Sports Drinks—Should Gatorade be Benched?


Just a few years ago, when John Montague participated in adult-league hockey and soccer games, he reached for Gatorade to replenish fluids. But when the local entrepreneur began collaborating with the Mayo Clinic to create a company that promoted healthy physical activity, he quickly kicked the habit. The popular sports drink, he learned, contained many unhealthy, if not outright concerning, ingredients: high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, and brominated vegetable oil, which was recently dropped by Gatorade after consumers complained that it contains a chemical also found in flame retardants.

Montague started making his own sports drinks, mixing electrolyte supplements with water, crushed berries, and a little sea salt. “My teammates would kind of tease me, but I was starting to educate people,” he says. Soon thereafter, Montague formed a new company with a like-minded friend, Jesse Parker, to create a sports beverage that they could feel good about giving to their kids. Fast-forward one year, and you’ll see teens drinking their Aspire beverages on the sidelines at the state tournaments—or, just as likely, in school hallways. Life Time Fitness named Aspire the official sports drink of its 2014 events, and, with 35 calories per serving and no artificial ingredients, it’s the only sports drink that meets the USDA Smart Snacks in School standards.

Traditional sports drinks may start disappearing from locker rooms as quickly as they arrived now that an increasing body of evidence has linked them to everything from obesity to dental decay. Hydrating the body for peak athletic performance is a relatively new concept, actually—just a few decades ago, some marathoners even shunned water. Sports drinks were born in 1965, when University of Florida physicians developed Gatorade as a way for football players to replenish electrolytes and carbohydrates lost through sweat over hours of intense practice. Since then, sports drinks have exploded into a multi-billion-dollar industry. And while research shows specific benefits of the drinks under certain conditions, some of this science came under question when a recent investigation revealed that beverage companies sponsored scientists who influenced sports-medicine organizations.

Determining the specific effects of food and beverage on the body through rigorous science is difficult to do, says Mark Pereira, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the school’s Public Health Nutrition program who studies nutritional and physical-activity epidemiology. What is clear is that sports drinks are rarely being consumed for the intent of rehydrating or replenishing electrolytes—and, outside of intense physical exertion, there’s “really no role” for them, Pereira says. Adults often assume that kids burn more calories than they actually do, and, unless a practice is particularly long, intense, or hot, water is the best fluid replacement, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Yet, in roughly a 20-year period, the number of American kids ages 6–11 who consumed sports drinks rose from 2 to 12 percent. And research has shown that adolescents are more likely quaffing sports drinks to quench thirst, to substitute for soda, or to boost energy and improve sports performance than to rehydrate. This has caused some researchers to question whether sports are even helpful at all in preventing youth obesity, in part because student athletes drink more sugar-sweetened beverages than their peers.

For high-school athletes in intense training, “there can be a need to replace calories quickly,” says Bill Roberts, a professor in the U of M’s department of family medicine who is also the medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon and chair of the Minnesota State High School League Sports Medical Advisory Committee. “There’s a period right after the game or practice when it’s key to pull in those building blocks for replacing glycogen,” he notes.

Research has shown that natural alternatives to sports drinks, including coconut water and chocolate milk, are also effective replenishments. Yet adopting such beverages would require a cultural shift away from the neon colors and aggressive graphics that seem to go hand in hand with sports culture. Until then, Pereira gives Aspire “a preliminary thumbs up” as a replacement for mainstream sports drinks.

See how sports drinks stack up:

Number of ingredients121317
First five ingredientsWater, sugar, dextrose, citric acid, natural flavorWater, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, salt and magnesium chloride and calcium chloride and mono-potassium phosphate (electrolyte sources), natural flavorsPure water, pure cane sugar, erythritol (natural sweetener), calcium lactate, citric acid
BenefitsElectrolytes from Sodium and PotassiumElectrolytes, 15% Vitamin Niacin, B12, and B6100% Vitamin B6, B12, and Niacin, 20% Calcium