Gatorade revisited

>> Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A while back I wrote a post about how liquid Gatorade contains HFCS while the powdered form does not. To recap, I didn't like that Gatorade skirted around the issue of their drink containing HFCS in their website's FAQ by saying it didn't contain fruit juice and also that I couldn't find their products' ingredients anywhere on their website. I e-mailed the company asking them about these things but hadn't heard anything from them by the time the original Gatorade post published. That changed not long after my post came out.

A representative at Gatorade read my blog post and e-mailed me, and she was happy to discuss any and all questions I had for her. I was referred to one of their nutritionists who gave me this response:

You said you have your PhD in chemical engineering, and you have obviously been doing quite a bit of research on HFCS. The reason Gatorade favors a blend of three carbohydrates (glucose, sucrose and fructose) as opposed to using fruit juice (which is primarily fructose) is because fructose does slow gastric emptying and very often causes intestinal upset when taken by athletes prior to and during practice and competition. The statement you mentioned about Gatorade “not containing fruit juice” was not meant to imply it does not contain HFCS, but rather to simply and plainly assure athletes Gatorade does not contain fructose at levels that can cause gastrointestinal upset. In my practice in New York City, I have counseled many athletes who have tried using diluted juice in an effort to “be healthy and all natural,” only to find their good efforts wasted when their intestinal system betrays them during their event. I know first hand as well, as I too have had this unfortunate situation occur. I did not have access to a sports drink during a recent 16 mile run and wound up having severe gastrointestinal distress after drinking diluted fruit juice mixed with salt in an attempt to create my own sports drink.

The Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI) has scientifically studied the effects of adding different combinations and types of sugars as well as electrolytes to plain water in order to design a drink that best meets the hydration needs of athletes. Athletes need to replace fluids, salt and carbohydrates when engaging in endurance activities. That is where Gatorade comes in. Gatorade’s combination of three carbohydrates (glucose, sucrose and fructose) is rapidly absorbed and used for energy. It also helps increase an athlete’s drive to drink, thereby helping athletes maintain a better hydration status while exercising.

Another question I understand you posed relates to the difference in sweetener sources used between the ready-to-drink Gatorade product and the powdered version. HFCS exists only in syrup/liquid form so that is why dextrose is used in powdered Gatorade instead. When you break down all the sugars used to create the appropriate blend of carbohydrate in both the ready-to-drink and liquid products, each have the same amounts of glucose and fructose.

If your goal is to eat as healthfully as you can, then I highly encourage you to eat locally grown organic foods and to choose foods with minimal processing. If you (or anyone) is concerned with HFCS, then the powdered Gatorade is certainly your best option. However, I firmly believe, and the science continues to confirm, that HFCS is not different from other sweeteners in terms of its effects on total calorie intake and satiety, and may safely be used by athletes to help maintain adequate hydration (prevent either over or under hydration) with exercise.

I commend your efforts to improve the quality of your diet and health, and I almost wish it were as simple as eliminating one ingredient from our diets. No single food or ingredient has lead to our country’s obesity or health problems. Instead, it is a complex relationship between over consumption of total calories (from fat, carbohydrate, sugar and protein) and lack of exercise that has and continues to plague far too many individuals and families.

I'll let you come to your conclusions about her letter. We clearly have different views on HFCS, but that is to be expected. One thing that I clearly take exception to in the nutritionist's response is the sugar composition of the liquid and powdered versions of Gatorade. She states that they both have the same amount of glucose and fructose, but unless my sleep-deprived brain is missing something, I don't think this is right. The liquid Gatorade contains sucrose and HFCS - both roughly 50% fructose and 50% glucose (the two are bound together in sucrose and in free forms in HFCS). The powdered version contains sucrose and dextrose (aka glucose) with no free fructose. The powdered version appears to contain less fructose than the liquid version. It might be a fine point, but the two clearly are not quite the same compositionally.

While I don't agree with Gatorade's ingredient choices, I do commend them for taking the time to answer my questions. I didn't continue the conversation with their nutritionist, but I'm certain that she would have taken the time to answer any questions I might have thrown at her - or to debate further HFCS as an ingredient.

I've put off writing this post for a long while, and I'm glad that I did. As I sat down to write tonight, I took a look at Gatorade's redesigned website and noticed some changes. First, they specifically address their inclusion of HFCS in their product in their FAQ. Here's what they say:

Does Gatorade include High Fructose Corn Syrup? Why or Why not?

The High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is in Gatorade as a source of two of the three carbohydrates. HFCS contributes glucose and fructose. Sucrose is the third sugar. All are present in specific amounts that research has shown assures rapid fluid absorption, optimal energy delivery and great taste. High Fructose Corn Syrup and sucrose provide the ideal level of sweetness, fast absorption, and carbohydrate for energy burning that Gatorade has always delivered.

This formula provides the most efficacious product for the cost to the consumer. We could use other sources of the same sugars – glucose and fructose – but it would cost dramatically more and have no additional benefit. Scientific experts believe there is no scientific proof to show that there is any difference between the effects on the body of HFCS and sucrose. Research shows that your body digests and uses carbohydrates from high fructose corn syrup the same way it digests other sweeteners like table sugar.1
1 American Medical Association. Report 3 of the Council on Science and Public Health, 2008.

I like that they acknowledge that they use HFCS in large part because it's cheaper. We might disagree on the research being conclusive at this point (though I fully acknowledge that our refusal of HFCS is about much more than just the research du jour and that HFCS may indeed be processed just like sucrose, but I think that it's still premature to call them the same), but we agree on it being a cheap ingredient.

Another positive change on their website is that you can actually see the ingredients in their products. It's fairly easy and intuitive to see the ingredients of each of their products right on the front page. It bothers me when companies tout nutritional claims about their product and then don't list their ingredients - it seems as if they are trying to perhaps hide something - so I applaud Gatorade for being up front about what is in their products.

We'll keep drinking powdered Gatorade - though sparingly. (Gatorade made it abundantly clear that their product is a sugar filled drink.) I like that it has less fructose in it, and we're (of course) sticking to our no-HFCS guns.

Gatorade, if you're reading this, love your new website redesign! Now how about ditching the HFCS?


jen March 4, 2009 at 7:47 AM  

Gatorade is a sports drink, designed to refuel athletes during long and intense exercise sessions. I don't like the taste of it at all but it is ideal when I'm doing a long race like a half marathon or a triathlon. I'm not sure why people are drinking it as a soda/ juice alternative. It's very high in calories because of what it is designed to do.

One good thing about the powdered version is that you could dilute it more to gradually get your kids used to less-sweet drinks.

James Hubbard M.D. M.P.H. March 4, 2009 at 7:56 AM  

Way to keep them honest.

Natalie March 4, 2009 at 8:44 AM  

Great post!

My husband is a long-distance runner. So, we have some on hand. However, unless a child has a bad stomach virus, they do not get Gatorade. As Jen said, "Gatorade is a sports drink." In my humble opinion, that's really all it should be used for, barring an illness in which it would come in handy.

I haven't given up HFCS just b/c I think it's bad for us - I'm also not supportive of how our government subsidizes crops (I won't get into the economic and enviromental impacts of farming in America!).

Kind of off-topic but, I want my children to know where their food comes from, which means, in short, I want them to grow up knowing what is in season locally, how to cook with it (I know all local isn't reasonble), how to grow a bit of it. I want them to know what fresh, homemade bread smells like and how to make, at least, a basic loaf. I want to encourage them to use boxed food sparingly and, if they are going to used boxed mixes/meals, reach for the organic kind and/or seek out mixes made by locals and sold at Farmer's Markets, etc.

This will all mean that I will have to teach my children how to plan their meals, ask questions to the farmers/venders at Farmer's Markets (ie - Can I buy CAFO-free meat/free-range eggs from you this winter, when the market is closed?)

I think/hope that if more children knew exactly where their food came from, saw farms in action, cooked with their parents, shopped at farmer's markets and local food co-ops, they would develop more of an appreciation for food and what it means to eat well.

When they learn the basics of eating/buying local, cooking from scratch, etc., they will mostly be avoiding HFCS, trans fats, etc.

Lori March 4, 2009 at 11:59 AM  

Where to start? Where to start? This might be long. :)

Okay, first let me be positive. I'm glad to hear they took the time to contact you. I'm glad to hear about their new web-site design.

Now some questions/comments in regards to a very beat-around-the-bush response you received. (Not that I'm surprise.)

When it comes to HFCS I don't think most of us are concerned about "total calorie intake and satiety". I’m sure much of the research being done is funded by some part of a corn growers association or a corporate co that uses HFCS anyway. I care about the fact that it is a highly processed food and about as far from natural as you can get.

When did you ever say your mission to eliminate HFCS had the purpose of reducing obesity? I'm going to come right out and say her comment "I wish it were as simple as..." incredibly condescending. Every health professional and advocate knows it is due to more than one factor and one of those factors is HFCS. Eliminating that is darn good place to start!

I'm glad they acknowledge the price thing on the web-site. They need to admit that using HFCS was basically a sellout move to save them money, not to help any exerciser out there. Not to mention their contribution to the corn surplus problem. Boo, boo, boo!

Man, the book I read actually made me start to like Gatorade as a company, but the HFCS move showed me that they aren't staying true to their original intent. Andrea at Off Her Cork said that the generic Meijer Brand of sport drink liquid doesn't have HFCS in it. I'm going to check that out when we get back to the States. We'll drink some of the powdered in moderation, but I'm still not as fond of them as I once was. Thanks for posting this!

cathy March 4, 2009 at 12:55 PM  

jen - Agreeing with all that you have to say! I don't like the taste at all and have no need to drink it - so I don't.

James Hubbard - It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. ;-)

Natalie - I haven't gotten into it on this blog, but I have similar thoughts on the subsidizing of crops - particularly corn. And I also agree that it's important for our kids to eat "real" food and really know about their food. It's a tough battle these days when they're surrounded by "fake" foods, but I think that it's a battle worth fighting.

Lori - Love it when you rant! A beautiful comment, to be sure.

Sagan March 4, 2009 at 6:58 PM  

Hm. Different views, for sure, but it IS nice that they got back to you. Interesting that they say we should eat as minimally processed foods as possible for a healthy diet, though... pretty sure that Gatorade isn't "natural" ;)

Thanks so much for sharing the letter with us!

Hanlie March 4, 2009 at 11:02 PM  

I also found the tone rather condescending. She says that HFCS is no different from the other sweeteners, as if that's supposed to make us feel all warm and fuzzy!

From a health point of view, this is not a product I would consume. Thank you for reporting on this!

Mark Salinas March 5, 2009 at 5:58 AM  

A few years back during a marathon,at each water stop there was Powerade...similar to Gatorade? Anyway After 26.2 miles and a few cups later I was sick to my stomach! I haven't been able to touch either product since! My most recent marathon I had water and organic jello blocks<---would love your take on these. Zero sickness to my stomach. Coincidence? Maybe. Fantastic post Cathy!

Dani March 5, 2009 at 11:21 AM  

Ha! Great job, Cathy. Haven't there been studies that show HFCS increases appetite .... satiety? Also, I like how it says that HFCS in Gatorade provides equal levels of satiety, but also increases the desire of consumers of the product to drink more. Thus, being better hydrated, and, selling more Gatorade.

cathy March 5, 2009 at 1:01 PM  

Sagan - GREAT point! The irony is really hilarious.

Hanlie - yeah, no warm fuzzies here either.

Mark - As I remember, Powerade is as HFCS-laden as Gatorade. Very interesting experience! I'll have to look into organic jello blocks - that's a new one to me!

Dani - Fructose isn't processed in the liver the same was glucose is, and it doesn't clue the brain into the fact that you're consuming lots o' sugar. Thus the appetite problem.

CarlaHHI March 30, 2009 at 1:26 PM  

Great work you're doing, Cathy! Have you tried coconut water as a natural alternative to sports drinks. It is SOOOOO good. I wrote a post about it over on my personal wellness blog (no affiliation with the coconut water company) -

Be well, xo-Carla aka

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