As temperatures heat up and we sprint through the Olympics, sports-drink marketing is at a fever pitch. Coca-Cola, owner of Powerade and Vitaminwater, is the longest continuous Olympics sponsor, and the company is clearly onto something. Kids across the globe aspire to be as fast, strong and skilled as Olympic athletes, so marketing Powerade as the drink of an Olympic winner is certainly a gold-medal strategy.
Commercial sports drinks were initially designed for athletes who, like the Olympians, train and sweat so vigorously and for such prolonged periods that they sufficiently deplete their bodies to require the rehydration and calorie replenishment these drinks provide. But here's the thing: The elite athlete market is tiny, and our kids, even the most athletic ones, are not part of it.
Powerade and Gatorade wouldn't be in big business if the only people who consumed their products were those who actually needed them. When these companies expand their markets to include all children who play sports, parents who believe the hype that their kids need to replace electrolytes and adults who think they are making a healthy choice by skipping the soda in favor of a "recharging" sports drink, the companies are suddenly pole-vaulting into money.
The sports-drink market was recently estimated at a whopping $6.81 billion. Kids and adults want something to drink besides water, and they want it to fulfill the righteous promises of rehydration and replenishment. This is why companies such as Honest Tea and Greater Than have entered the market with healthier sports drinks that are lower in sugar and free of artificial food colorings, and why Dr Pepper recently bought 11.7 percent of BodyArmor for $20 million.
Are these new drinks actually healthy? And will kids drink them? I did a blind tasting of six sports drinks (Honest Sport, Greater Than, Aspire, BodyArmor, Gatorade and Powerade) with my boys and their friends. Then I drilled into the nutrition facts and ingredients list for each product. Here's what I found:
The taste test
To my dismay (but not to my surprise), the kids blindly chose Powerade and Gatorade as their favorites. After all, these varieties are the sweetest and the most chemically engineered to cause consumers to come back for more. Next, the kids unanimously voted for all three Honest Sport flavors, followed closely by Aspire. They said they might choose water over the flavor of Greater Than and probably wouldn't drink BodyArmor.
Just because the big brands want us to drink their products and consumers are buying them, it does not mean the facts have changed:
• The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes that "routine ingestion of carbohydrate-containing sports drinks by children and adolescents should be avoided or restricted ... Water, not sports drinks, should be the principal source of hydration for children and adolescents."
• Kids and teens rarely, if ever, lose enough electrolytes during their athletic endeavors to require extra replenishment. Sodium is the most common electrolyte lost in sweat, yet most Americans get more than enough sodium from their diets.
• Many sports drinks contain as much sugar and as many chemicals as soda.
• Some sports-drink bottles contain 2 or 2 1/2 servings, so the grams of sugar listed on the nutrition facts panel may need to be multiplied.
Water paired with a banana, orange or clementine is undeniably a better choice than any sports drink. These fruits are higher in potassium and many other minerals and vitamins than commercial drinks. The natural sugars in these fruits travel into the bloodstream at a steady rate, unlike a manufactured sports drink that causes blood sugar and insulin levels to skyrocket or that delivers a dose of an unhealthy artificial sweetener. No child benefits from 20-plus grams of added sugar and chemical flavorings after a one-hour game.