Sports drinks review and compare

We compared 14 brands of sports drink from supermarkets, servos and convenience stores to give you the facts.
 
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  • Updated:7 Aug 2008
 

01 .Introduction

Sports drinks

In brief

  • If you’re an elite athlete, sports drinks before and during the race might make the difference between gold and merely competing; for the rest of us they’re just another soft drink containing sugar and salt that we don’t really need.
  • Some brands specifically target kids, but young athletes don’t really need these drinks. They’re bad for their teeth and some experts believe they’re contributing to the growing problem of childhood obesity.

Please note: this information was current as of August 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


Sports drinks come with promises that are hard to resist:

  • ”Gives you greater energy for a longer more effective performance.”
  • “Perform at your peak for 10% longer.”
  • ”Formulated to deliver what you need to play hard … Compete longer before fatigue.”
  • But when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954 his only sports drink would have been water. So how much is fact and how much mere marketing hype? CHOICE looked at the latest evidence and compared 14 brands of sports drink from supermarkets, servos and convenience stores to give you the facts.

Did you know?

21 million litres of sports drinks were downed in Australia in 2006 (the most recent data available). It’s the fastest growing sector of the soft drinks market (up 33% from the previous year) and most of it’s Gatorade (47%) and Powerade (40%).

 
 

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Full results are shown in the table below. 

Product Nutrients per 600 mL

Minutes of jogging fuelled per 600 ml

Specifications
Brand (ranked by energy per 600 mL) Energy (kJ) Sugars (tsp) Sodium as % max recommended daily intake Boy 12 years 60 kg woman 70 kg man Bottle size (mL) Price per bottle ($)
Pumped Lemon Fix 231 4 3 8 8 7 750 2.72
Powerade Light Citrus Breeze 275 4 7 10 9 8 600 3.95
Thorpedo 367 6 5 13 13 11 350 1.25
Mizone Rapid Raspberry Rush 412 6 6 15 14 12 750 2.87
Gatorade Watermelon 606 9 12 21 21 18 200 4.1
Adams Ale Sport Orange 630 10 7 22 22 18 600 1.89
Gatorade Lemon Lime 631 9 12 22 22 18 600 2.45
100 Plus 684 10 12 24 23 20 330 0.99
Maxade Electrolyte Drink Arctic Rush (Aldi) 727 10 11 26 25 21 600 1.39
Maxade Isotonic Drink Berry Blast (Aldi) 727 10 11 26 25 21 600 1.39
Staminade Orange Burst 738 9 8 26 25 22 600 1.75
Powerade Isotonic Wallabies Gold Rush 802 9 7 28 27 23 600 2.63
Powerade Energy Edge 804 9 13 29 27 24 450 2.63
Powerade Recovery Citrus 951 9 8 34 32 28 450 2.63
Red Bull 1152 16 21 41 39 34 250 2.69
 

Table notes

Nutrients per 600 mL From the figures provided on the nutrition information panel.
Bottle sizes and serve sizes vary so we’ve used 600 mL (the most common bottle size) as a basis for comparison.

Minutes of jogging fuelled per 600 mL We’ve estimated for how long you’d have to jog to use the energy (kilojoules) supplied by 600 mL of sports drink if you’re a budding young male athlete of 12 years, a woman weighing 60 kg or a man weighing 70 kg. These are average values as individuals vary in their rates of energy expenditure.

Price per bottle Based on prices we paid in Sydney in May 2008.

03.Basic ingredients

 

Sports drinks have three basic ingredients — water, sugar and salt.

Water

When you exercise you lose water as sweat, as much as two litres an hour from strenuous exercise in hot weather. If you sweat more than 2% of your body weight your heart is placed under stress, your body temperature goes up, and your physical and mental performance declines.

But forget about drinking ‘eight glasses of water a day’ — that’s an urban myth. Six glasses (1.5 L) of almost any fluid should be ample. Exactly how much water we actually need depends on how much we get with our food and how much we lose as sweat.

Ads for sports drinks are eloquent on the subject of “hydration”. Certainly the sugar and salt these drinks contain are at the right concentrations to maximise the speed with which water moves from your gut into your bloodstream. But plain water is absorbed almost as quickly and is perfectly adequate for moderate exercise or if you’re exercising for less than about an hour.

A recent study found no real differences overall between the hydration ability of plain water and three brands of sports drink. And there’s little evidence that any one sports drink is better than any other on the market.

But the sense of thirst is slow to react to dehydration, so if you’re exercising hard in hot conditions it’s a good idea to drink before you become thirsty. In fact you need to drink before, during and after exercise.

Sugar

The sugars in sports drinks are also supposed to replenish the fuel you use during exercise. The body stores fuel as carbohydrates in the muscles and the liver and releases sugar into the blood stream for instant energy. But after prolonged exercise the carbohydrate stores are depleted and blood-sugar levels can drop.

Studies have shown that supplying a steady source of sugar during exercise fights off fatigue and enhances performance, but it has to be strenuous exercise for an extended period. It takes about an hour of intense exercise — like a fast run or hard cycling — before the body depletes its reserves enough to benefit from extra carbohydrates. With lower intensity exercise, such as jogging, it may take two hours or more.

There’s evidence that sports drinks can improve performance, but only if you’re an elite athlete. If you’re simply an active person who jogs, swims or goes to the gym a couple of times a week, you don’t need sports drinks.

And if you’re concerned about putting on weight, it’s unlikely that you actually need that extra energy. Our bodies have evolved to store any excess energy as fat. If you’re an elite athlete, you’ll be training for several hours a day, using up plenty of energy, and the extra kilojoules from a bottle or two of a sports drink make little difference to your energy balance.

But it’s a different story if you’re just playing a bit of tennis and going for the odd lunchtime jog. One bottle of some of the popular brands of sports drink hits you with 9-10 teaspoons of sugar.

In the table we’ve compared how many minutes of jogging are fuelled by 600 mL of each brand of sports drink for a boy of 12 years, a woman weighing 60 kg and a man weighing 70 kg. (Not all of the sports drinks come in 600 mL bottles but this is the most common bottle size and you’d need to drink at least this much fluid if exercising for about an hour under hot conditions.)

Most brands give you enough fuel for well over 20 minutes jogging. If you’re not exercising for that long, that’s sugar (and kilojoules) you don’t need.

Salt

Sports drinks contain ‘electrolytes’ — mostly sodium chloride (ordinary salt) and potassium chloride. Replenishing the body’s electrolytes is less important than the ads would have you believe.

It’s true that sodium, which helps regulate the body’s fluid balance and plays a role in muscle contraction, is lost in sweat; to a lesser degree, so is potassium, which is also involved in muscle contraction. But most of us already get too much salt in our regular diet (see Healthy eating) so your usual food intake should be more than enough to replace any electrolyte losses.

A 600 mL bottle of some sports drinks (including top-selling Gatorade) gives you more than 10% of the maximum recommended daily intake of sodium.

Sports drinks are promoted as better than water for young kids.

Gatorade argues that children often arrive at sports under-hydrated and their product encourages kids to drink more than if they were only offered water. (And there’s independent evidence to support this.)

  • But sports drinks are acidic and can erode dental enamel. 
  • And the salt in sports drinks is even more undesirable for children than it is for adults because their maximum recommended intake is less (depending on age).

Experts such as Professor Louise Baur, a paediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead and director of the University of Sydney’s NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity, say sports drinks are unnecessary for children and adolescents, and their consumption is part of the growing childhood obesity problem. “If kids are thirsty, they’ll drink water if water is provided.”

What about hangovers?

Many believe that a hangover is caused by dehydration so not surprisingly sports drinks are recommended as a sure-fire cure. According to Staminade, “Faster rehydration leads to faster recovery from all activities — from hangovers to marathons.”

But the latest research suggests this isn’t true for hangovers. The miseries of a hangover are more likely caused by effects of alcohol on the immune system. There’s really nothing you can do for a hangover except take a painkiller for the headache.

Energy drinks  and sports drinks — not the same thing

Energy drinks such as Red Bull and V contain caffeine. There’s good evidence that caffeine enhances sports performance for elite athletes, but not for the average runner or cyclist.

Energy drinks usually contain more sugar than sports drinks (we’ve included Red Bull in the table for comparison). A high sugar concentration can slow absorption of water into the body making these drinks definitely unsuitable for rehydration when you’re exercising. Their caffeine makes them unsuitable for children.