Sport Drink Marketing and why Athlete Endorsed Products are Sending Mixed Messages

High performance sports can be extremely taxing on the body, and supplying your body with adequate nutrients and hydration is extremely important. Sports drinks have become increasingly popular as a form of hydration, electrolyte replacement and carbohydrate supplementation. But how much do they actually benefit your performance?

When you think about sports drinks, you probably think about Gatorade. Gatorade sports drinks accounted for the highest overall sports nutrition sales in 2016, and is one of the top most valuable sports brands in the world1. In 2017, Gatorade’s total sales were $6.53 billion, and $127 million was spent on advertising in the U.S.1. On their website, Gatorade’s homepage bombards you with images of high performance athletes like Serena Williams with Gatorade products, and targeted slogans like “help replace what you sweat” and “scientifically researched and game tested for athletes”2. Everybody remembers those advertisements with Sydney Crosby chugging a Gatorade and then scoring a goal3. Athletes help build positive brand associations, but don’t necessarily define the link between the athlete and the brand itself4. If you really think about it, did Crosby actually drink Gatorade during his games? Athlete endorsed products have the potential to create perceptions that the product is healthier than it is, and can lead to overconsumption of unhealthy products5. Especially when it comes to targeted advertising, it can generate mixed messages when athletes are promoting unhealthy products but positively promoting exercise5. 

What is highly disappointing, but not altogether surprising, is that the Gatorade product nutrition information webpages are extremely misleading. The main page for Gatorade Thirst Quencher, the original gatorade product, has large, easy to see numbers for calories, carbohydrate and electrolyte content, but they are less than half of what is actually in a full 355 mL bottle. Nowhere on the page is a mention of serving size, and only when you click on the small nutrition facts link can you actually see these numbers are based on “per serving” amount, which is about 2.5 “per container”. Gatorade Thirst Quencher has 48 grams of added sugar per bottle, and sodium and potassium for electrolytes6. According to SportMedBC, sports drinks that make up 4-8% carbohydrates (4-8g/100mL) is most optimal for performance, and carbohydrate concentration for 11-15% (11-15g/100mL) is too high7. Gatorade Thirst Quencher sits at around 13g/100mL sugar. So while Gatorade has sufficient electrolyte content, its’ added sugar content may not be optimal for performance. 

Snapshot of Gatorade Thirst Quencher Page Nutrition Info8
Snapshot of Gatorade Thirst Quencher Nutrition Facts9

There are a lot of conflicting studies about the effectiveness of sports drinks for high performance athletes. Many show that Gatorade does have positive effects on performance. Unfortunately, a lot of research done on Gatorade is industry-funded, introducing a significant conflict of interest10. It has also been found that industry funding of nutrition related research may bias in favour of sponsors products11. However, not all studies have found positive effects from Gatorade. One study found that athletes had similar levels of performance when drinking water, coconut water and gatorade12, and in another study, it was found that fluid retention and hydration was more effective using higher electrolyte content products in comparison to Gatorade13. Based on this last study, alternatives to sports drinks may include electrolyte supplements without added sugar, like Nuun or Ultima.

So how essential are sports drinks like Gatorade to high performance athletics? When you are exercising, you need to consider fluid replacement and fuel (carbohydrate) replacement14. You lose electrolytes when you sweat, and deficiencies can effect the amount of water in your body, the acidity of your blood, muscle function and other important processes15. Common electrolytes include calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium15. Fluid and electrolyte intake, necessary for sweat loss, needs to be balanced with carbohydrate intake to support energy demands14. In general, athletes in endurance sports engaged in more than 2 hours of moderate to high intensity exercise, benefit greatly from additional carbohydrate intake like sports drinks, but athletes engaged in team sports, involved in intermittent, high intensity exercise less than one hour should focus on hydrating with water12 14

High performance athlete or not, drinking sports drinks may not benefit your performance as much as you would expect. Unless you’re competing in high intensity, longer duration exercise, the extra calories and added sugar may actually hinder it. So while media influence is an extremely powerful asset to increase demand, athlete endorsed products like Gatorade may be too good to be true. After all, marketing manipulating consumer bias is designed to favour Gatorade profits, and not necessarily your athletic performance.

Sources
  1. Representations of Female Athletes in Sport Nutrition Advertising – https://thesportjournal.org/article/representations-of-female-athletes-in-sports-nutrition-advertising/[][]
  2. Gatorade – https://www.gatorade.com[]
  3. Sydney Crosby | Rehydrate, Replenish, Refuel with Gatorade – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwWm4nmPnPo[]
  4. Marketing Food and Beverages to Youth Through Sports – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6634297/[]
  5. Marketing Food and Beverages to Youth Through Sports -https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6634297/[][]
  6. Gatorade Thirst Quencher Nutrition Information – https://www.gatorade.com/hydration/thirst-quencher/fruit-punch/bottle[]
  7. Sports Drinks and Athletic Performance – https://sportmedbc.com/article/sports-drinks-and-athletic-performance[]
  8. Gatorade Thirst Quencher Nutrition Info Page – https://www.gatorade.com/hydration/thirst-quencher/fruit-punch/bottle[]
  9. Gatorade Thirst Quencher Nutrition Facts – https://www.gatorade.com/hydration/thirst-quencher/fruit-punch/bottle[]
  10. Sugar Science – http://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/the-science-on-sports-drinks.html#.Xu6gzi0ZMWp[]
  11. Relationship Between Funding Source and Conclusion Among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17214504/[]
  12. Hydrating with Coconut Water, Water of Gatorade Results in Similar Basketball Fitness & Skill Performance During a Simulated Basketball Game – https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=8851&=&context=etd&=&sei-redir=1&referer=https%253A%252F%252Fscholar.google.ca%252Fscholar%253Fas_ylo%253D2016%2526q%253Dbenefits%252Bof%252Bgatorade%2526hl%253Den%2526as_sdt%253D0%252C5#search=%22benefits%20gatorade%22[][]
  13. The Beverage Hydration Index of Enterade in Comparison to Gatorade and Pedialyte – http://sonoma-dspace.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/205534/TsurumotoM_Thesis.pdf?sequence=1[]
  14. Plain Water or Carbohydrate-Electrolyte Beverages – https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=z26mCwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA377&dq=Baker,+L.+B.,+Barnes,+K.+A.,+%26+Stofan,+J.+R.+(2016).+19+Plain+Water+or+Carbohydrate–Electrolyte+Beverages.+Fluid+Balance,+Hydration,+and+Athletic+Performance,+377.&ots=ccxgH8nQAZ&sig=CRRODF31Xkky6dYFXcY4dWJIB7A#v=onepage&q&f=false[][][]
  15. Electrolytes – https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002350.htm[][]

2 Comments

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Not an athlete but can’t see the benefit of a sugar filled drink. Water and a banana, nuts?? Dairy Milk or plant based milks would seem to me to have all the minerals, etc. to replenish the loss while being active.

Hi Pat, the foods you have mentioned are great options for athletes, however it is more the timing of consumption of these foods that are important. If athletes are engaged in high intensity exercise for longer periods of time they can actually benefit from consumption of sugary food or drinks during their activity due to the fact that sugar is a simple carbohydrate. This allows for a quick and accessible energy source for the body and a quick energy boost. However, athletes still need to be careful about how much sugar they are consuming because if they consume too much sugar this can lead to energy crashes during their event (a short term impact) and possibly even insulin resistance and weight gain as these sugars are converted to fat and stored in the body (more long term impacts).

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