Is Gatorade Good or Bad for You?

While Gatorade is one of the biggest brands in the sports drink industry, it’s also gotten mixed up in a bit of nutrition controversy. Is it a sugar-bomb that you should avoid at all costs? Or is it a nutritious option for hydration? The answer, as is the case in many nutrition debates, is that it depends on the person.

Is Gatorade Good for You?

To assess whether Gatorade is a healthy option—or something to be avoided—it’s important to remember the intended use. Gatorade was developed as a sports drink meant to help athletes. And though many see Gatorade as a “Big Food” mass-manufactured beverage, the roots of the popular product are actually grounded in helping a small football team.

History

Back in 1965, the coach of the Florida Gators recruited university researchers to help him with a challenge. The team was underperforming in hot conditions, and the coach wanted to understand why this was happening—and if anything could be done to correct it.

The researchers noted that the players appeared to be suffering from two issues: a lack of fluid and electrolytes to replace sweat losses, and a lack of carbohydrate for energy replenishment. With this data, they developed a custom drink to help the players hydrate and fuel better on the field, coined “Gatorade”.

When the Gators took home their first Orange Bowl win in 1967, interest spiked in this seemingly magical beverage. By the late 1960s, one of the researchers reached an agreement with a food manufacturer for U.S. production and sale. By the early 1980s, the NFL signed a licensing agreement to make Gatorade the official drink of the league.

Since then, Gatorade has expanded into many product lines and sales have exploded.

Nutrition Facts

While the ingredients have changed a bit since its inception in the 1960s, the nutritional breakdown for Gatorade’s Original Thirst Quencher remains fairly similar. A 20-ounce bottle contains:

  • 140 calories
  • 36 grams of carbohydrate
  • 34 grams of sugar
  • 270 milligrams of sodium
  • 75 milligrams of potassium

The calories, sugar, and sodium may seem high at a quick glance, but these are actually quite useful during prolonged endurance exercise.

Ingredients

You also may be curious about the ingredients in Gatorade, in case you are trying to learn more about the composition of food or avoid any particular food additives. The current ingredients (and their functions) for the fruit punch flavor of the Original Thirst Quencher are:

  • Water—for fluid to help hydrate
  • Sugar—for fuel
  • Dextrose—another type of sugar added for fuel
  • Citric acid—for flavor
  • Salt—adds sodium for electrolyte replenishment
  • Sodium citrate—the sodium salt of citric acid; improves flavor
  • Monopotassium phosphate—adds potassium for electrolyte replacement
  • Modified food starch—stabilizing agent
  • Natural flavor—for flavor
  • Red 40—food dye added for color
  • Glycerol ester of rosin—stabilizing agent
  • Caramel color—food coloring

While food colors like Red 40 are currently recognized as safe, some people have expressed concern over potential long-term health effects. If you're worried about them, Gatorade does produce an organic sports drink line that does not contain any artificial food dyes.

Usefulness as a Sports Drink

While the anecdotal results from the Florida Gators aren’t proof of Gatorade’s effectiveness, many researchers have actually studied sports drinks and athletic performance. Sports drinks—including Gatorade—do help with hydration and energy during intense or long-duration exercise.

However, many people do not exert themselves at a level that requires a sports drink.

Sports drinks are useful if you are exercising for more than 60–90 minutes. Not only will the sports drink help with hydration, but it also helps replenish some of the electrolytes being lost in sweat. Some studies have shown that sports drinks help keep athletes hydrated better because they taste good, so they encourage you to drink more.

Also, once you approach that time range, research has shown that providing carbohydrates for energy improves performance. If you’re exercising for less than an hour, though, plain water is all you need. 

Drinking sports drinks when they’re unnecessary (like in a short workout or while sitting at your desk) can, unfortunately, contribute to excess calorie and added sugar intake.

For example, you probably noted above that a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade Original Thirst Quencher contains 140 calories. Theoretically, downing an extra bottle every day (without changing anything else in your diet or exercise program) could rack up an extra 14 pounds over a year.

Sugar in Gatorade

One of the frequent criticisms of Gatorade is that it contains too much sugar. The standard Gatorade Original Thirst Quencher provides 36 grams of carbohydrate in a 20-ounce bottle, almost as much sugar as a 12-ounce can of soda.

However, that sugar is useful during prolonged exercise.

When you’re exercising, your body is typically using a blend of fuel types for energy. For example, on a long-distance run, your body uses stored fat and carbohydrate to provide energy for your muscles. However, your carbohydrate reserves are far more limited compared to fat. For many athletes, running low on that stored carbohydrate is the equivalent of “hitting the wall.”

When you drink a sports drink (or eat an energy chew, or down a gel), the sugar provides some quickly, accessible carbohydrate for fast energy. Translation: better performance and longer endurance.

But what about those who are just sipping Gatorade throughout the day?

In that case, yes—the sugar content is concerning. It’s not isolated to Gatorade alone, though, but rather the larger problem of high sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in our country. Sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, lemonades, sweet tea—no matter which beverage you’re drinking, too many sugary drinks are dangerous to your health.

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Salt in Gatorade

Similar to the sugar in Gatorade, salt is added to Gatorade for performance-based reasons. When you sweat, your body loses both fluid and electrolytes. Though several electrolytes are lost in sweat, the primary one that you need to worry about is sodium.

Sodium helps to regulate fluid balance in the body. There’s concern that drinking only water during prolonged exercise may contribute to the risk of hyponatremia, a dangerous drop in blood sodium levels. However, it should be noted that the primary risk factor for hyponatremia is fluid overload.

Some athletes also anecdotally link sodium losses to cramping. While most research suggests that cramping is due to neuromuscular fatigue, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try upping your electrolyte intake to see if it solves your cramping concerns.

The sodium in Gatorade is thus truly beneficial during exercise—especially exercise in the heat, when sweat and sodium are lost at a higher rate.

However, from an everyday hydration standpoint, there’s no need to consume sodium in the beverages you sip on outside of exercise. In fact, taking in additional sodium through these drinks may be linked to issues like high blood pressure.

Is Gatorade Bad for Kids?

While Gatorade can be useful for active adults and some very active children, most kids do not need sports drinks regularly.

Aggressive marketing campaigns from sports drink manufacturers—including Gatorade—have often been targeted towards children. For example, in the early 1990’s, the “Be Like Mike” commercial was a major success, encouraging children to be like Michael Jordan and “drink Gatorade.” Similar celebrity campaigns have appeared since.

The marketing paid off, with sports drinks becoming a household staple. A 2018 study in Pediatrics revealed that 57 percent of adolescents drank a sports drink at least once in the previous week. Almost 14 percent drank a sports drink daily.

However, the large majority of children do not exercise at a level of exertion or length that requires a sports drink. For most children, a plain bottle of water will provide the hydration they need during a youth soccer game or high school field hockey event.

For the children who do not need a sports drink—yet are drinking them regularly regardless—negative health consequences can arise:

  • Weight gain: Some research has suggested a small yet statistically significant increase in BMI among children who consume regular sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Dental problems: The acid in sports drink has been shown to wear down enamel, and the sugars in the beverage can contribute to cavities.
  • Food dyes exacerbating behavioral issues in ADHD:  A 2018 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled “Food Additives and Child Health” was created to “highlight emerging child health concerns related to the use of colorings, flavorings, and chemicals deliberately added to food during processing.” One such concern raised is related to artificial food colors—such as the Red 40 or Blue 1 colors used in Gatorade drinks. Certain studies suggest artificial colors could exacerbate behavioral problems in those with ADHD.

Other Types of Gatorade

The Gatorade Original Thirst Quencher beverage is the most familiar product on the market and the one which is frequently questioned regarding nutrition concerns. However, Gatorade also manufactures several other types of sports drinks. These include:

Gatorade Zero

Gatorade Zero is one of Gatorade’s newest products—a zero sugar sports drink with the same amount of electrolytes. 

Nutritionally, a 20-ounce bottle contains:

  • 5 calories
  • 1 gram of carbohydrate
  • 0 grams of sugar
  • 270 milligrams of sodium
  • 75 milligrams of potassium

The current ingredients for the Lemon-Lime flavor of Gatorade Zero are:

  • Water
  • Citric Acid
  • Sodium Citrate
  • Salt
  • Monopotassium phosphate
  • Gum Arabic
  • Sucralose
  • Acesulfame potassium
  • Glycerol ester of rosin
  • Natural flavor
  • Yellow 5

You may notice that instead of sugar, Gatorade Zero is artificially sweetened with sucralose (often recognized by the brand name Splenda) and acesulfame potassium.

While some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners are safe for consumption in moderate amounts, other research has found potential detrimental effects. For example, a 2017 review article concluded that artificial sweeteners may alter the gut microbiome, be associated with weight gain, and alter satiety cues.

G2

G2 is a product line that contains the same amount of electrolytes with half the sugar content compared to the original Gatorade. 

Nutritionally, a 20-ounce bottle contains:

  • 50 calories
  • 13 grams of carbohydrate
  • 12 grams of sugar
  • 270 milligrams of sodium
  • 75 milligrams of potassium

The current ingredients for the cool blue flavor are:

  • Water
  • Sugar
  • Citric acid
  • Natural flavor
  • Sodium citrate
  • Salt
  • Monopotassium phosphate
  • Sucralose
  • Acesulfame potassium
  • Blue 1

Similar to Gatorade Zero, G2 uses artificial sweeteners to help achieve a sweeter beverage. In this case, it’s combined with regular sugar as well.

Gatorade Endurance Formula

Gatorade Endurance Formula is—like you guessed—designed for serious endurance athletes. The formulation is higher in electrolytes compared to the standard beverage. It’s a common choice for race directors to provide on the course for athletes competing in marathon events and long-course triathlons.

A 20-ounce bottle contains:

  • 150 calories
  • 37 grams of carbohydrate
  • 22 grams of sugar
  • 517 milligrams of sodium
  • 233 milligrams of potassium

The current ingredients for the Lemon-Lime flavor are:

  • Water
  • Sugar
  • Maltodextrin
  • Fructose
  • Citric acid
  • Sodium citrate
  • Monopotassium phosphate
  • Salt
  • Calcium lactate
  • Natural flavor
  • Gum Arabic
  • Magnesium oxide
  • Ascorbic acid
  • Beta carotene (color)

You’ll likely notice two differences in the ingredient list compared to the Gatorade Original Thirst Quencher formula:

  1. The coloring is done via a natural method—beta-carotene—rather than a food dye. This may be helpful for athletes looking for products without food dye.
  2. The endurance formula uses simple sugars in combination with maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a complex carbohydrate, which may be easier on the gut for some athletes, but still absorbed very rapidly to provide that much-needed energy.

Interestingly, these were actually changes from their previous endurance formula. The previous version contained the increased electrolyte content but was similar to regular Gatorade in that it used a simple sugar blend for carbohydrates. Many people likened it to a more “concentrated” version of the original Gatorade. In 2017, Gatorade updated their endurance formula to this new blend with maltodextrin and natural coloring.

The Bottom Line

If you’re an athlete who competes in long or intense workouts, Gatorade’s Original Thirst Quencher and Endurance Formula products can certainly be a useful tool for hydration and fueling.

For fitness enthusiasts who prefer a flavored beverage during shorter workouts, G2 or Gatorade Zero could be lower-sugar options—provided you’re comfortable with artificial sweeteners. If you're concerned about potential long-term effects of artificial sweeteners, it'd be best to avoid these.

For most short workouts and for everyday sipping, water is truly your best bet for staying hydrated.

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