You’ve probably heard those stories about marathoners who drank water religiously during the race and then collapsed from dehydration at the finish line. Come to find out, dehydration wasn’t their undoing, but rather a depletion of sodium and potassium, the minerals – commonly known as electrolytes – that help fuel our muscles during exercise. Another surprise: drinking water can exacerbate the problem by flushing the body of the minerals it needs.
Not so surprising is the fact that advertisers and marketers have latched onto this notion that water just doesn’t cut it if you’re out there working up a sweat. So now we have “Smartwater,” “Vitaminwater” and all kinds of coconut waters on the shelves beside the old standbys of Gatorade and Powerade – products that supposedly replenish the electrolytes we lose during our workouts.
So how do you decide which product is best for you? According to nutrition experts – and lots of athletes – the choice is easy: none of the above.
“I just drink plain old water,” says Mandy Farrar of Caratunk, who just completed her second Ironman Triathlon July 27. “I never liked those flavored sports drinks. Waters with electrolytes are full of sugar.”
Indeed, some flavors of Gatorade, Powerade and Vitaminwater have about 20 mgs. of sugar per bottle (about half that of a Coke or Pepsi, but more than you’d expect in a “healthy” drink.)
Some say the body actually needs sugar while it’s exercising, but it’s the kind of sugar in these drinks that should give one pause. Vitaminwater, for example, lists crystalline fructose as its second ingredient. Fructose (as opposed to actual cane sugar) has been implicated in the rise of Type 2 diabetes, according to a number of studies. In addition, a recent study suggests that fructose slows down brain function and could lead to Alzheimer’s.
Of course, all these studies come from experiments on mice or rats that are fed megadoses of fructose. So, as the saying goes, everything in moderation probably won’t kill you. But for some reason, crystalline fructose sounds like something cooked up in Frankenstein’s laboratory. And we all know how that turned out.
Sugar aside, the worst thing about the new sports drinks is the fact that they aren’t living up to their health claims. In 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest brought a suit against Coca Cola for “deceptive and unsubstantiated” health claims about its Vitaminwaters, which contain miniscule amounts of zinc, vitamin C and electrolytes. The suit is ongoing, but you might say the jury is already in. During oral arguments concerning the motion to dismiss the case, Coke’s lawyers admitted that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.” The judge denied Coke’s motion to dismiss the suit.
Then there’s the category of coconut waters. When these new players burst onto the sports drink scene several years ago, many proclaimed them to be the all-natural alternative to those sugary sports drinks. They are made from coconuts, with only pure fruit juice added, and the potassium and magnesium supposedly come from the all-natural ingredients themselves. According to Vita Coco’s advertising, there’s three times as much potassium in an 8-ounce serving of Vita Coco as you’d get in one banana, and the sugar (11g in the plain coconut flavor) is natural fruit sugar, not fructose.
But even coconut waters have come under attack for misleading claims since they debuted. In 2011, ConsumerLab.com reported the results of their study examining the nutritional content of three different brands: ZICO, Vita Coco and O.N.E. The study showed that Vita Coco and O.N.E. contained significantly less sodium and magnesium than what was listed on their labels. Vita Coco settled a class-action lawsuit in 2012, agreeing to make it clear on labeling that the amounts of some of the electrolytes in its product can vary.
The newest category of enhanced waters is led by Smartwater (made by Coca Cola, the same people that make Vitaminwater.) Smartwater is distilled spring water with electrolytes added for flavor. (You’ll pay an extra 50 cents to a $1 for those electrolytes.) In the interest of full disclosure, Smartwater is usually my bottled water of choice when I head out the door without my refillable container. I’m not convinced I’m any better off for drinking Smartwater, but I do like its taste better than the stuff from my filtered tap.
The reality, according to nutrition experts, is that most of us don’t need replacement drinks because we aren’t continuously exercising long enough (more than an hour) to deplete ourselves of electrolytes. And even if our electrolytes are depleted, simple foods, such as bananas, yogurt or a handful of peanuts, will replenish us before we start to feel any ill effects.
Mandy Farrar carries Salt Stick, a salt tablet, with her to take every hour during her 15-hour triathlons. Other endurance athletes mix up pure, squeezed lemon juice with a pinch of salt and add it to their water bottle.
The bottom line is, why bother with more expensive sports drinks and their gimmicky claims when plain old water will do?