CrossFire has three articles concerning the use of sports drinks, this one – one citing the pros and cons of sports drinks and one citing the benefits and drawbacks of milk as a sports drink. The question remains: if a pros and cons list can be made at all, what’s the long-standing argument all about? The answer lies in the methods of research and marketing, which is a heavy component to the sports drink debate.
Marketing is the most direct link between the product and consumer. Many sports drinks are marketed towards individuals who exercise a few times a week for a half-hour to an hour. Although most people likely fall into this category, the marketing doesn’t match up with the research. Most studies were conducted on professional and semi-professional athletes, many of whom train for multiple hours, multiple days in a row.1 When doing research for this series of articles, the least professional research participants I could find was an Interuniversal sports team playing at the college level.2 This distinction is important, as the loss of carbohydrates and sodium will be different between professional athletes and individuals who workout for a few hours a week.
The studies were also often done indoors, where temperature and environmental conditions were carefully controlled. While this makes for accurate calculations based only on the fluids being tested, it is worth remembering that lab-conditions will never be the same as real-world conditions.3 When tests are conducted outside, environmental conditions, inevitably, also play a role in the results. There are no easy answers to perfecting lab results and applying them to real-world environments. But when reading the information available, it’s worth considering all of the conditions that brought these results to light and judging for yourself how applicable they are to your life.
The above issues affect how relevant a research paper may be to an individual, but those who actively dislike sports drinks tend to focus on a different issue: conflicts of interest. Many, but not all, research in the sports drink industry is fully or partially funded by companies who have an interest in marketing sports drinks. Three of the studies referenced in these articles wrote disclaimers in their papers citation potential conflicts of interest. Research was partially funded by the Coca Cola Company, the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, Kraft, PepsiCo, the Milk Development Council,4 and Mars U.K. Ltd.5
While these conflicts of interest are important to note, they do not mean that any data has been falsified. Research like this can be costly. From purchasing, renting and maintaining equipment to compensating researchers, it can take quite a bit of money to conduct research. Noting conflicts of interest remains an important consideration when researching and analyzing conclusions, but the issue here can be as complex as any other. It’s up to you to decide what effect the conflict of interest may have had on the conclusions and whether that, too, affects how this research impacts you.
- Deborah Cohen, “The Truth about Sports Drinks,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 345, no. 7866 (July 2012): 24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23278353.
- Marc Johnson, “The Effects of Sports Drinks Containing Caffeine and Carbohydrate on Soccer-Specific Skill Performance During Match-Induced Fatigue” (master’s thesis, University of Victoria, 2009), 5, http://hdl.handle.net/1828/3252.
- Deborah Cohen, “The Truth about Sports Drinks,” 22.
- S.M. Shirreffs, “Hydration in sports and exercise: water, sports drinks and other drinks,” Nutrition Bulletin 34, no. 4 (2009): 379, doi:10.1111/j.1467-3010.2009.01790.x.
- Kevin Thomas, Penelope Morris, and Emma Stevenson, “Improved endurance capacity following chocolate milk consumption compared with 2 commercially available sports drinks,” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 34 (2009): 82, doi:10.1139/H08-137.