In recent years, sports drinks have scored a major coup in terms of marketing and perception among the general public. Sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade are designed as specialized beverages for athletes to refuel, rehydrate, and replenish electrolytes, during or directly preceding/following athletic activity.
But from a marketing angle, athletes are a small group, especially if they are only consuming the product during or directly before/after activity.
However, if average-Joe and Jane are buy sports drinks “because they’re a healthy beverage” then the market is much, much larger.
It’s not necessarily that sports drinks are marketing. Sports drinks are typically marketed by athletes, and generally marketed for athletics. Gatorade isn’t telling you that it’s healthy to drink their product while sitting on the couch watching football. (Baseball players and golfers marketing sports drinks may seem like a stretch, as they don’t sweat nearly as much as basketball and football players while in competition. But Ryan Howard and Tiger Woods work out intensively and presumably sweat a lot there.)
The typical mental process of the “health drink” consumer probably goes something like this:
– I’m thirsty and want something with flavor
– I know that soda is just empty calories
– athletes who are really healthy drink sports drinks, which help to fuel their performance
– sports drinks are healthy
Problem is, sports drinks are still mostly empty calories. Yes, they have electrolytes. But if you’re not sweating from activity, you probably don’t have need of extra electrolytes and your body will just excrete them. And aside from water (which you can get for free from the tap), the other thing that sports drinks have is simple carbohydrates – mainly sugars in the most common sports drinks. (Hammer Nutrition’s HEED contains a high ratio of complex carbs, but their only market is endurance athletics training and events.)
There is a place for simple carbs while engaged in high-intensity exercise (although the body is limited in the rate at which simple carbs can be metabolized, which is a reason for endurance athletes to go for a sports drink with more complex carbs).
But for people not sweating during training or competition, drinking simple carbs from a sports drink isn’t much different than drinking a soda, or eating candy.
The body quickly digests simple or processed carbohydrates (including simple sugars), which floods the bloodstream with sugar. If your body is not ready to use that blood sugar, it responds by upping insulin levels, which in turn causes the excess blood sugar to be stored as subcutaneous fat. And since the digestive system has made quick work of those calories, you feel hungry again quickly, and may just eat (or drink) more as a result.
“Coup” may be the wrong word, since it’s not clear that this trend was initiated as a result of marketing of sports drinks. But as businesses, they certainly don’t mind.
Of course, I shouldn’t necessarily mind either. Compared to the alternative beverages that the average American drinks, sports drinks certainly aren’t any worse than Coke or Pepsi, and on that front I shouldn’t mind seeing Powerade coming out of one of the spigots in the soft drink machine at Burger King.
But sports-drinks-as-health-drinks bothers me because it’s so inaccurate. No one is thinking that Coke is a healthy thing to drink, they just think it tastes good and refreshing. But average-Joe and Jane taking in more simple carbs through sports drinks may think they’re choosing a healthy alternative, which they aren’t.
Special cases: I recently saw a what-to-do-in-flu-season display at UNC’s campus health center, and gatorade was on one of the shelves. There may be value here, as people who are vomiting need to rehydrate, replenish electrolytes and get some easy-to-digest calories back in their system. I’ve also heard of women using sports drinks while giving birth, which is another reasonable application. However, neither people vomiting from the flu nor women in the delivery room make up a large market, in terms of volume of sales.
For more on simple carbs as a dietary problem, see our post, Eating Fat is Good For You.