Sports Drinks Gone Wild

Back to school, as autumn spreads across the land. Check out any suburban sports scene and you’ll see them: the youth of America, out there giving it their all in soccer, football, softball, whatever – chugging their favorite sports drink du jour. Just like the coach tells ’em to, just like their sports idols do. Staying hydrated is one thing, but have we gone too far?

Sports drinks are big business. And lots of industry money does not usually equate with children’s health improvements. Somewhere along the way to cleaning up school food/drink nutritional shortcomings, child health advocates have been stymied by the sports drink manufacturers lobby. Senator Tom Harkin and others are attempting to pass legislation to ban the routine use of high calorie, high sugar products (e.g., sodas, candy) in our schools, but they are being met with resistance. From whom? Need you ask? According to the Washington Post, “The trade group representing Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other bottlers, whose annual sales of sports drinks reached $7.5 billion last year, counters that sports drinks and sweetened waters are lower in calories, “appropriate” for high school students and “essential” to young athletes. In 2006, sports drinks were the third fastest growing beverage category in the United States, after energy drinks, such as Red Bull, and bottled water, according to the trade journal Beverage Digest.”

There are manufacturers that specifically market to children, even for drinks containing large amounts of caffeine. I commented on the “Spark” drink product previously – one that’s marketed to kids as young as four years old. A member of the methylxanthine drug class, caffeine increases norepinephrine and epinephrine, elevating heart rate, blood pressure, basal metabolic rate, and stomach acid secretion. One study revealed that almost 25% of adolescents met criteria for caffeine dependence. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms in children can occur after only two weeks of daily use and include irritability, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and headache. In another study, during caffeine withdrawal, children performed much more poorly on a sustained attention task.

All the sugar and sugar substitutes in these drinks are clearly not health-promoting. While excess simple sugars in juices and sodas are not the cause of ADHD, they certainly can exacerbate behavioral problems in a subset of children. Food additives like dyes and sweeteners have been linked for decades to behavioral difficulties; only recently a study published in Lancet again linked these products to ADHD.

One final concern is the lack of regulation regarding safety and efficacy for food products containing supplements. Natural does not always equal better or safer. This was the point of an ABC World News Tonight spot I contributed to last year.

And though the N.Y. Mets (and now my beloved Yankees) of 2007 RIP, hall-of-fame-to-be pitcher Tom Glavine finds a supercharged baby electrolyte drink his unusual solution for those dehydrating mound moments. For those left waiting til next year, read on.

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