The Science on Sports Drinks

A large number of SugarScience followers have asked about the value of sports drinks. This is topical following Super Bowl weekend and it’s especially important for our readers: according to our latest poll, one third of our website visitors exercise more than four times a week. If you exercise that much and regularly consume sports drinks in hopes of boosting performance, this could be adding a pretty heavy dose of added sugar to your diet.

Sports drinks come with a very wide range of added sugar contents and different serving sizes, so you’ve really got to read those labels carefully. While some of the added sugar in these products will be mobilized as energy to fuel your muscles if consumed during exercise, a lot depends on how vigorously you are exercising, how much you consume and how much added sugar the drink contains.

The question is, do we need them?

Whenever we need an answer to a hard-core question like this, we put our medical librarian, Evans Whitaker, MD (a.k.a. “Whit”) on the trail. He’s an expert at scouring the latest studies in the world’s largest database of medical research, PubMED.  And Whit turned up some fascinating information about sports drinks research.

Where did these sugary beverages get their start?  In 1965, a team of researchers at University of Florida developed a drink for the university’s football team, the Gators. They called the drink Gatorade. A year later, the Gators won the 1966 Orange Bowl for the first time in history and word started to spread about what the team had been drinking. In 1985, on the heels of the national running craze of the 1970s, Quaker Mills, which owned Gatorade at the time, founded the Gatorade Sports Science Institute to conduct what came to contribute a lot to the research studies on sports drinks.

That history is significant in answering your question about the value of sports drinks. Our search for those answers turned up 325 relevant studies, but the results of our search raised more questions than it answered.

What we learned about sports drink research is that it’s a great example of scientific conflicts of interest – situations in which researchers are significantly dependent on an industry with vested interests to fund their research. Of course, the mere fact of receiving industry funding doesn’t necessarily mean a researcher will report biased findings. Yet an important review1 found that studies conducted by industry-funded researchers were 7.6 times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and obesity than studies without industry ties.

Our review of the evidence on sports drinks suggests that many assumptions have been derived from industry-funded research. Strong, unbiased evidence is generally lacking. One review paper, in fact, found that research showing that rehydrating with water is fine under normal circumstance, had been suppressed.2

One of the most comprehensive reviews of sports drinks studies looked at whether these products made any difference in athletic performance for regular exercisers working out under normal circumstances.3 About half of the studies found that sports drinks made absolutely no difference in athletic performance and the other half suggested they might. In other words, the review concluded with a big “we don’t know” if sports drinks make any difference.

The bottom line is that whether you need, or will significantly benefit from, consuming sports drinks remains an open question.  It’s hard to say, because most of the research has been conducted by industry-supported researchers, which raises concerns about scientific conflicts of interest.  Plus we found careful reviews of this research that questioned basic assumptions.3

We will revisit this topic, so stay tuned to SugarScience. But like us, you may have to live with some disappointment regarding the science on sports drinks. Not every question will have solid, reliable answers in the scientific literature.  But you can count on us to do our best to share what we know.

  • [1]Lesser, L.I., Ebbeling, C.B., Goozner, M., Wypij, D., & Ludwig, D.S. (2007, January 9). Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles. . PLoS Medicine . doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040005
  • [2]Cohen, D. (2012). The truth about sports drinks. BMJ , 1-10. doi:345.e4737
  • [3]Colombani, P.C., Mannhart, C.., & Mettler, S.. (2013, December). Carbohydrates and exercise performance in non-fasted athletes: A systematic review of studies mimicking real-life.. Nutr J , 16.

Conflicts of interest

Researchers have conflicts of interest when their work is significantly dependent on a funding source that holds a vested interest in the outcome of their research.

SugarScience Glossary

Sugary drinks

Means the same as sugar-sweetened beverages or liquid sugars.

SugarScience Glossary

Added sugar

Any sugar added in preparation of foods, either at the table, in the kitchen or in the processing plant. This may include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and others.

SugarScience Glossary

SugarScience is the authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on health.

Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH

Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH, is a professor in the UCSF School of Medicine. She has dedicated her career to intervening on the social determinants of health and to understanding how lifestyle risk factors, such as alcohol and poor diet, influence chronic disease and health inequality.

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