Are Organic Sports Drinks Better for Exercise Recovery?

The Truth Behind Organic Sports Drinks

Woman drinking organic sports drink
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Sports drinks can be an essential part of hydration management for active adults and athletes. Research has shown that they could be a sports nutrition accompaniment to water, depending on the intensity and duration of physical activity. Commercial companies like PepsiCo Inc., the maker of Gatorade, are releasing an organic version of the sports drink.

They're aiming to better meet the varying needs of athletes by offering a healthier product, but the question still remains whether sports drinks are truly necessary, organic or not.

Organic vs. Traditional Sports Drinks

Health improvement is the primary reason consumers are going organic. Organic foods are said to be produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, steroids, antibiotics, or pesticides often seen as harmful. The makers of Gatorade began improving their product by removing brominated vegetable oil, which additive studies have shown to cause adverse health effects. The organic version will be further modified and contain only seven ingredients: water, organic cane sugar, citric acid, organic natural flavor, sea salt, sodium citrate, and potassium chloride.

Traditional sports drinks are considered sugar-sweetened beverages and fall under the same food category as soft drinks or sodas. The typical ingredient list includes water, electrolytes (sodium and potassium), sugar, artificial color, and flavorings.

Organic sports drinks with minimal ingredients may be a better choice, but manufacturers still don't address the large amounts of unnecessary sugar and sodium in the product.

This brings us back to whether sports drinks are healthy, whether or not they're organic, and when they should be consumed. 

Gatorade History

Sports drinks were invented in 1965 by researchers at the University of Florida, for their football team known as the Gators. Honoring team spirit, the new sports drink was labeled Gatorade.

The purpose of Gatorade was to hydrate and restore electrolyte balance in the athletes during intense sporting activities lasting several hours. The following year, the Florida Gators made a first-ever historical win during the Orange Bowl. What set the Gators apart from other football teams was the new sports drink, designed for them and seemingly improving their athletic performance. The Gatorade frenzy began and the owners of the product at the time founded the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. Gatorade controls the largest percentage of sports drinks sales and marketing to date.

Gatorade going organic is evolving around consumer demand for healthier options and other sport drink producers are sure to follow the trend. The organic products industry is a multi-billion dollar market and motivating for food producers. Athletes and active adults are striving to be healthier and that means improving sports nutrition.

Conflicting Research

The Gatorade Sports Science Institute remains a large financial contributor toward research studies on sports drinks.

This has shown to pose a possible conflict of interest as researchers are significantly dependent on industry funding. According to a research article published in PLOS Medicine, it’s indicated industry funding may bias conclusions of scientific nutrition articles to support the sponsor’s product without regard for possible implications to public health.

It appears that accurate evidence-based findings for sports drinks, in general, are greatly lacking. Many clinical studies seem to be based on assumption and conflicting findings are reported. Chronic research shows a split decision on sports drinks enhancing athletic performance or making no difference at all. Inconclusive evidence can be problematic for athletes, coaches, and nutritionists who rely on research to make better health choices.

The Role of Sports Drinks

Sports drinks were designed for athletes and active adults to replenish fluids and electrolytes (sodium and potassium) lost during intense physical activity. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, sports drinks are beneficial for athletes performing intense exercise lasting more than 60 minutes. According to an article published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, athletes performing prolonged exercise over two hours may enhance performance consuming carbohydrates and fluids found in sports drinks.

Athletes and active adults participating in sustained physical activity lose body water and electrolytes through sweat. Research has indicated hydration management, including water and sports drinks, may help sustain appropriate hydration of individuals. The goal is to prevent dehydration and excessive changes to electrolyte balance that could negatively impair athletic performance. Sweat rates vary per athlete and therefore it’s recommended customized fluid replacement programs be implemented.

The Sugar Problem

Sports drinks, whether or not they're organic, are full of sugar. According to Healthy Eating Research, some sports drinks can contain as much as 19 grams of sugar, 200 milligrams of sodium, and 80 calories per 8-ounce serving. The sugar content of a sports drink containing 19 grams of sugar equals approximately 5 teaspoons.

The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines recommend adults consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day and have advised only 3 teaspoons for children. One sports drink almost meets the daily sugar requirement for an adult and exceeds it for a child!

The problem is that non-athlete adults, adolescents, and children are consuming them at alarming rates. Research indicates sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) like sports drinks are “the leading source of added sugar in the American diet.” High intakes of sugar are shown to contribute to being overweight, obesity, and declined dental health.

According to the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), when sports drinks are consumed outside the context of athletic exercise, they provide large amounts of unnecessary sugar, sodium, and calories. Excessive sugar intake from sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), “are a leading cause of dental cavities, obesity, and type II diabetes.”

The Journal of the American Dental Association published an article indicating sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) like sports drinks are not only the leading cause of cavities but are displacing healthier fluid intake options. It appears that SSBs are causing an epidemic declining oral health problem, especially in adolescents and children. Research has shown the primary cause and source of dental cavities comes from sugary drinks.

Sports Drinks Comparisons

Sports drinks come in a variety of sizes, flavors, and ingredients. The fact organic sports drinks like Gatorade still requires careful consideration of the contents.

According to some expert nutritionists, sports drinks are full of sugar and essentially like drinking liquid candy. The new Gatorade organic line contains seven teaspoons of added sugar per 16.9 ounce serving. According to the American Heart Association (AMA), this exceeds the adult recommended daily allowance of 6 teaspoons of sugar. An additional problem with sports drinks is they are marketed as a healthy alternative targeting athletes and the general public. The Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) has provided a helpful chart breaking down the ingredients of popular sports drinks:

NameServing SizeCaloriesCarbsSugarsSodiumProtein
Propel Zero8oz00080mg0
Gatorade G Series8oz5014g14g110mg0
Gatorade G2 Series8oz205g5g110mg0
Gatorade Fit O2 Perform8oz102g2g110mg0
Gatorade Fit O3 Recover 11oz10012g9g310mg0
Powerade Powerade 8oz5014g14g100mg0
Powerade zero8oz000110mg0
Sobe Lifewater  8oz03g025mg0
All Sport Body Quencher20oz15040g40g140mg0
Glaceau Vitamin water 8oz5013g13g00
Glaceau Vitamin water zero8oz000100mg0

Sports Drinks Facts and Recommendations

Organic sports drinks marketing and sales are predicted to grow significantly. These drinks are advertised to improve our health and fitness but according to research are not advised for non-athletes. The following facts and recommendations have been compiled from chronic research on sports drinks:

  • The health benefits of sports drinks are appropriate only for athletes performing sustained, intense physical activity.
  • The average American child or adolescent is not physically active enough to warrant consuming sports drinks.
  • Water and a balanced diet are recommended and optimal for the active adult, adolescent or child participating in exercise less than an hour.
  • Sports drinks are a source of excess sugar and calories in our diet.
  • Sports drinks may increase the risk of poor dental health.
  • Consuming sports drinks contribute to increased sodium intake.
  • Sports drinks are shown to be a contributing factor to obesity in adults, adolescents, and children.

The Takeaway

Sports drinks along with other sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) account for almost 50 percent of added sugar in the American diet. Increased sugar intake has already shown to be an epidemic problem causing adverse health effects. It is indicated sports drinks are adding significantly to this increased sugar consumption and calorie intake. Research has shown sports drinks consumed outside the context of sustained physical exercise are linked to obesity and poor dental health. 

Companies are making attempts to create what would seem like a healthier sports drink, but is removing chemicals enough? It appears the makers of sports drinks should also address the impact increased sugar and sodium are having on public health, since many times sports drinks are consumed by the general non-athlete and children. Possibly better marketing to target athletes instead of the general population, as recommended in several studies, could be beneficial. Although going organic may sound like a positive health choice, a deeper look into the content of the product is still necessary, especially by the non-athlete consumer.

Sources:
American College of Sports Medicine, Exercise and Fluid Replacement, Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, Position Stand, 2007

Justin D Roberts et al., Assessing a commercially available sports drink on exogenous carbohydrate oxidation, fluid delivery and sustained exercise performance, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2014

Mary Story, PhD, RD et al., Consumption of Sports Drinks by Children and Adolescents, Healthy Eating
Research, A Research Review, June 2012

Rob H. Beaglehole, BDS, Dentists and sugary drinks, a call to action, American Dental Association 2015

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