Slurping Sports Drinks (and other Beverages)

November 5, 2004

by Laura Dolson

Review of Beverage Unit So Far

At the beginning of the year, there were many questions and suggestions of beverage-related topics from the class. So far we have covered:

1) Water - the best drink of all!
2) Soda (with Cheri)
3) Juice and Juice drinks

We will have two more classes on beverages, giving an overview of other beverages on the market. (I am skipping over milk, since there weren't any questions from the students about milk.) This week, we will talk about sports drinks and some of the other popular drinks on the market. For the last beverage class, we will talk specifically about the effects of caffeine (which is in many popular beverages), and also about tea.

Sports Drinks

Sports drinks have three components which they claim are needed during exercise. What is the real story on them? They are:

1) Water - As we learned a few weeks ago, it is very important to stay hydrated during exercise. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise. The more you sweat, the more water you need. When exercising, don't wait for thirst to be your guide, as dehydration can happen rapidly.

2) Fuel - If you exercise strenuously for over an hour, or moderately for over two hours, you may benefit from some extra fuel during exercise, usually in the form of carbohydrate. Fruits and dilute fruit juices are often recommended, as simple sugars are rapidly absorbed. However, it's important not to overload yourself. The reason sports drinks have only about half the sugar of most other popular beverages is that too much carbohydrate (or any food) at once can slow down water absorption, because the body has to deal with the food, so the passage into the intestines is slowed.

3) Electrolytes. What are electrolytes, anyway?

Electrolytes are molecules of certain minerals that have an electrical charge. Our nervous system runs on the electricity generated by the manipulation of these molecules, called ions. This means that every function in the body that is dependent upon our nervous system (muscle movement, breathing, digestion, thinking, etc.) requires electrolytes, and the body places a priority on managing them. Electrolytes also are used to regulate the fluid balances in the body. Electrolytes include ions of calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and chloride.

How do our bodies get electrolytes? We get these minerals through the food we eat, and lose them through excretion in various ways. Our sweat contains sodium, chloride, and potassium. These minerals are common in food. Sodium chloride is table salt, and both sodium and chloride are found in many, if not most, foods. Potassium is found in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, legumes, and nuts.

When we exercise, we sweat. Does this mean that we must immediately replace the lost minerals? Under ordinary conditions, no. Eating a balanced diet will supply the body with plenty of minerals for our electrolyte needs if we are getting a "normal" amount of exercise. However, endurance athletes who exercise strenuously for many hours at a time may need extra salt and potassium, as they can sweat quarts of water per day.

Alternatives to Sports Drinks - Sports drinks are usually flavored sugar water with some salt and a little potassium thrown in. There are much less expensive and healthier ways to take care of your needs during normal exercise - bring a water bottle from home, and drink a little juice or have a little fruit if you are exercising for a long time. Many fruit juices have high levels of electrolytes in them as well. Orange juice has 15 times the potassium of Gatorade.

Other Bottled Beverages

There is a truly astounding array of bottled (and canned) beverages on the market right now. On, a Web site for the beverage industry, they review almost 2000 different beverages! This has clearly become a good way to make money - throw a bunch of chemicals into water and put a snazzy label on it. Sports drinks alone generated over a trillion dollars in sales in the last year.

Here are my observations about the beverages I looked at:

- Like sodas and fruit juice, they are a combination of acids and sugars. The amount of sugar is remarkably consistent between drinks, be it juice, soda, or other beverages. With the exception of sports drinks, they mostly have between 25 and 32 grams of sugar in each 8 ounce serving. This is the same as 6-8 teaspoons of sugar. A twelve ounce can would have 1 ½ times as much, and a 20 ounce bottle - well, you do the math.
- Many of the beverages, especially ones labeled as "energy drinks", contain caffeine. We will talk about caffeine next time, but it is always good to be aware when you are consuming caffeine.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup is the most common sweetener. Is HFCS worse than other sweeteners? We will talk about this in class.
- Many of the drinks billed as nutritious have juice and/or added vitamins and minerals, and sometimes herbs or other substances. If you're going to take vitamin supplements, it's a lot less expensive to get them in a daily multivitamin pill. You should be careful about taking medicinal herbs unless you are certain what they are and what they are supposed to do.

Moral: Read the labels! Know what you are drinking!

Questions for Discussion:

What are the main components of most non-carbonated beverages? What beverages can you make yourself that are less expensive and healthier than purchasing beverages at the store?

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