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What really goes into sports drinks

by Abigail Wise
Oct 08, 2012

Sports drinks saw annual sales of $3.9 billion, a year-over-year 14.9% increase since spring 2011, but some experts question their health benefits and many agree that sports drinks are only beneficial to training athletes. Some believe they may even harm consumers who drink them unnecessarily.

The British Medical Journal’s head of investigations, Deborah Cohen, published an article on sports drinks and marketing hydration. After examining over 170 articles from GSK, a UK company that produces sports drink Lucozade, and the marketing behind physical training and sports drinks, she concluded that sports drinks are mostly a combination of water, sugar and salt.

Even though a Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity study found that 27% of parents think sports drinks are healthy for their children, the same study also reported the nutritional value of the beverages. Common sports drinks contain sugar and sodium amounts similar to those in some junk foods. The Rudd Center looked at 38 sports drinks and found the average sodium content to be 120 milligrams per 8 ounces. That's not much less than a small movie-theater popcorn, which starts at 210 milligrams per serving. The median sugar amount was 14 grams in 8 ounces of liquid, similar to the sugar in one serving of Red Vines' Cherry Vines candy, which has 16 grams of sugar per serving.

Cohen’s study examined the promotion of sports beverages. “Some of the risks of sports drinks come in the guidance that has been given out by sports organizations who are sponsored by drinks manufacturers,” said Cohen. “People have been told to drink far more than they need and this has resulted in them drinking too much.”

She found that many of the marketing campaigns behind these drinks play on preventing dehydration. Sports drink companies push their audience to replace lost electrolytes such as potassium and sodium. But too much hydration results in the blood’s sodium level rapidly decreasing and fluid shifting into the body’s cells, a condition known as exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), according to a report in the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

There have been 16 recorded deaths and 1,600 people who have taken critically ill during competitive marathon running due to a drop in their serum sodium, Cohen said.

Despite EAH-related illness and deaths, sports drink companies continue to push thirst-related marketing campaigns. This year, Gatorade and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association declared the first annual National Recovery Day for high school athletes. “Children were told to “drink 16-24 ounces of fluid with sodium for each pound of body weight lost during exercise following a workout or game,” said Cohen. “But where is the evidence to support this?”

Some case studies have found that consuming sodium, which is present in many sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade, is necessary for athletes in training. A case study from the Human Performance Laboratory’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin suggests that sodium should be consumed after two hours of exercise.

But another report, published in the Journal of Athletic Training by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, Inc., suggests that drinks containing sodium are needed only if the athlete has missed meals, is active for more than four hours or performs in extremely warm temperatures. The paper recommends adding 0.3 to 0.7 grams of salt per liter to avoid symptoms such as muscle cramps or hyponatremia.

Cohen’s investigation found that sports drinks containing these added sodium levels are unnecessary for the average person. “I think sports drinks are fine, as long as you see them for what they are: drinks made of sugar, water and salt,” said Cohen.

“For the ordinary person going out for a run, they're not going to help you knock an hour off your marathon time or make you perform better in the gym,” she said.