Straw poll: Anyone actually know what an electrolyte is? For decades, we’ve chugged Gatorade and other sports drinks when sweaty or hungover (or both) in an effort to “replenish” our elusive electrolytes. And yet, there appears to be a casual disinterest in even understanding this ritual, let alone questioning what the healthiest sports drink even is.
Electrolytes, FYI, are minerals in the body that maintain its ionic balance. Think calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and the like. When we exercise, we sweat, and these minerals leave the body in droves, leaving us dehydrated and susceptible to cramps and exhaustion. So in a way, yes, your parents and track coach and the TV commercials were correct. You should absolutely be hydrating and looking to replenish electrolytes after a long period of intense physical activity. But Gatorade’s role in that process is dubious.
Gatorade, since its well-told inception as a special formula for the 1965 Florida Gators football team, has long been the post-workout drink of choice. The brand was sold for a preposterous $13 billion to PepsiCo in 2001, and hasn’t slowed down. It still commands a 75% market share in the sports-drink category today, and despite a seemingly endless onslaught of flavors and innovations (everything from Gatorade Tiger to “Energy Chews”), its original Thirst Quencher series is still its most popular, available in every gas station, deli and supermarket from the Florida Keys to the Puget Sound.
Gatorade’s role in replenishing electrolytes is long established, but its explicit need is questionable. Think back to your last workout. Was it over in an hour? Was sweat dripping down your nose? If the answer’s no (and perhaps even if it’s yes), it’s unlikely that you needed to then aggressively “re-salt” your body.
This brings us to the crux of the issue. This actually isn’t about salt. It’s about sugar. Gatorade tastes delicious. Kids drink it after basketball practice. Truckers down it on road trips. Everyone’s got a favorite flavor, and everyone knows you’re a narc if you refer to the actual name of the flavor instead of the color. And anytime we forget that Gatorade has the same amount of sugar as lemonade or soda, their marketing warlocks drop the best commercial you’ve ever seen, and quicker than you can count your goosebumps you’re throwing back a bottle.
Society’s preference to hydrate with sugar instead of the obvious choice, water, doesn’t all fall on Gatorade though. There are a number of acolytes in the sports-drink space vying for your attention. Some put quasi-funny short stories on their labels and seem allergic to upper-case letters (looking at you, VitaminWater) while others appear destined to be #2 for the rest of time (apologies, Powerade). That said, there are newcomers in the space dedicated to creating drinks that actually align with an active, healthy lifestyle.
To better understand the climate of sports drinks today, we reached out to Karin Adoni Ben-David, a certified nutritionist and health coach who maintains a private practice in Los Angeles and has previously worked as the Head of Nutrition at Reebok Sports in New York. Ben-David has already helped us figure out which energy bars are actually healthy. This time around, we sent her the ingredients lists of nine different sports drinks on the market — from the iconic Gatorade Thirst Quencher to new-kid-on-the-block BODYARMOR — and asked her to do a blind power-ranking, from least healthy to most.
Below, you’ll find Karin’s rankings and an explanation for each drink. Based on her findings, only a few sports drinks actually deserve your attention.
Healthiest Sports Drinks
Ingredients: Citric Acid, Sodium Hexametaphosphate (To Protect Flavor), Natural Flavor, Salt, Potassium Sorbate (Preserves Freshness), Potassium Citrate, Sodium Citrate, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)< Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, Calcium Disodium Edta (To Protect Flavor), Calcium Pantothenate (Vitamin B5), Niacinamide (Vitamin B3), Vitamin E Acetate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6)
Ben-David Says: “This product is highly processed and contains Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), which is used as a preservative to retain color. It may irritate the skin, cause skin rashes or asthma, and is on the FDA’s list of food additives to be studied for toxicity. The drink also contains Acesulfame Potassium, which is an artificial sweetener with zero calories. This sweetener is 180-200 times sweeter than table sugar. Like all artificial sweeteners, safety is a concern. Despite being approved as safe by the FDA, this artificial ingredient has been proven carcinogenic in several studies.”
Ingredients: Water, Glucose, Citric Acid, Acidity Regulators (Sodium Citrate, Potassium Citrate), Fructose, Stabilisers (Acacia Gum, Glycerol Esters of Wood Rosins), Sweeteners (Aspartame, Acesulfame-K), Flavourings, Colour (Brilliant Blue), Vitamin B6. Contains a source of Phenylalanine.
Ben-David Says: “This drink contains a tremendous amount of sugar, as the second and the fourth ingredients on the list. It also contains sugar alcohol, with acidity regulators, added colors and flavors. Overall, an ultra-processed drink. Don’t touch this drink and choose something else.”
Ingredients: Water, Sugar, Dextrose, Citric Acid, Salt, Sodium Citrate, Mono-potassium phosphate, Modified food starch, Natural Flavor, Red 40, Glycerol, Ester of Rosin, Caramel Color.
Ben-David Says: “The majority of this drink is sugar (the second ingredient), salt and water. Yes, we know when doing high-intensity or endurance workouts, it’s essential to replenish the electrolytes in your body. However, this drink is full of sugar and contains high levels of food dyes, which may increase people’s risk of certain health conditions. Bottom line, this drink’s list of ingredients is similar to many sodas in the market. I wouldn’t recommend consuming it.”
Ingredients: Reverse Osmosis Water, Crystalline Fructose, Cane Sugar, Less than 0.5% of: Citric Acid, Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid), Fruit and Vegetable Juice (Color), Natural Flavors, Berry and Fruit Extracts (Apple, Pomegranate, Açai and Blueberry), Magnesium Lactate and Calcium Lactate and Potassium Phosphate (Electrolyte Sources), Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide), Vitamin B5 (Calcium Pantothenate), Beta-Carotene, Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin), Manganese Citrate, Gum Acacia.
Ben-David Says: “This product is sugar and water! The rest of the ingredients are negligible; you might as well put some sugar in your water.”
Ingredients: L-Leucine (3.5g), L-Isoleucine (1.75g), L-Valine (1.75g), Electrolyte Blend (Sodium Citrate, Potassium Chloride, Sodium Chloride), Citrulline Malate (1:1) (1g), Water, Citric Acid, Natural & Artificial Flavors, Malic Acid, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, FD&C Yellow #5 & FD&C Blue #1.
Ben-David Says: “I like the fact that the drink has amino acids in the first ingredient, which helps with recovery from your workout. However, it still has added food coloring and preservatives. I just don’t understand why it’s necessary to put those in the drink. Overall, an okay drink, because it contains amino acids and is low on sugar, which is good, but the rest of the ingredients are just unnecessary.”
Ingredients: Water, Organic Sugar, Citric Acid, Organic Natural Flavor, Sea Salt, Sodium Citrate, Potassium Chloride.
Ben-David Says: “Another high-sugar drink. Even though it has organic sugar, it doesn’t make much difference in how it spikes your blood sugar levels. Though it does contain more minerals, which are better for the environment, it’s still a sugary drink with lots of preservatives and unhealthy ingredients.”
Ingredients: Filtered Water, Pure Cane Sugar, Coconut Water Concentrate, Citric Acid, Dipotassium Phosphate (Electrolyte), Vegetable Juice Concentrate (Color), Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Magnesium Oxide (Electrolyte), Calcium D-Pantothenate (Vitamin B5), Niacinamide (Vitamin B3), Natural Fruit Punch Flavor with Other Natural Flavors, alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Zinc Oxide (Electrolyte), Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Vitamin A Palmitate (Vitamin A), Folic Acid (Vitamin B9), Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12).
Ben-David Says: “Overall this product has nice ingredients, and I like the use of coconut water as a source of electrolytes. The product has lots of added vitamins, which is good for your body. I would say it’s a nice option for a sports drink.”
2. Roar Organic
Ingredients: Water, Organic Coconut Water from Concentrate, Organic Erythritol, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Natural Flavor, Coloring Food (Concentrate of Organic Carrot Juice, Organic Apple Juice, and Organic Black Currant Juice), L-Malic Acid, Citric Acid, Organic Rebaudioside A (Stevia), Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Niacinamide (Vitamin B-3), Calcium D Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B-5), Pyridoine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B-6).
Ben-David Says: This is a good product, and I like the use of erythritol and coconut water. I really like that the drink has natural food coloring from different fruits and vegetables. It also has added vitamins. Good choice after a workout.”
Ingredients: Filtered Water, Organic Coconut Water from Concentrate, Organic Watermelon Flavor, Sea Salt, Organic Lime Flavor, Organic Stevia Leaf Extract. Filtered Water, Organic Coconut Water from Concentrate, Organic Chocolate Flavor, Sea Salt, Organic Stevia Leaf Extract, Organic Mint Flavor. Filtered Water, Organic Coconut Water from Concentrate, Organic Blueberry Flavor, Organic Peach Flavor, Sea Salt, Organic Stevia Leaf Extract. Filtered Water, Organic Coconut Water from Concentrate, Organic Mango Flavor, Sea Salt, Organic Stevia Leaf Extract.
Ben-David Says: “Great product! High-quality ingredients, and love the use of stevia extract to sweeten the drink, which is a creative solution. The flavors sound refreshing, and overall this is an outstanding energy/workout drink that will give you everything you need, without tons of sugar, food coloring, or preservatives.”
The Secret to Great Cocktails? Find Out in The Spill.