What’s in Your Sports Drinks? A Guide to Ingredients and Who Should Be Drinking Them

Guzzle down an ice-cold bottle of sports drink and your taste buds will tell quite a story.

There’s that slight zing of citrus or berry flavor, a nice little bite from some sodium and a sweet rush from the taste of sugar.

It tumbles down into your belly and it’s almost like you can feel yourself become rejuvenated by what you just drank. You don’t feel as thirsty and you’re ready to continue whatever you were doing before you stopped for a break.

There’s a reason why sports drinks have their magical powers, and a lot of it has to do with what you taste as you’re drinking them.

By combining water, electrolytes and carbohydrates, sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade provide athletes the hydration they need to continue competing at a high level.

Over the next few minutes we’re going to talk about the ingredients you’ll find in most sports drinks and whether or not those ingredients will actually help you when you drink them.

Electrolytes: The Minerals That Keep Your Body Working Right

In our first article in this series we talked at length about the history of sports drinks in the United States. The industry generates $8 billion in sales, with most of those dollars coming in through Gatorade, which accounted for 77 percent of all sports-drink sales in 2015.

We bring up Gatorade not only because it’s the premier sports drink in the United States, but also because the scientists who originally designed the drink are the ones who popularized the use of electrolytes as a way to help athletes maintain peak performance.

What Exactly Are Electrolytes?

“Electrolytes” is a word that’s used to describe minerals running through your body that have a charge. Understanding what “charge” means is matter of talking about atoms and such, so we don’t want to get bogged down in those details.

The important thing to remember is that electrolytes affect the amount of water in your body, the way your muscles work and a couple of other important processes. Two of the most popular electrolytes in sports drinks are sodium and potassium.

Sodium: Keeping Things Salty

One electrolyte you’ve probably heard of is sodium, a mineral that makes you thirsty and helps your body regulate how much water is floating around.

So, you can see why having sodium in your blood is a pretty good thing, especially when you’re exercising. If your body can’t regulate the amount of water inside your body, dehydration becomes a serious issue. As you sweat your way through a workout, your body is losing sodium.

Water can’t replace sodium, or any electrolyte, for that matter.

However, most of the multi-colored sports drinks you’ll find at your local supermarket will include sodium for the very reasons we’ve just described. In fact, when scientists were testing the first versions of Gatorade, players hated it because it tasted too much like saltwater.

One cup of Gatorade contains about 110 mg per cup (8 oz.) of sodium, whereas an 8 oz. serving of Powerade contains about half that.

Replacing What You Lose

If your workout is particularly intense and drawn-out, you’ll need to replace that sodium.

According to Active.com, you lose about 500 mg of sodium for every pound you sweat, so losing two pounds of sweat means that you’ve lost around 1000 mg of sodium. Replacing that sodium loss can happen through eating salty foods like chips or pretzels, but you can also guzzle it down pretty quickly by pounding two 32-oz. bottles of Gatorade.

Using this strategy to replenish your sodium means you have to weigh yourself before and after your workout to see how many pounds you’ve lost, which may be an inconvenience. If that’s the case, then do the weigh-ins for a week straight before and after your workouts.

Get a sense of how much weight you lose in relation to how much you worked out, as well as how hot it was outside. From there, you can drink accordingly to meet your needs.

As the seasons change and temperatures fluctuate, do your weigh-ins again to recalibrate how much sweat-weight you lose during your workout.

Don’t neglect sodium intake, especially on days when you’re playing in a tournament or doing a prolonged competition like a marathon, half-marathon or lengthy bike ride. If your body is short on sodium, you could get hyponatremia, a condition that causes your cells to swell and can create some serious health issues.

Potassium: Keeping Things Running Smoothly

Imagine for a second how many times your muscles contract when you’re playing a game of basketball. Every movement you do requires the contraction or relaxation of a muscle, and every time that contraction happens, potassium is around to ensure the process goes well.

Sports drinks companies have realized that potassium is an important part of their multi-colored concoctions.

For example, one 20-oz bottle of lemon-lime Gatorade has about 65 mg of potassium, while a 20 oz. bottle of lemon-lime Powerade nearly 60 mg of potassium.

Protein: Giving Your Muscles Strength

Next on the list of popular sports drink ingredients is protein, the bricks and mortar your body uses to build and repair muscles.

We like how MedlinePlus put it when they wrote: “Proteins are the building blocks of life … You need protein in your diet to help your body repair cells and make new ones.”

Here’s the thing: You won’t find protein in Gatorade or Powerade; those drinks focus on hydration and rehydration. Nope; the “building blocks of life” are found in shake-style drinks. Because these drinks repair muscles, they’re known as recovery drinks.

But don’t worry, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, the parent companies of Gatorade and Powerade, respectively, have their own line of protein drinks: Recover Protein Shake and Core Power.

The drinks we mentioned earlier are usually consumed during and after a workout to keep fluid and electrolyte levels up, but protein shakes are usually chugged after a workout. Weightlifters and CrossFitters love the stuff because the huge chunks of protein grams in these drinks work wonders for repairing and healing muscle tissue.

Both Gatorade and Powerade’s protein drinks contain an insane amount of the stuff: 20 grams for Gatorade and 26 grams in Powerade’s Core Power. Those protein totals are just about half of what you need on a daily basis in just one drink. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

These drinks also include huge amounts of electrolytes, too, but the big issue here is drinkability. A thick protein shake is going to be a little harder to drink during a run or workout than a traditional bottle of Gatorade or Powerade.

Which drink you choose to consume is a matter of your workout, as we’ve mentioned. Protein drinks/shakes are specifically designed to repair your muscles. If you’re taking a 30-minute ride on the elliptical, muscle repair isn’t going to be an issue. Gatorade or Powerade are a better fit.

However, if you’re doing a CrossFit or similar high-intensity interval training program, you’ll want to drink a protein-heavy product. Your muscles will be looking for extra protein to repair the damage done by weightlifting.

Related: Bowflex MAX Trainer Review

Carbohydrates: Putting Energy Back Into Your Muscles

The body is a pretty incredible machine, and you only have to look at what happens during a workout to understand why. Your muscles power your movements, and in order to get the energy they need to power you along, they use something called glycogen. It’s stored within the fibers of your muscles and acts as fuel during periods of activity.

Jenn Christman, a registered dietician nutritionist and author, talked to us about the importance of glycogen.

She said we lose glycogen when we work out. Eating or drinking carbohydrates allows the body to do its magic and convert those carbs into glycogen that can be used for future workouts.

When it comes to the drinks we’ve mentioned so far, carbohydrates usually come in the form of sugar, which is why you’ll see a lot of the stuff crammed into sports drinks and protein shakes.

For example, an 11.5-ounce carton of Powerade’s Core Power protein shake has 26 grams of sugar, while their standard sports drink has 34 grams of sugar in a 20-oz. bottle. To give you an idea of how much sugar that is, a 12-oz. can of soda averages about 39 grams.

Gatorade’s products have 20 grams in 11.5-oz. protein drinks and 35 grams in a 12-oz. sports drink.

So here’s a question we should all be asking: Why are sports drinks being marketed as beneficial for your health when they’re crammed full of sugar?

Bad News: You Really Don’t Need That Sports Drink or Protein Shake

We talked with several nutritionist and sports performance experts leading up to this article and they all agreed: the average person heading to the gym for a workout doesn’t need to drink protein shakes or sports drinks.

Here’s what Jenn Christman said about electrolyte-based drinks:

“I think most people working out don’t need electrolyte replacement. They have the good taste because of the sugar, and they have the sodium and potassium to replace what you lose in sweat. But it’s designed for people who have long workouts, like runners and football players.”

What she said makes a lot of sense when you think about the story of how Gatorade was developed. Scientists were looking for a way to hydrate football players who were having multiple practices in one day in hot, humid temperatures.

That type of environment is very different than what you see at the average gym: air conditioning units pumping out chilly air and fans pushing that air down on gym members. And because the environments and the intensity levels of the two workouts are so different, so are the fluid requirements.

Marie Spano, a registered dietician and the nutritionist for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, also pointed out the discrepancy between what the average gym member needs and what sports drinks offer. (Though Marie is a nutritionist for the Hawks, her opinions are her own and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the NBA or the Hawks.)

 “For the Michael Phelpses of the world, they’re going to need to replace their glycogen pretty quickly and before their next competition,” she said. “Carbs in a drink aren’t necessary for the majority of average gym-goers. Really, sports drinks were formulated for athletes and not everybody else.”

Related: Gym Memberships: Everything You Need to Understand to Know What You’re Getting Into

Marie did point out, though, that if you’re doing CrossFit-style workouts or you’re working out for longer than an hour, sports drinks can be beneficial.

“High-intensity workouts will need carbs and need them quickly, so you can sustain your intensity level,” she said. “If you wake up and exercise and you’re thinking, ‘Why is this so hard today,’ you probably don’t have enough carbs in you.”

Finishing Up: If You Don’t Need Sports Drinks and Protein Shakes, What Should You Do?

It’s really hard to say how we got to the point where we believe that anyone who works up a sweat at the gym is best served by a frosty bottle of Gatorade, Powerade or any number of hydration drinks. The same goes for the protein-heavy recovery drinks.

Our hunch is that marketing has a lot to do with it. Gatorade became the official drink of the NFL in 1983 and Michael Jordan became the product’s spokesperson in 1991. Powerade scored LeBron James in 2003 and now the two companies have a long list of premier athletes on their advertising rosters.

“How did we get convinced that we need these drinks? That’s a marketing question,” Jenn said. “It’s role modeling. We see people we admire and we want to be like them. But the reality is, the average person can replenish their energy stores by drinking plain old water and eating a well-balanced diet.”

If you’re one of the people who does frequent high-intensity workouts, though, Jenn has some suggestions for you:

  • You typically need only 8 oz. of an electrolyte-based beverage to restore your sodium and potassium.
  • You should try and drink a recovery drink within an hour of finishing your workout.
  • If you don’t want to drink for recovery, try eating fruit and yogurt.
  • Steer clear of sugar-sweetened drinks; zero-calorie options contain the sodium you need to replenish your electrolytes.

We second Jenn’s recommendation on the sugary drinks, mainly because that sugar is designed to replenish glycogen so athletes can double up on their workouts or finish out a two- or three-hour practice.

For the average person, choosing a low-sugar or no-sugar drink ensures you’re getting all the electrolytes you need without cramming yourself full of carbohydrates you won’t be burning off until the following day.

The same rules apply for recovery drinks; not everyone needs them, especially not the person hitting up the treadmill for 30 minutes before work. Water and a balanced diet should do the trick.

However, an interesting trend has popped up over the past few years: chocolate milk as a recovery unicorn. We’ll tackle that subject in the next article of our series on sports drinks.

J.R. Duren

J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores, and various bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and his insight has been featured on Investopedia, GOBankingRates, H&R Block and Huffington Post.

What’s in Your Sports Drinks? A Guide to Ingredients and Who Should Be Drinking Them