The Truths and Myths About Sports Drinks
06.07.19 Nik Tokovic 4 Minute Read
Is Your Sports Drink Junk Food?
In the US alone, sports drink sales are in excess of $5 billion annually. With this kind of money changing hands, many of the top producers have only one thing in mind: how to sell more.
A multi-million dollar marketing machine produces a lot of spin to convince consumers that good science went into making a product that helps them go further and faster.
The major producers of sport drinks aren’t lying: a lot of science has indeed gone into producing their products. Sadly, most (not all) of that science is actually junk food science. What’s junk food science? It’s an art form where salt, sugar, fats, and a range of chemicals are masterfully combined by highly skilled and secretive physicists, cooks, physiologists, and focus groups to produce a best-selling junk food product. It’s addictive, and it recruits all the senses including visual appeal, smell, touch, and taste.
The industry has even coined a term for this - The Bliss Point. The real art is in producing these products as cheaply as possible, while maximising profit. And it’s making people sick. Real sick!
Which kind of chemicals go into most off-the-shelf sports drinks?
Artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners, preservatives, enhancers, and other additives serve no nutritional purpose whatsoever. But all these chemical ingredients are approved for use in foods, and there’s ongoing controversy concerning their safety and efficacy.
In Early 2013, 15-year-old Sarah Kavanagh picked up a bottle of America's favourite sports drink and carefully read the ingredient list. Sarah noted that her favourite sports drink contained an ingredient called Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO). BVO was first patented as a flame retardant and was banned as a food ingredient in most other countries due to safety concerns.
With no scientific background and very little research, this determined young lady approached the producers and asked them if they could they please remove BVO from her drink. They initially ignored Sarah, sending a reply thanking her for her feedback. This didn’t deter Sarah though, and she started an online petition gathering 200,000 signatures which forced the company into an embarrassing admission. Finally, the controversial ingredient was removed.
What kind of science justifies adding a flame retardant to a sports drink? Nutritional science or junk food science
What Do You Get?
Sadly, many top sports drink makers get it all wrong. While they might include some important elements, they also end up adding ingredients just to make things visually appealing and tastier. Or they leave out important components altogether. For example:
- Sodium: Most people, athletes included, already consume excess dietary sodium. And it’s not typically from adding too much salt to their meals but rather from consuming processed foods. Salt is a nearly universal ingredient found in anything from potato crisps to chocolate bars and even sports drinks. Although sodium is important, too much may be harmful. Sodium supplementation during exercise does not contribute to enhanced athletic performance or improved thermoregulation. A multi-complex mineral source, low in sodium is better (more on this later).
- Sugar: When exercising your body needs fuel, and sugar is a great energy source. But many sports drinks deceptively overload on sugar. The label on most sport drinks makes the amount of sugar per serving seem reasonable, but the reality is that most “serving sizes” are not within reason. Which athlete loses 2000-3000mL of sweat an hour to only replace it with only 250mL (8 ounces of fluid)? Most sport drink bottles contain multiple servings which means big calories. And excess calories eventually turn to fat.
- Magnesium: Most brands don’t even consider this vital element. Magnesium is absolutely essential for muscles, nerves, and circulation. Its role in energy production is undeniable. If any mineral deserves to be included in a sports drink, it’s magnesium (more on this later too).
- Other Trace Minerals & Elements: Things like calcium, chloride, and potassium also count when looking at hydration.
The best sports drinks should be low calorie, low in sodium, magnesium rich, and contain a balance of trace minerals that together support thermogenesis and overall health.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of controversy over sodium and sports performance. In the old days trainers used to give athletes salt pills thinking that it would help recovery. However, the western diet is already loaded with salt. In a recent Saint Louis University study, two groups of endurance athletes underwent two hours of exercise which led to liters of sweat loss. One group received sodium supplementation and the other placebo. The study results showed no advantage from sodium supplementation in thermoregulation.
In most circumstances, the sodium lost during exercise is more than made up for in the diet. Remember, excess sodium leads to high blood pressure which is a major risk factor for heart disease. The only caveat to this would be ultra-endurance exercise, that is, efforts that last for over three hours. According to Rice University, in these cases some sodium is needed to prevent hyponatremia which is sodium deficiency in the blood. In terms of sports drinks, the best option would be a low sodium preparation, like Pure Aussie Sport, which covers perfectly the needs of any athlete.
Whereas most people consume excess sodium, the same cannot be said about magnesium. It’s estimated that ¾ of Americans do not consume adequate dietary magnesium, athletes included. Magnesium is required in hundreds of cellular processes in every system of the body. Of particular interest for athletes is ATP, which is the building block for body energy. With strenuous activity, ATP is turned over quickly, and magnesium demands are high. Research shows that magnesium deficiency can significantly limit athletic performance and athletes are especially susceptible to mag deficiency.
So here we find the opposite situation when compared to sodium. Since magnesium has no real effect on taste, many sports drinks aren’t magnesium rich. If performance is more important to you than just taste, then a product that is rich in mag, like Edge Electrolytes, should be your first and only choice.
Magnesium is especially important to athletes since it:
- Optimizes muscle contractility
- Improves muscle oxygen delivery
- Facilities oxidative damage repair
- Reduces inflammation
About The Author
Nik Tokovic is the founder and CEO of Edge Electrolytes.