Is Gatorade Good or Bad for You?

An athlete drinks Gatorade while cycling

Patrick McDermott / Stringer / Getty Images

While Gatorade is one of the biggest brands in the sports drink industry, its nutritional merit is controversial. 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 with many nutrition debates, is not so simple.

Deciding whether you should drink Gatorade (or any sports beverage) depends on your health goals and philosophy, the amount and type of exercise you're doing, and personal preference. Gatorade is both highly caloric and a fluid source of electrolytes and carbohydrates that can benefit athletes.

History

Today, Gatorade is a very widely consumed, mass-manufactured beverage available in a rainbow of colors and flavors. The roots of the popular product, however, are grounded in helping a small football team succeed.

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

The researchers noted that the players had 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—a mixture of sugar, salt, water, and citrus flavoring—to help the players hydrate and fuel more efficiently on the field, which they called “Gatorade.”

When the Gators won their first Orange Bowl 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, sales have exploded, and Gatorade and sports seem to go hand in hand. Let's take a closer look.

Nutrition Facts

While the ingredients, flavors, and colors have changed a bit since its inception in the 1960s, the nutritional components of Gatorade’s Original Thirst Quencher remain fairly similar. A 20-ounce bottle contains:

The calories, sugar, and sodium content may seem high at a quick glance, but these ingredients can be useful during prolonged endurance exercise.

Ingredients

Gatorade now has many different beverage lines, including the original, Flow, Fierce, Frost, G Organic, G2 (with half the sugar), and Zero (no sugar). Aside from the varying sugar content and flavor intensity, these drinks share a similar makeup of electrolytes, flavors, dyes, and other ingredients. Here's a breakdown of what's in a typical bottle as well as the intended purposes of these basic ingredients:

  • Water—for fluid to help hydrate
  • Sugar—for fuel
  • Dextrose—another type of sugar added for fuel
  • Citric acid—for flavor
  • Salt—for electrolyte replenishment
  • Sodium citrate—the sodium salt of citric acid to improve the flavor
  • Monopotassium phosphate—adds potassium for electrolyte replacement
  • Modified food starch—stabilizing agent
  • Natural flavor—for flavor
  • Food dyes—for color
  • Glycerol ester of rosin—stabilizing agent
  • Caramel color—food coloring, used in some products

One exception is the G Organic drinks which are certified organic and only contain seven ingredients: water, cane sugar, citric acid, natural flavor, sea salt, sodium citrate, and potassium chloride.

Food Dyes in Gatorade

Gatorade is known for its brightly colored drinks but some question the safety of the dyes used to make them, raising concerns about whether the ingredients might pose risks, such as for cancer or hyperactivity. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed the science and concluded that the food colors used in Gatorade, such as Red 40 or Yellow 5, are safe to consume.

If you decide to avoid these chemicals but are still interested in drinking Gatorade, not all of their products contain artificial colors. G Organic, its organic sports drink line, does not contain any artificial food dyes.

Sugar in Gatorade

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

The reason is that sugar can be useful during prolonged exercise. When you’re exercising, your body is typically using a blend of fuel types for energy, including sugar (a simple, sweet-tasting form of carbohydrate). 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 have another quick mid-workout snack), the sugar provides some quickly accessible carbohydrates for fast energy. This can translate into better performance and longer endurance. However, this is most relevant to serious athletes who are exercising for longer periods and with intensity.

Sugar in Gatorade for Causal Athletes

So, what about those who are just sipping Gatorade throughout the day? Or all the kids (and adults) enjoying the drink during or after their soccer or baseball games or just with an afternoon snack?

In those cases, the sugar content is concerning and should be considered a treat rather than a "healthy" drink. This consumption also fits into the larger problem of high sugar-sweetened, low nutrient-dense beverage intake in the United States. Sugary drinks like sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, lemonades, and sweet tea can be detrimental to your health—and potentially spur weight gain.

Salt in Gatorade

Similar to the sugar in Gatorade, salt is added to Gatorade for athletic performance. 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. Some point out that drinking only water during prolonged exercise may contribute to the risk of hyponatremia, a dangerous drop in blood sodium levels. However, this is unlikely to be an issue unless you're participating in extreme workouts and sweating profusely. Also, 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 alleviates your cramping concerns.

So, the sodium in Gatorade can indeed be beneficial during exercise—especially exercise in the heat when sweat and sodium are lost at a higher rate. However, from an everyday hydration standpoint, it's not particularly healthy to consume sodium in the beverages you sip on outside of exercise. In fact, taking in excess 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.

Marketing campaigns from sports drink manufacturers—including Gatorade—have often been targeted towards children. For example, in the early 1990s, 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.

Sports drinks are now a household staple and are frequently handed out at sports matches. A 2018 study in Pediatrics revealed that 57% of adolescents drank a sports drink at least once in the previous week. Almost 14% drank a sports drink daily.

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

Drawbacks of Drinking Gatorade in Excess

For the children and adults who do not really need a sports drink for athletic purposes—yet are drinking them regularly—negative health consequences can arise. Here are a few to consider.

  • Weight gain: Some research has suggested a small yet statistically significant increase in body mass index (BMI) among children who consume regular sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Dental problems: The acid in sports drink has been shown to wear down tooth enamel, and the sugars in the beverage can contribute to cavities.
  • Food dyes exacerbating behavioral issues in ADHD:  A 2018 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics was created to “highlight emerging child health concerns related to the use of colorings, flavorings, and chemicals deliberately added to food during processing.” One concern raised is related to artificial food colors, including Red 40 or Blue 1, both of which are used in Gatorade drinks. Certain studies suggest artificial colors could exacerbate behavioral problems in those with ADHD. However, the FDA still maintains that these additives are safe.

Usefulness as a Sports Drink

In addition to the anecdotal evidence of the Florida Gators' success while using Gatorade, many researchers have studied sports drinks and athletic performance. Sports drinks—including Gatorade—have been shown to help with hydration and energy during intense or long-duration exercise.

However, most people (even those that exercise regularly) do not exert themselves at a level that requires a sports drink. They primarily become useful if you are exercising for more than 60 to 90 minutes. In those cases, not only will the sports drink help with hydration, but it will also help replenish some of the electrolytes lost through sweating. Some studies have shown that sports drinks also help to keep athletes hydrated better simply because they taste good, which can encourage them to drink more.

Also, once you pass over an hour of strenuous exercise, 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) falls into the category of a sweet treat (similar to eating candy) rather than a healthy beverage.

Certainly, it's valid to choose to indulge in Gatorade just because you enjoy drinking it—and doing so occasionally is unlikely to cause any ill-effects. Drinking a bottle every day, on the other hand, without changing anything else in your diet or exercise routine, could add up to many extra pounds over a year. The extra 140 calories per Gatorade per day (51,100 over the course of the year) divided by the approximately 3,500 calories it takes to gain a pound adds up to 14.6 pounds.

Gatorades With Less Sugar

In response to concerns over its high sugar content, Gatorade now offers Gatorade Zero, which has no sugar and only 10 calories, and G2, which has half the sugar and about half the calories of the original. These products use the artificial sweetener sucralose (often known by the brand name Splenda) and acesulfame potassium in place of sugar.

While many studies suggest that artificial sweeteners are safe for consumption in moderate amounts, other research has found potentially 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. However, the FDA currently stands by the safety of the ingredient and approves its use in food.

Both of these low and no-sugar product lines provide the same electrolyte re-fueling without the added calories and can be a happy middle ground for those that want an endurance boost without all the sugar.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re an athlete who competes in long or intense workouts, Gatorade’s 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 are lower-sugar options to consider—provided you’re comfortable with artificial sweeteners.

For other uses, such as most short workouts and for everyday drinking, water is truly your best bet for staying hydrated.

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Article Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Potera C. Diet and nutrition: The artificial food dye bluesEnviron Health Perspect. 2010;118(10). doi:10.1289/ehp.118-a428

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