Think Twice, Exposing The Flaws In Generic Sports Drinks

There's a lot of 'science' that goes into generic sports drinks, but how much of it is based around optimising hydration, and how much of it is simply designed to trigger your senses and sell more product?

BY NIK TOKOVIC • APRIL 1ST , 2019


The sports drink industry is a hugely profitable sector dominated by a handful of big players who jealously guard just how much they bring in. They have one thing in mind, it isn’t hydration, it’s how to sell more.

When beverage conglomerates brag about the science that goes into these products, they’re not lying, there is quite a bit of science. Let’s explore the real science behind sports drinks and why they’re so popular - even though very few ‘real’ athletes actually use them.  

So, is there any real science?

Before we start delving into the science, we need to assemble a team. A team of physicists, flavour technologists, focus groups and even psychologists. If there’s a nutritionist onboard, they’ll be paid to look the other way. What comes next has nothing to do with nutrition, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This highly trained team is about to embark on a journey where they create the next best selling beverage. How? Simple, they work together to develop a product that excites all of your senses by combining salts, sugars and fats and a range of chemicals, artificial colours, flavours, preservatives and other chemical additives.

They’re incredibly good at what they do. The issue is that what they do isn’t optimised around healthy hydration, it’s optimised around creating a best selling product.

They're making people sick, and they know it.

In early 2013, 15 year old Sarah Kavanagh picked up a bottle of her favourite sports drink and decided to check the ingredient list to ensure it didn’t conflict with her vegan ethics. She confirmed that it was vegan, but it was hardly ethical. It contained an ingredient that caught young Sarah’s eye, Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO).

Now, BVO isn’t the kind of vegetable oil that you add to your salad dressing, it was first patented as a flame retardant and is illegal as a food additive in almost all countries, except for the United States. So, Sarah decided to write to the company and kindly ask them to remove this ingredient from her drink.

They employed the standard diversionary tactic where they thanked Sarah for her input and ignored her request. This may have worked in the past, but in the age of social media and change.org, this was a big mistake.

Since they weren’t listening, Sarah decided to set up a change.org petition. It quickly gained a lot of support and by the time a few hundred thousand people had signed, they buckled and removed BVO. That done, Sarah turned her attention to America’s second best selling sports drink manufacturer, who also had BVO as an ingredient. Needless to say, they were a little more cooperative in removing this poison from their drink.

So, what kind of ‘science’ goes into adding a toxic flame retardant to a sports drink? Is it nutritional science or is it junk food science?  

What's in a generic sports drink?

Sodium

Most people, athletes included, already consume excess dietary sodium. Not from adding too much salt to their meals, but rather from consuming processed foods. Salt is a universal ingredient found in anything from potato crisps to chocolate bars and, yes, even sports drinks. Although sodium is important, too much is harmful. Sodium supplementation during exercise does not contribute to enhanced athletic performance or improved thermoregulation. A balanced mineral source with the right amount of Sodium is more effective.

Sugar

It’s true, when exercising your body does need fuel, and sugar is a great energy source. However, most sports drinks deceptively overload on sugar and confuse consumers through labelling. Labels state the amount of sugar, per serving, not per bottle. The trick here is that most sports drinks contain multiple servings per bottle. So unless you’re careful and calculated, you might be consuming a lot more sugar than you think.

Magnesium

Most manufacturers simply ignore this vital element. Magnesium is essential for muscle, nerve and heart function, to name a few. Its role in energy production is undeniable and, in my experience, it’s one of the most important minerals. If any mineral deserves to be included in a sports drink, it’s magnesium.

Other Trace Minerals & Elements

When you sweat, your body loses more than just Sodium. You sweat out over 70+ essential minerals including calcium, chloride, and potassium. All of these play an important role in your body and, as such, need to be replaced adequately.

The best hydration products should be low calorie, low in sodium, high in magnesium, and contain a balance of trace minerals that, together, not only support hydration and thermogenesis but recovery and overall health as well.

Sodium, shattering hydration myths.

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 litres of sweat loss. One group received sodium supplementation and the other placebo. The study results showed no advantage from sodium supplementation in thermoregulation or athletic performance.  

In fact it may have shown the opposite as two participants who were given the sodium supplementation started suffering stomach cramping.

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.In these cases some sodium is needed to prevent hyponatremia, which is sodium deficiency in the blood.

Magnesium

Whereas most people consume excess sodium, the same cannot be said about magnesium. It’s estimated that ¾ of people 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, andmagnesium demands are high. Research shows thatmagnesium deficiency can significantly limit athletic performance and athletes are especially susceptible to magnesium 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 magnesium should be your first and only choice.

Magnesium is especially important to athletes since it -

  • Optimises muscle contractility
  • Improves muscle oxygen delivery
  • Facilities oxidative damage repair
  • Reduces inflammation

What's the ideal hydration formula?

If we look at what’s on the market today, we find many high calorie, high sodium, and low magnesium offerings. Sure they taste good, but so does fast food. If you’re looking to replenish your body stores intelligently, go lower sugar with a complete mineral complex that is also magnesium rich.