It’s been pretty quiet in the country of sports nutrition lately: yes, there were new gels, new bars, but nothing very exciting. But here’s a new product that has the ability to get me out of my torpor: the HVMN Ketone ester drink. Let’s go for a review that contains science (a lot) and blood (a little).
1/ The company
HMVN (pronounce “Hu-man”) is a San Francisco-based company that has so far foucsed on, let’s say, exotic nutrition products. They sell “chewable coffee” cubes and a whole set of functional pills that are supposed to keep you awake or make you smart. In brief, the company was until now on my radar but as a nutritionist, their offer left me rather skeptical.
Recently, however, the folks at HVMN offered to send samples of their new product, a ketone ester drink, which aims to increase endurance performance (and much more, but we’ll talk about that later). I first said thank you, because I’m polite, and also because a bottle costs $30 (yes, you read it right), and then I accepted, making sure that the company would have no control over my review of the product. As usual, after this review, I will continue (or not) to buy these products (here https://hvmn.com/ketone) with my own money. No strings attached.
HVMN starts to partner with athletes involved in high-intensity endurance sport, such as Vittoria Bussi, who recently broke the cycling hour record. Also, HVMN does not really hide its collaborations with several pro cycling teams, although none of these teams are officially sponsored by HVMN. Intriguing stuff. Most probably, it’s impossible for teams already sponsored by major nutrition brands to officially state that they are using another brand.
2/ The product and its category
Each bottle of HVMN Ketone contains 25 grams of ketone esters, more precisely (R)-3-hydroxybutyl (R)-3-hydroxybutyrate. If you don’t remember what ketone bodies are, and what their physiological role is, check that article I wrote last year. In short, ketone bodies (acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate aka BHB and acetone) are molecules produced (mostly) in periods of energy shortage by the liver, and that can be used as fuel by the brain or muscles. Here is a quick recap of how it works:
The fact that ketone bodies could positively influence performance sounded quite counter-intuitive at first. Indeed, ketone bodies are supposed to appear in a context of fasting, i.e. in a glycogen-depleted state, which is detrimental for performance. But, exercise physiologists thought of creating a « Frankenstein » metabolic situation : what would happen if you were to combine high ketone bodies level with a glycogen-loaded state ? Ideally, you would have two very efficient fuels available simultaneously : the best of both worlds.
15 years ago, scientists at the University of Oxford and the NIH started to think of the best way to unlock the potential of ketone bodies for performane, and were sponsored to do so by DARPA (Defense Research Project Agency), an agency of the US Department of Defense. Papers after papers, they showed that drinking exogenous ketone can increase drastically blood ketone levels, that this is safe, that these ketone bodies are oxidized in the muscle… All of this culminated in the 2016 Cell Metabolism article (here is my review) showing that exogenous ketone would result in a striking perfromance benefit.
So, let’s face it, this is perhaps the product that has been the most backed up by science that I’ve ever seen.
Also, while exchanging with folks at HVMN , I was very impressed by how open-minded they are at talking about the results of my own little experiments, and about potential strengths and weaknesses of their products. It seems that the academic research mindset has transferred to the members of the HVMN ketone team and this is very refreshing!
The HVMN bottles come in nice little cardboxes of three.
When you open the box, the three little bottles are looking at you. Neat little detail : the back decoration of the three bottles actually differ from each other : I got a runner, a soccer player and a cyclist (sweet!). Also, the inside of the box recaps what the product is, what you should expect from it, and contact details : again, I appreciate the pedagogical effort and the « let’s discuss » attitude.
The HVMN Ketone packaging is quite unusual for a sport performance product : it’s not a soft gel pouch, nor it is a full-size 500 mL plastic bottle. It’s a small transparent plastic bottle, which reminds me of a plastic version of a hip flask.
Note that you do get 25 g of BHB ester (called here “Pure delta G ketones”) in a 65 mL transparent drink. This is comparable to the amount of carbohydrates you would get from a classic 500 mL sports drink (about 30-40 grams of sugars).
Finally, the folks at HVMN lend me a kit to measure my blood glucose and my BHB levels.
I had only 5 strips each so I obviously could not test all possible situations. And there were billions of ideas of situations in which a BHB measurement could have been interesting, but I tried to focus on getting to know how the product works for me. More on that in a second.
So, I feel like I need to give a bit more context here.
Ketone drinks have been around for a few years, but have never become mainstream. There are two main reasons for this : the first one is price (those things were and are still expensive) and the second one is … taste… Others have described the experience of ketone-based drinks as drinking « jet fuel ». You can easily fall down the youtube rabbit hole watching videos of people drinking ketone drinks and desperately trying to wash their mouth…
A snapshot of the YouTubers at “Keto Connect” trying a random ketone drink.
So, based on this context, you can imagine that 1/ I was pretty curious to taste the new HVMN Ketone drink and see how it compares to other ketone drinks and 2/ my expectations were frankly pretty low.
A second point I need to make is that not all ketone drinks are created equal. Most older drinks are based on ketone salts, while the HVMN ketone drink (like a few other drinks, mostly those on the very expensive side) are ketone esters. While I haven’t specifically tasted all the ketone drinks out there, it is generally assumed that ketone salts will be the less tasty ones (to put it mildly), while ketone esters should me more palatable.
Enough details, time to drink !
Let’s be honest : drinking a bottle of HVMN ketone is not an extremely pleasant experience.
The first obvious thing to mention is that the drink is extremely bitter. Not the kind of fresh bitterness of an IPA, but rather a long bitter aftertaste. It persists on the tongue for a few minutes, and cannot really be washed away with water. It is not unbearable though, but not enjoyable either.
Another thing that struck me is the relative discrepancy between the pleasant smell and the taste. The drink is lightly flavored and sweetened with stevia extracts, so you would expect the drink to taste sweet. It does indeed but the bitterness clearly is unexpected.
Eventually, can we blame HVMN for making a poor-tasting drink ? Honestly, I can’t. I worked in the past to make amino acid-based drinks taste good when single amino acids just taste like rotten meat. You can work with artifical flavors, you can try to change the concentrations, you can play with the texture of the matrix… but in the end, you can’t make a pig fly. If the raw ingredient tastes bad and you need a lot of it in your final product, there is not much that you can do. HVMN did concentrate the BHB esters into a small drink, which limits the duration of the unpleasant experience, and did add a distracting flavor. There is not much else to do than accepting that BHB esters taste bad. They may taste much better than the salts, though (but again, my practical experience with BHB salts is limited).
5/ Does it elevate my ketone levels and how ?
The first thing I wanted to test is how much a bottle of HVMN Ketone would elevate my BHB levels and what the kinetic of the blood response will be. So, I used the kit I got from HVMN.
Now, remember I had only 5 measurement strips. So, I forgot about the duplicate or triplicate measurements that I would normally do in the lab with such measurement devices.
Based on the published articles, I decided to run a 4 point kinetic curve (0-30-60-120 minutes) and save one strip for other purposes. I started the test about two hours after lunch : this is the time I would reasonably consider waiting after a meal before going for a run. Then, I waited for two hours… I did not do any exercise, because I wanted to see how my body would handle the ketones at rest , and not how much my body burns them while exercising. Here is what I found :
So, my BHB were already extremely high after 30 minutes. These values would be similar to the type of ketosis achieved after several days of fasting. So, it’s pretty crazy to see that such a small flask can induce such levels in such a short time. The BHB levels plateaued after 60 minutes and stayed surprisingly high after 120 minutes. I have to say that my peak levels were lower than what is claimed on the box (3 to 5 mol/L), but I could in principle adapt the dose to my body weight (72 kgs) and drink a bit more than one flask to achieve a higher ketosis.
Lastly, I measured by BHB levels 30 minutes into a run, which was also 30 min after I drank a full bottle of HVMN Ketone. I had a value of 2.9 mmol/L, similar to my value in resting condition. It was good to see that I did absorb the ketones while running, but I somehow expected that I would burn some already after 30 minutes, and thus that I would have a lower value. Anyway, it was my last strip so I did not really follow-up on this. I got in touch with the head of science of HVMN who nicely walked me through the evidence they have that BHB are absorbed and oxidised by the muscle. The evidence is solid and so, I have no doubt that I did as well burn the ketones later in the run. The take home message probably is that the first 30 minutes after ingestion are still a period where absorption is the main determinant of BHB blood concentrations.
6/ Subjective feeling during exercise
Now that I knew better how ketones would peak in my blood, there are lots of important questions I still wanted to answer : would I tolerate them well ? How would I feel with such a high ketosis ? Would I feel a performance boost ? How would I cope with the taste in the long run ? …
As usual, I took the drinks with me in a variety of situations : long runs, short runs, multi-hour bike rides, multi-day bike rides , … and I think I now have a pretty good grasp on how the product affects me. As usual, take my thoughts with a grain of salt : these are the results of pseudo-scientific experiments on myself (n=1).
TASTE / GATROINTESTINAL ISSUES? I did not get any gastrointestinal issues with the HVMN Ketone drink, neither at rest nor during exercise. After a few weeks of testing, I expected the bitter aftertaste and it did not bother me excessively anymore. I still don’t enjoy it, but I can drink it.
PERFORMANCE BENEFIT? While running or riding at moderate intensities, I did not instantly feel a performance boost. This is OK, because the benefit of ketones is supposed to appear at later stages or at higher intensities (see the scientific explanation here). At later stages though, i.e. 1h30 to 2h into the run/ride, I had the impression that I had some significant energy left. In cases where I had two bottle of HVMN Ketones (one before the start, and one 1h30 into the run/ride), this feeling of performance boost was sustained even longer.
COGNITIVE ABILITY? The one hour that follows ingestion of HVMN ketone is an interesting one : the subjective feeling is pretty hard to describe. I systematically got the impression that I was more alert, more present. Physiologically, it makes sense that a « fasting » fuel increases alertness, making an individual more prone to look for food, or increasing the changes of a weakened organism to escape predators. The increased alertness I felt is not necessarily pleasant though, nor it is unpleasant. It was a bit like having a light headache but without the negative aspects of it: I can see how this may translate into cognitive benefits.
=> All in all, I was pretty impressed with how different I felt in terms of mental focus and physical performance late in workouts. I did not become Eliud Kipchoge but I can see that this product had a performance-enhancing effect on me, as shown in several scientific articles before.
The question that remains is whether these effects are really specific to ketone bodies : I also tend to be more focused after a big load of carbs, as well as I tend to feel better later in my runs when I have sports drinks. In the end, performance and cognitive benefits do not result from the nutrients themselves, but from the fact that the brain and muscle cells can oxidize a fuel and function properly. There is, however, some evidence out there to suggest that ketone bodies have an added benefit over sugars : when compared to isocaloric CHO drinks, KE+CHO had an added benefit on performance (COX). So, I would tend to say that my positive experience may have been specific to ketones.
Recap and last thoughts
In summary, HVMN Ketone pushes the boundaries of sports nutrition science with an intriguing product. Knowing the research that has been going on for years in the field, I expected the ketone ester drink to be efficient in terms of endurance performance and cognition, but I also expected it to taste funny. And the product is exactly what I had expected, with its pros and cons.
So, would I buy it? I would consider buying a few bottles in prevision of a race for which I badly want to get a PR, and for some training sessions leading to the race. I’m not a pro, so the budget and the taste are still no-gos for me to use HVMN Ketone on a regular basis. Also, I would be curious to see studies investigating the metabolic adaptations to a chronic exposure of ketone esters drinks.
Practically, I would consider mixing the ketones with a carbohydrate drink: this seems to correspond to the best evidence-based fueling strategy available to date. It would also make the ketones taste better.
Finally, I’d like to state once again that this product, with its strengths and weaknesses, is a stunning example of an innovation that started on a lab bench and went through extensive scientific validation before hitting the market. I congratulate HVMN for doing this successfully, and I wish more products like this could follow this approach!