I’m a kid of the 70’s. I remember playing football in New Jersey (one season and I sucked at it) when my parents bought me some stuff to drink after practices and games called Gatorade. It was green, sweet, and came in these clunky glass bottles. It was pretty new to us in that part of the country and I can tell you I loved it. My mother would pour a good amount into a Thermos and I’d be good to go. It only came in Lemon Lime back then but that was enough. I don’t remember much about the games, the play book, or much else about that season on the Ponies (yes, a football team called the Ponies. I don’t get it either) but I do remember that Gatorade all right.
A few years after that time I had moved on to other sports and Gatorade began offering Orange flavor. That blew my mind. You mean I now have TWO flavors?! WOW! And following that, Gatorgum. Boy, that was rough. Not sure if they still make that sour gum but it was pretty awful. Made your mouth water and, I suppose, that was what supported their claim that it quenched your thirst. Okay, sure, if you say so.
Fast forward to the 80’s, 90’s, and beyond and you have every color Gatorade under the sun. G1, G2, and G3. Low calorie, original, you name it. It’s the wonder drink with lots of imitators.
But is this stuff for real? It was formulated in a lab, right? By some fancy scientists doing lots of research on it so it’s gotta work, doesn’t it? It’s at all these football games, it’s dumped over coaches’ heads, it takes up aisles in supermarkets, it’s on the sides of race cars, it’s part of our culture. How could it not work?
I had always heard naysayers drone on about how the stuff was complete nonsense and you’re better off with water. Proponents would say that water has no electrolytes and without those you’re screwed. Who’s right?
Like everyone curious about this I read up on it to see what there was to know. Lots of sites who slam Gatorade would say that the secret electrolytes are simply table salt — sodium chloride. I looked at the label of my nearby Gatorade canister to see if that’s true. I mean, how could it be, right? All these years of research, all these commercials — dammit, my MOTHER bought it for me when I needed hydration! She wouldn’t give me salt water, would she?
What have we got here? Sucrose: A simple sugar. Empty calories but provides carbohydrates. This is good in an energy drink, though not so much in large quantities (like the quantities I sometimes down after a killer workout). Dextrose: Okay, another sugar. Citric acid: This stuff’s all over. Adds tartness to the flavor. So far, I’m not impressed but we’re only three ingredients in. The good stuff’s bound to come soon. Natural and artificial flavor: Yep. Next? Salt: Ah HAH! Salt! Sonofa…. Okay, there’s some of my electrolytes. Nothing fancy but hey, it’s helps. Sodium Citrate: Flavor enhancer. Monopotassium Phosphate: I minored in Chemistry in college. This does scare me. Hey, I can even pronounce it. Uh, but what is it doing in my sports drink? According to a few internet sources it is there as a source of Potassium. One site also claimed it was an electrolyte. Yes, it is a salt. I’ll give that to you. Not much I could find about its benefits though. Calcium Silicate: The further I go down the list, like most food products, the less I seem to know about the ingredient. Hm, this is used in a lot of fireproofing materials. This apparently is in there to prevent clumping and caking of the powder, keeping it free-flowing even when it’s humid. Modified Food Starch: Bastards. This is what’s known as a ‘bulking agent’. In other words something that is nutritionally neutral but adds to the weight of the product.
Some of the Gatorade flavors vary in some of their ingredients. The ones listed above are in their Lemon Lime flavor and are pretty standard.
Where are my magic ingredients? At 80 calories per 12 oz. I was kinda hoping for more. I had been sold by advertisers that this was going to magically hydrate me. What we’re left with is basically Kool Aid with a dash of salt when we get right down to it. Would we be just as good off after a workout downing Lemon Lime Kool-Aid and a pinch of salt? Hey, I’m no nutritionist, exercise scientist, or cool Gatorade researcher but based on what I’m seeing here — yeah, it’s pretty much the same crap.
So I decided to take things into my own hands. I looking online and found dozens of Gatorade clones you could make at home, many using ingredients you probably already have on hand. Some were pretty good, some not so much. Some of the simpler ones were really just diluted fruit juice with a dash of table salt and scoop of sugar. You can tweak these to your taste however you want.
But here’s one of your problems. Although you are in control of what is in your drink, can eliminate preservatives, anti-clumping chemicals, and artificial colors and such, you are many times left with a much stickier drink that ounce for ounce probably isn’t too much healthier than Gatorade. Some, yes, but probably not a lot. Pain in the ass to clean up the bottles and if it leaks on your gym bag, mat, or equipment you’ve got stickiness. I hate sticky!
Also, many of the tangier recipes that I liked (mimicking the sentimental Lemon Lime flavor of youth) involved — imagine this — fresh lemons. And lots of them. If I stuck with these recipes and work out 2 – 4 times a week that would be about 5 lemons or so a week. Who keeps fresh lemons on hand all the time. And hey, I live in the Northeast part of the U.S. Lemons literally don’t grow on trees ’round here and can cost upwards of $1 apiece. So, cost. Ends up being much more expensive to mimic Gatorade than go with the real thing if you do the lemon thing and don’t live in citrus country.
You may think I’m lining this all up to justify Gatorade, the drink of my childhood, when in fact I’m not. Looking more into this was pretty eye-opening and caused me to reevaluate why I drink it in the first place. Sure, hydration but why else? Well, I need to drink a LOT of fluids before, during, and after workouts or I dehydrate. Drinking plain old water, though it is likely all you need (throw in a bag of salted peanuts or a few Saltines for the magic electrolytes if you’d like), it can get boring and after 2 or 3 liters it can sometimes be hard to force down — especially taking into account that some hot workout days I drink about 5 liters all told. Having something other than water can make it go down easier and therefore allow me to drink much more. Is there another way to get this benefit without bulking up on all the junk in Gatorade?
On the other side of all of this looking around, I know what’s in Gatorade and can “use” it more…uh…intelligently in my hydration routine. Although I still drink Gatorade I’ve cut it back by going back to water a lot more, sometimes amping it up with a splash of orange juice and a dash of salt and sugar. I make the clones once in a while for a treat because, although it is sticky, some of the recipes are actually very good.
Raise a glass of your “Kool Aid with a dash of salt” but do so knowing what your alternatives are and that water, in the end, is always your best friend!
Head on over and read “The Gatorade Myth, Part II“