Just in time for the Summer Olympics in London, a top science journal has issued a blistering indictment of the sports drink industry. According to the series of reports from BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal), the makers of drinks like Gatorade and Powerade have spent millions in research and marketing in recent decades to persuade sports and medical professionals, not to mention the rest of us suckers, that a primal instinct—the sensation of thirst—is an unreliable guide for deciding when to drink. We’ve also been battered with the notion that boring old water is just not good enough for preventing dehydration.
I’ve been as susceptible to this scam as anyone else; I knew, or thought I knew, that if I’m thirsty after my half-hour go-round on the elliptical trainer, it means I was underhydrated to begin with. So for years I’ve been trying to remember to ignore my lack of thirst and make myself drink before working out. Not any more.
The BMJ‘s package of seven papers on sports performance products packs a collective wallop. The centerpiece is a well-reported investigation of the long-standing financial ties between the makers of Gatorade (PepsiCo), Powerade (Coca-Cola, an official Olympic sponsor), and Lucozaid (GlaxoSmithKline) with sports associations, medical groups, and academic researchers.
It should come as no great surprise that the findings and recommendations that have emerged through these affiliations have tended to include alarming warnings about dehydration and electrolyte imbalance—warnings that conveniently promote the financial interests of the corporate sponsors.
And who knew there was something called the Gatorade Sports Science Institute? According to the BMJ investigation, “one of GSSI’s greatest successes was to undermine the idea that the body has a perfectly good homeostatic mechanism for detecting and responding to dehydration—thirst.” The article quotes the institute’s director as having declared, based on little reliable evidence, that “the human thirst mechanism is an inaccurate short-term indicator of fluid needs.”
Another study in the BMJ package finds that the European Food Safety Authority, which is authorized to assess health claims in food labels and ads, has relied on a seriously flawed review process in approving statements related to sports drinks. A third study reports that hundreds of performance claims made on websites about sports products, including nutritional supplements and training equipment as well as drinks, are largely based on questionable data, and sometimes no apparent data at all.
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