As I’m sure we’re all aware by now, regular physical exercise is a good thing for our minds and bodies alike. Regular aerobic exercise in particular, such as running and cycling, will keep the body’s cardiovascular system efficient, improving oxygen consumption and absorption.
This in turn reduces the risk of Coronary Heart Disease (the most common cause of death globally over the last thirty-five years,) as well as the risks of hypertension and obesity.
No arguments there then. But, inevitably, with Exercise will come Exercise Culture. It is perhaps only human nature to seek a leg up or an easy fix towards a healthier lifestyle, and you will invariably find somebody or other looking to sell it to you, however dubious its veracity.
Enter, then, the murky (carbonated) waters of the increasingly lucrative sports and energy drink markets. Sales of these products reached a huge $25 billion in the U.S. alone in 2016, after seeing a 7% increase over the preceding five years. This was in tandem with ever-slowing sales of traditional sodas like Coca-Cola.
This last point is probably telling. Increasingly, the general perception amongst the public is that drinks like Coke are highly undesirable; the City of Philadelphia, PA, even went so far as to ban the sale of carbonated soda in school vending machines three years ago.
As the result of such high profile cases, many consumers seem to have flocked to sports and energy products as an apparently healthier alternative.
That many people do consider the nutritional value of the foodstuffs they consume, even when those foodstuffs are, generally speaking, not the sort your doctor might encourage, is plain to see. One of the worst hit divisions of the traditional soda market is that of “Diet” drinks, for example, likely as the result of widespread concern over their use of sweeteners like aspartame.
But what should never be underestimated is the power of casually misleading advertising and branding. A few highlighted “all natural” ingredients here, a few references to ‘sports’ and ‘energy’ there, and you have yourself a product that might heavily imply its own ‘healthiness’ – without necessarily being anything of the kind.
With a few billion dollars behind them, the people that make and market the most popular brands in this sector are very adept at doing all of this, whilst staying safely within FTC regulations.
A Sporting Chance
It should be noted, of course, that there is a substantial difference between sports and energy beverages. Perhaps targeting the health and sports-conscious most effectively of the two, sports drinks include various iterations of the popular Gatorade brand, and, on UK shelves, Lucozade Sport.
Gatorade is currently the official sports drink of both the NFL and the NBA, as well as the US Soccer Federation, whilst Lucozade Sport sponsors both the FA Premier League and the England national team in the UK.
In spite of these very high profile associations with professional sports, many have questioned these product’s effectiveness as exercise aids. Both Gatorade and Lucozade Sport are isotonic, meaning they contain a 6-8% carbohydrate-rich solution. Carbohydrates, as we know, are vital for working muscles, but are they necessarily beneficial to exercise when consumed in sports drinks?
Not according to the American Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (COSMF,) who saw no real need for extra carbohydrate intake beyond that already found in a healthy, balanced diet. The only high-carb fluids advised, meanwhile, were fruit juices and low-fat milk.
And what of the increased fluid retention and electrolyte balance that some sports drinks boast as providing? Nothing beats plain old water, before, during, and after exercise, said the same research team.
Anger is an Energy (Drink)
However much sports drinks might flatter to deceive though, they pale in comparison to their energy drink counterparts. The much higher carb and calorie count found in your average energy drink – sometimes nearly double that of regular sodas – is just one of their many less than desirable attributes.
Although, seeing as we’re on the subject, the hypertonic carb content of these products means they have a slow gastric emptying rate – which actually lowers fluid absorption. Even Dietician and Sports Nutritionist Wendy Martinson, who actively encourages the use of sports drinks, believes this renders energy drinks unsuitable for use during exercise.
Research has shown energy drinks also contain large quantities of caffeine. A psychoactive stimulant, caffeine can actually improve aerobic endurance and slow the onset of fatigue. The side effects include greatly increased heart rate and blood pressure – remember that hypertension thing we were exercising to avoid in the first place?
Research undertaken by Colin Berry, Professor of Cardiology at Glasgow University in Scotland, showed that a volunteer’s heart rate increased by almost 20% within a couple of minutes of consuming a large energy drink. The force of each heartbeat also greatly increased.
And what about some of those groovy ingredients? I’m not all that sure what Guarana actually is, but if they’re shouting about it, it must do me some good – right? Well, as it happens Guarana is a plant extract – one which happens to be full of, you guessed it, caffeine.
Throw in some good old-fashioned enamel erosion from their soda-like levels of sugar and citric acid, and the energy in any argument for EVER drinking this stuff as part of a healthy lifestyle disappears like the proverbial recipe for New Coke.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect in all of this, though, is the unmistakably hazy distinction between ‘sports’ and ‘energy’ drinks, at least in marketing terms.
Whilst their differences might seem more obvious than a pitcherful of Gatorade over the head (one with stimulants, and one wihtout,) it should be remembered that companies like Lucozade make and distribute both sports AND energy products.
As was discussed earlier, it’s arguably in such companies’ interests that the general public maintains healthy ‘interpretation’ of all their wares – that, after all, may be precisely why they sell in the first place. It may sound dramatic, but when fine lines get blurred, people can become complacent enough to assume a level of safety in a trusted product that might be all in the head.
Witness the case of 25-year old UK man Justin Bartholomew. His family blamed his recent suicide on his 15 energy drinks-a-day habit, with calls for a national ban in Parliament. Just make mine a large water …