The truth behind sports drinks

Are sports drinks the miracle performance boosters they’re made out to be or are they nothing more than an expensive waste of time? EDGAR investigates.

Peter Iantorno March 17, 2015

In the past, the only choice for athletes looking to rehydrate after training or competition was water, and that used to do just fine. However, nowadays, with an array of highly marketed (and often luminous) sports drinks on offer, we're made to feel that if we have the audacity to so much as attempt a light jog without the aid of some sort of performance-enhancing potion, we'll likely keel over in exhaustion before we've even set foot outside our front door.

With today's sports drinks being marketed with such vim and vigour by global corporations as almost miracle elixirs that give us a step up to sporting greatness, are they really all they're cracked up to be or are they merely a triumph of clever marketing over common sense?

Well, to answer any question of this magnitude it usually helps to first go back to source, which, in this case, is the University of Florida, 1965, when a team of scientists developed a drink to help boost the energy of the Florida Gators football team. Although it was a simple mixture of water, sodium, sugar, potassium and a dash of lemon flavouring, the drink appeared to have quite an effect on the Gators, as the team won its first ever Orange Bowl title in 1967 - it's first full season of drinking the beverage before, during and after matches. 1967 Florida Gators

As word of the Gators' miracle potion spread, other teams took an interest in using it and the world's first recognised sports drink, then named 'Gator-Aid', came to be. (Lucozade was actually being produced in the UK in the 1920s, but it wasn't marketed as a sports drink until the mid-'80s.)

What happened next is important. Before bringing the drink to market, the clever researchers realised that to keep a name suggesting that the drink aids performance, they would have to produce some scientific proof of this, of which they had none, other than the circumstantial Gators title win. So, a slight tweak to the marketing-friendly, soft drink-associated name of 'Gatorade', et voila - no scientific proof needed, and a future global brand was born.

Fast-forward almost 50 years, and The Gatorade Company is now worth over $5 billion, with its drinks being manufactured and distributed by global giant PepsiCo (which bought the company in 2001) in more than 80 countries, and an incredible market share of around 75 per cent in the United States. And Gatorade isn't the only one: fellow giants Coca-Cola and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) are also taking their piece of the action, with their offerings of Powerade and Lucozade respectively. Gatorade Pete Carroll Of course the likes of Gatorade and the other main players in the sports drink biz have come a long way from the crude mixture that was fed to the Gators team back in '65. They now employ huge teams of scientists and nutritionists for their research and development and even sponsor other research organisations to conduct various studies into everything from the effects of dehydration to the need for carbohydrates before exercise, giving yet more credence to their products.

In fact, the sports drinks giants have a long history of this kind of thing. According to a 2012 report by the British Medical Journal, three of the six authors of a set of guidelines published by the American College of Sports Medicine had either received funding or had significant financial ties with sports drinks companies (two with Gatorade and one with both Coca-Cola and GSK). Unsurprisingly, the guidelines, which stood until 2007, recommended that athletes should "drink as much as tolerable" to avoid dehydration.

This helped the manufacturers over a rather large hurdle: the concept that the human body has an inbuilt indicator (thirst) that tells us when we need to rehydrate. Although this innate ability to feel dehydration has been present since man first walked the Earth, it didn't sit well with the sports drinks companies, who wanted to dictate to the consumer exactly when and how much of their product they should buy. So the companies gave their financial support to institutions that would come up with various nuggets of advice, basically suggesting that the body can, in fact, become dehydrated long before a person feels thirsty, and therefore in order to maintain peak performance, a strict hydration regime must be adhered to.

But even assuming that all this evidence and guidance presented by the sports drink-backed institutions is true, why won't good old water be just as effective? Well, according to the drinks giants, who claim to have carried out hundreds of independent studies into the effects of exercise on the human body, the body needs much more than just water to operate to its maximum potential.

A flashy graphic on the Gatorade website featuring Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton gives the results of the studies in layman's terms, explaining that carbohydrates and minerals (such as sodium and potassium, generally referred to as electrolytes) need to be replenished, as the muscles lose energy through exercise and the body loses electrolytes through sweating. Cam Newton Gatorade It all sounds feasible, but according to the same British Medical Journal report, less than 3 per cent of the hundreds of claimed studies were of high enough quality to be considered at low risk of bias. So basically almost all of them could well have been angled to suit the corporations' interests, and even in the studies that were assessed to be legit, they turned out to be on high-level athletes, and not the average Joe who tends to consume these drinks.

And that's where we come to the real crux of the matter. A brief look at a sports drink's ingredients label will tell you that they do, of course, provide more sugar, carbohydrates and electrolytes than water. However, where the argument flares up, is the question: do we really need all these extra ingredients?

And the answer? If you're an elite athlete, training for hours every day and pushing your body to the absolute limit, there's perhaps the need to take some extra energy onboard, but for the normal leisure sportsman doing an hour in the gym every now and again and playing the odd game of football, all the independent research says that there's nothing wrong with good old-fashioned water.