple of hours things return to normal. Diabetics can’t return to normal without assistance. Most people deal with a sugar crash the same way diabetics do, by eating more sugar, because it makes them feel better. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire, works great if you really do want to burn everything down.
Only very disciplined people involved in difficult sports run well on sugar. If you eat sports gels on a long distance run, you’re eating sugar in a sensibly sized packet with enough other odd ingredients to make you think it’s more than it really is. What’s important is the sugar and the salt. If you ate a reasonably healthy breakfast you don’t need anything else in the packet, because you already have the vitamins and minerals (except for salt, an ephemeral nutrient), and the extra vitamins won’t do you much good anyway unless you get them along with real food. Sugar is very plain fuel. If you eat as much as you burn, you’re fine. If you flood your system with sugar beyond your needs, your engine sputters and dies.
I’ve eaten lots of Kendal Mint Cake, but I’ve never eaten Kendal Mint Cake sensibly. I first encountered it in REI’s Seattle store in 1972, as several hundred pounds of wrapped bars on a large table under a sign that said something about the Hillary Expedition. It smelled like mint and sugar and I bought several. Kendal Mint Cake comes in a large flat bar intended to be broken into small serving portions. I’d just eat half the bar now and half the bar half an hour later. It was a little bit chewy but also crumbly, literally half glucose and half sucrose, and tasted lots like solid cough syrup. I don’t think I ever took it on a hike because it was so good I ate it before Friday. Kendal Mint Cake was absolutely useless to me as trail food because I liked it too much. If you have the discipline to eat sensible portions only when you need them, it could power you to the mountaintops. During my sugar addiction it worked poorly for me and left me in a stupor on the couch in front of the television. You may find it works better than that.
I could not find nutritional information on Kendal Mint Cake at Romney’s site, but comparable data is available from the USDA Nutrient Database if you search for “sugar.” That’s really the basic ingredient in KMC, whether it’s glucose or sucrose. In one 170 g bar you get 2751 calories, more than a day’s ration for most people involved in ordinary pursuits. If you climb Mt. Everest, one a day is probably too much. Do what Hillary did, and nibble.
Production is limited — Romney’s confectionery in Kendal, England, manufactures only about a ton of mint cake a day, according to the BBC. Amazon does list it, but it’s available in the U.S. sporadically. REI doesn’t even list it any more. That’s just wrong.
Romney’s of Kendal — Makers of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake, Carried to the Top of Everest in 1953
BBC Cumbria — The Famous Confection from Kendal