The debate about sports drinks

July 29, 2013

Ever since the BBC programme Panorama investigated the advertising claims behind some popular sports products such as sports drinks, there has been a growing debate about the real efficacy of these products.

There is no doubt that consumers are bombarded by messages from brands advertising the performance and health benefits of consuming their sports products. This tactic is not exclusive to sports products and is prevalent in a whole variety of products, consumables and services. From what I’m lead to believe, a Mars bar will help me ‘work, rest and play’ whilst drinking a can of Coke will ensure Santa appears in the sky with his reindeer and a sack full of Christmas presents.

An investigation by the British Medical Journal concluded that there appears to have been some large conspiracy whereby companies have sponsored scientists to create a whole area of research dedicated to the importance of hydration. These scientists have then gone on to influence the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and have created a ‘notion’ that fluid intake is as critical as training is for performance. Scaremongering over the effects of dehydration is a deliberate tactic to boost an industry dedicated to driving people to overdrink – quite a claim to make!

Whilst it can still be argued as to the exact fluid requirements of a given individual during exercise, questioning the ethics of some of our most esteemed researchers such as Professor Ron Maughan and Dr Michael Sawka is another matter altogether. Both these academics have produced research funded by industry linking dehydration to impaired performance. Some believe this means they cannot be objective and should not be permitted to write guidance.

Unfortunately, BBC Panorama failed to interview the academics questioned in the programme and as such, a very one-sided argument was formed. I’m impressed that a small number of academics appear to have managed to dupe a whole variety of professional organisations, scientists and government agencies around the world into believing sports drinks will benefit performance, or so the British Journal of Medicine lead us to believe. I believe the reality is not so sensational.

The author of the BBC Panorama programme highlights the health risks associated with an inappropriate consumption of high carbohydrate sports drinks and effectively links them to a key cause in the growing obesity epidemic. Whilst it does not take a genius to understand that the obesity epidemic is multifaceted and far more complex than the over-consumption of Lucozade, no mention was made of the performance benefits to athletes undertaking endurance exercise.

Carbohydrate consumption during exercise lasting longer than 90 minutes, particularly in the heat, is proven to enhance performance and reduce the risk of heal related illnesses. Sports drinks play a key role in providing both fuel and fluid during exercise. If you sit at a desk all day or exercise for less than 60 minutes, sports drinks are not for you. People will always be attracted to sugar, just as they will to caffeine and other such substances. The fact of the matter is, when used correctly, sports drinks do provide a performance benefit.