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.
THE VERDICT: WATER AND FRUIT
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.
• Kids do not lose vitamins when they sweat, so Vitaminwater and vitamin-enhanced drinks are unnecessary.
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.
IF SPORTS DRINKS ARE A MUST
If I personally craved a sports drink, the latest Greater Than products would be my choice. I enjoy the coconut water flavor, and these products are the healthiest sports drinks I found on the market. Give one to your children to sample; just because my guinea pigs didn't love the taste doesn't mean yours won't. They are sweetened with monk fruit, a natural sweetener extracted with water instead of the chemical process used to derive stevia and erythritol.
If a sports drink is a must for my kids and their friends, Honest Sport wins. Honest Tea's products are certified organic, which means the company is required to comply with a list of approved ingredients and flavorings. Honest Sport is free of artificial sweeteners, but it is awfully high in sugar, which is why I would make it an occasional, rather than routine, treat.
Aspire is lower in sugar but includes the artificial sweeteners stevia leaf extract and erythritol. Neither of these sweeteners raises blood sugar or insulin levels, and very little is needed to manufacture a sweet taste. On the flip side, both of these sweeteners are chemically processed additives I'd prefer not to feed my children. Some individuals have digestive troubles with erythritol.
BodyArmor is just too high in sugar, with about 36 grams per bottle (comparable to a soda). In any case, my focus group of children did not go for the taste.
Because sports drinks are firmly entrenched in our modern culture, and because my kids get weary toting their reusable bottles of water, I am relieved to have healthier options to offer them. That is not to say my banana buying will slacken one bit.