Today, almost everyone understands the need of staying hydrated while exercising, but when the first sports drink hit the market in 1965, it was a game changer. Gatorade was created by researchers at the University of Florida and tested on members of the football team with positive results.
Since then, the best-selling brand has become a favorite of athletes and energetic people everywhere, spawning hundreds of different electrolyte-infused variations.
It has stiff competition: According to Future Market Insights analysis, sports drinks are a multibillion-dollar business. Their popularity shows no signs of waning, particularly among young individuals, with some studies estimating that around 31% of Americans aged 20 to 34 routinely take sports beverages.
However, whether this is a good — or even essential — thing is debatable. After all, the initial sports drinks were designed for athletes, who have different hydration needs than noncompetitors (and who, at the time Gatorade was produced, were deliberately discouraged from drinking anything, even water, for fear of causing nausea and cramping).
Many commercial sports beverages promise to give an instant dose of vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes, but they can also include added sugar and artificial colors. So, are sports drinks actually healthy or simply excellent marketing? Learn how they function and why, if ever, it makes sense to prefer them over water or other beverages.
What Are Sports Drinks, Exactly?
Sports drinks are a sort of functional beverage that is designed to replace nutrients that are generally lost during exercise. They are not to be confused with energy drinks, which include caffeine and stimulants to increase energy levels.
While the nutrition details and contents of sports drinks vary depending on the product, their first component is generally water, and they contain vitamins and minerals, notably electrolytes (which is why they’re frequently referred to as electrolyte beverages). When you sweat, you lose electrolytes, which are minerals such as sodium, calcium, and potassium that help cells maintain fluid balance, according to the Cleveland Clinic. In this way, sports drinks frequently claim to be superior to water, which may contain traces of certain minerals but not as much as sports drinks.
Sports drinks are usually flavored and come in a range of brightly colored bottles. According to a previous study, these beverages are one of the leading sources of artificial dyes.
Interestingly, one small study published in Frontiers in Nutrition in May 2021 discovered that runners ran faster when they rinsed their mouths with a colored solution versus a clear one, but more research is needed to determine whether the color of a sports drink has any significant effect on athletic performance.
How Sports Drinks Function
“Sports drinks are engineered to provide optimal hydration and quickly accessible energy during exercise,” says Lexi Moriarty, RD, CSSD, proprietor of Expert Nutrition and Wellness in New Jersey. “They usually include a combination of fluid, electrolytes, and carbohydrates.”
According to research, when you sweat, you lose not just water but also electrolytes. Sports drinks are intended to take the role of both. Another research states that there is some evidence that they may help fuel an exercise, generally with some type of simple carbohydrate (like sugar), which may offer them an advantage in athletic performance and recuperation.
While nutritionists typically recommend reducing your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, athletes who exercise long and hard enough to exhaust their natural energy stores may benefit from replacing them with sports drinks. “Sugar and carbohydrates play a critical role in supporting optimal performance for athletes,” explains Jenny Westerkamp, RD, CSSD, owner of All Access Dietitians in Chicago.
Still, not every workout will be so strenuous; in fact, there is no clear evidence that exercise produces enough electrolyte loss to influence the average person’s hydration levels. And, when it comes to fundamental hydration, research reveals that sports drinks have no advantages over ordinary water.
Sports Drink Innovations
Since its beginnings, sports drinks have gone a long way, and businesses are continually innovating to stay up with customer trends and needs. Protein, the most popular macronutrient, is one such invention. Gatorade’s G Zero with Protein leads the field with a sugar-free blend that provides 10 grams of whey protein while preserving electrolyte levels.
Dairy-based sports drinks are a new-to-market alternative, similar to mixing sports drinks with protein shakes. GoodSport, a series of dairy-based sports beverages, was the first to reach the market, capitalizing on the popularity of chocolate milk as a post-workout beverage. According to one study published in March 2016 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, milk increases fluid balances better than plain water. “Chocolate milk is a great recovery drink because it contains an ideal carbohydrate-to-protein ratio (3-4:1) for proper recovery and has added sugar in comparison to regular milk, which helps replenish glycogen stores more efficiently than other carbohydrate sources, “Moriarty elaborates. “While this can be a great option, dairy does not always sit well with some people after a hard workout.”
Sugar is also being avoided by brands in response to customer concern over additional sugars in sports drinks. Gatorade and Propel both provide low- or no-sugar sports beverages that employ no-calorie sweeteners like sucralose instead of added sugars. Gatorade Fit, which will be available in early 2022, has stevia in its composition, according to Beverage Digest. It also has no artificial colors or flavors.
When Sports Drinks Can Help
The time and intensity of your activity will determine whether you should consume a sports drink or another form of beverage. According to a study, an hour-long intensive workout will leave you drenched in perspiration, making it an ideal time to replace your electrolytes. This explains why you’ll find elite sportsmen enjoying these beverages during workouts and athletic events.
But do most people require sports drinks? Not always, but in the right conditions, they may be, according to Westerkamp. “Sports drinks can be used by anyone whose energy, fluid, and electrolyte needs may be increased,” she explains, such as after 45 minutes of high-intensity exercise or after you’ve had fluid losses due to a stomach ailment.
Moriarty suggests that sports drinks are also a smart option for thick sweaters. Sweating in any capacity can cause electrolyte imbalances, and sports drinks can help replace electrolytes and avoid dehydration.
Who Shouldn’t Drink Sports Drinks?
There’s no need to pick a sports drink over water or other liquids if you’re not exercising or sweating profusely. “Typically, sports drinks aren’t necessary unless you’re working out for more than 45 to 60 minutes or sweating profusely,” Moriarty adds. “With a lower-intensity workout, the amount of sugar in a typical sports drink may not be necessary.” According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, popular sports drinks can contain up to 21 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce serving.
Artificial sweeteners and colors are also a source of worry. “Sports drinks are great for hydration and performance, but they can provide extra calories, sugar, and very little other nutritional value when not consumed during or around exercise,” Moriarty says.
Sports drinks are also unneeded for youngsters, according to research, and may lead to childhood obesity. As a result, sports drinks are often seen as unneeded for youngsters participating in routine or play-based physical exercise.