A Drink is not a Drink

Energy Drink Shoot Out

The bakers at Megabake kitchens have rounded up a host of sports drinks and compared them side-by-side for your convenience. Oh friendly and helpful bakers they are.

The end result is a table of 13 sports drinks showing the comparative carbohydrate content, electrolyte content, cost, and country of manufacture. We break down the data so you can make informed choices when planning your nutrition strategy.

Even if you decide to skip the narrative from the bakers, the data comparison table is a useful reference for anyone who runs with anything other than water in their bottles.

And if you are interested in a review of sports gels, check out our A Gel is Not a Gel article.

What do we mean by sports drink?

Basically anything you put in your bottles to turn your water into more-than-water, with the intent of improving sporting performance. Think Gatorade, the pioneer of the product class, first appearing in 1967 with the Florida Gators football team. Ever since, it has been imitated, modified, improved and worsened, and always it is cloaked in conflicting propaganda and marketing hype. Let the bakers cast off those cloaks for you and help you break it down to find the product(s) you should consider adding to your water bottles.

These days, sports drinks typically come as a powder or tablet form, that you then mix up with water.

What is in a sports drink?

Sugars. Salts. Flavour.

Sugars such as sucrose, glucose, fructose and maltodextrin provide carbohydrates to be used as an energy source for fueling.

Salts provide electrolytes to replenish what we lose as we sweat. Sodium is by far the most important electrolyte, and much of the available evidence indicates it is the only electrolyte that needs to be added to sports drinks. Potassium, magnesium and calcium are some others that attract attention.

Flavour of some form is required, as a mix of sugar and salt in water is rarely palatable, and flavour promotes the desire to drink.

Each manufacturer formulates their sports drink differently and for different reasons. The types and quantities of sugars/carbohydrates and electrolytes vary immensely, as do the costs of the options available. They also sometimes throw in some “extras” to the mix.

So what do you need in a sports drink?

Your sports drink can re-hydrate you, or it can fuel you, or it can try and do both. But to do both there must be compromises, as the biochemistry of re-hydration is different to the biochemistry of fueling, and both are complicated.

To start to answer this question then, you need to look at your total nutrition strategy. It makes little sense to scrutinize a sports supplement in isolation, without consideration to the other components of your nutrition strategy.

When exercising, it is important to replenish the body with water, electrolytes (primarily sodium) and carbohydrates, and for longer durations protein becomes important to take onboard too. Your sports drink can contribute to the replenishment of all of these, however so too can your gels, your solid foods, your pills, and any other substances you fuel with. This is why it is important to look at all of them and how they work together to deliver everything you need to perform at your best. Only by looking at the total nutrition strategy can you make sure nothing is missed or overdone, and then make informed product choices.

So then, what you need from your sports drink depends on what you want your sports drink to do, how you will use it, and what it will be used in conjunction with. Only you can answer that.

Food (or drink) for thought…

Most of the data and studies that have led us to believe that thirst is not a reliable trigger for re-hydration typically comes from someone trying to sell us a sports drink.

The Bakers’ Philosophy

At Megabake, we mainly ride bikes. Our base-case nutrition plan is: one bottle of moderate-carb/high-electrolyte sports drink; one bottle of water; pocket-loads of Witch Eater energy bars; gel(s) that contain multiple transportable carbohydrates. We then modify this plan depending on conditions, duration, intensity and logistics. For example, if conditions are especially hot, we will sometimes run a low-sugar electrolyte mix in place of the plain water.

Some of the logic behind this is:

  • We are strong proponents of real food fueling, so choose to get most of our nutrition from Megabake energy bars.
  • It isn’t always convenient to reach for and eat solid fuels, so to ensure constant re-fueling is maintained, having a fuel source in our bottles is important.
  • Electrolyte replenishment is very important, and a drink mix is the simplest way to facilitate constant, gradual replenishment.
  • It is always handy to have some plain water onboard; great for a cleansing mouth rinse after eating solid food or a sticky gel, and to maintain fluids without overloading the gut with more “stuff”.
  • And gels, well we carry them for when we dig ourselves deep into a hurt-ditch of suffering and we can smell the Witch With Green Teeth just around the corner.

Much of how we have ranked the compared sports drinks is according to how they meet our requirements; your requirements may be different. That said though, we do think that for most athletes, in most conditions, doing an activity for more than one hour, our basic plan is a very solid starting point.

The Line-Up

The sports drink market is massive, proper massive, so we needed to come up with a concise(ish) selection of options. First we looked at what the bakers use, as they are meticulous in their selection of nutrition products, then we looked at what else seems in-vogue at local events around South-East Queensland, and finally we included the old stalwarts of Gatorade and Powerade as a bench mark, and also to explore whether the cold shoulder that “seasoned” athletes seem to give these products is deserved.

We didn’t include liquid fuels such as Infinit’s Go Long and Hammer’s Perpetuem which also throw protein and fats into the mix, as we consider these to be a different category of supplement.

But how to compare?

This proved more challenging than the bakers could ever have anticipated!

What is important is the nutritional make-up of the prepared drink, not the powdered form it is packaged in. Determining this however was more complicated than we think it should be. We couldn’t help but wonder whether the manufacturers were deliberately making direct comparisons difficult, unless it was on their terms and basis; cloaked just how they wanted it cloaked.

Different mixing instructions, some precise and some vague, different nutrition panel representations, and different levels of detail, made coming up with a meaningful apples-for-apples comparison challenging. We needed to normalise the data to a consistent basis to enable comparison…

In the end, we cast back to the Florida Gators and why they turned to Gatorade; they needed carbohydrates, they needed fluids and they needed salts (electrolytes). And as a non-sponsored athlete, there must be some consideration of price.

So we broke it all down and compared the products on:

  • Grams of cabrohydrates per 500 mL (prepared at recommended strength)
  • Milligrams of sodium per 500 mL (prepared at recommended strength)
  • Cost per 10 grams of carbohydrates
  • Cost per 100 mg of sodium
  • Cost per litre of drink (prepared at recommended strength)
  • And, we had to consider osmolality (nerds!)

It was at this point that we recalled a quote from Louise Burke, international guru of sports nutrition…

The optimum formulation of drinks for use in different exercise situations has not, however, been clearly established at the present time.

—  Louise Burke

Gee, if that’s how Louise feels about it all, what chance do us mere mortals have? But onwards to the data table…

The Sports Drink Data Comparison

MAKER

Skratch

Tailwind

Infinit

Torq

High5

Pro4mance

Pure

Instinct

Endura

Hammer

SOS

Gatorade

Powerade

FLAVOUR

Raspberry

Mandarin-Orange

:SPEED Orange

Pink Grapefruit

EnergySource: Summer Fruits

Produrance Sports Drink

Superfruits

Blood Orange

Lemon-Lime

HEED Mandarin

Citrus

Lemon-Lime

Mountain Blast

$

per 10g carbs

$0.49

per 10g carbs

$0.49

per 10g carbs

$0.48

per 10g carbs

$0.23

per 10g carbs

$0.24

per 10g carbs

$0.39

per 10g carbs

$0.64

per 10g carbs

$1.08

per 10g carbs

$0.52

per 10g carbs

$0.41

per 10g carbs

$5.41

per 10g carbs

$0.26

per 10g carbs

$0.29

per 10g carbs

$

per 100mg sodium

$0.29

per 100mg sodium

$0.41

per 100mg sodium

$0.69

per 100mg sodium

$0.25

per 100mg sodium

$0.44

per 100mg sodium

$0.66

per 100mg sodium

$0.56

per 100mg sodium

$0.82

per 100mg sodium

$1.65

per 100mg sodium

$4.23

per 100mg sodium

$0.57

per 100mg sodium

$0.32

per 100mg sodium

$0.30

per 100mg sodium

$/L

at recommended strength

$4.12

per litre

$4.11

per litre

$4.55

per litre

$1.39

per litre

$2.10

per litre

$3.01

per litre

$3.25

per litre

$2.67

per litre

$2.93

per litre

$3.38

per litre

$7.58

per litre

$1.63

per litre

$1.63

per litre

Carbs per 500 mL

42 g

42 g

48 g

30 g

44 g

38 g

25 g

12 g

29 g

42 g

7 g

32 g

28 g

Sodium per 500 mL

700 mg

505 mg

332 mg

275 mg

236 mg

229 mg

290 mg

163 mg

89 mg

40 mg

660 mg

256 mg

272 mg

PACK DETAILS
Pack size, g454g1350g1340g1500g2200g2000g500g1080g2000g2000g50g560g500g
Pack cost$19.50$61.60$59.95$65.00$48.30$73.00$29.00$80.00$82.00$69.95$18.95$13.00$13.00
SERVE DETAILS
Dry serve size, g242761.061647.83314362529517.515.6
Mixed serve size, mL2503006005005004002501000350300250250250
Energy, kJ35041896050075151821042237541855275247
Carbohydrate, g212557304430.512.624.820253.515.814
- Sugars, g202521101916.112.610.922.515.814
Sodium, mg3503033982752361831453266224330128136
Potassium, mg40881156578455531201619556.354
Calcium, mg52263225452544231
Magnesium, mg401424610506401631625
Made & OwnedBased out of USABased out of USAMade in AustraliaBased out of UKBased out of UKMade in Australia
Australian Owned
Made in NZMade in AustraliaMade in AustraliaBased out of USAMade in USAProduced in Australia*
Owned by PepsiCo
Packed in Australia*
Owned by CocaCola
Our Ratings
(out of 5)

5-sodium
5-carbs
5-sodium value
3-carbs value

5-sodium
5-carbs
3-sodium value
3-carbs value

4-sodium
5-carbs
3-sodium value
3-carbs value

4-sodium
4-carbs
5-sodium value
5-carbs value

4-sodium
5-carbs
3-sodium value
5-carbs value

4-sodium
5-carbs
3-sodium value
4-carbs value

4-sodium
3.5-carbs
3-sodium value
3-carbs value

2-sodium
1-carbs
2-sodium value
2-carbs value

1-sodium
4-carbs
1-sodium value
3-carbs value

1-sodium
5-carbs
1-sodium value
3-carbs value

5-sodium
0-carbs
3-sodium value
0-carbs value

4-sodium
4-carbs
5-sodium value
5-carbs value

4-sodium
3.5-carbs
5-sodium value
5-carbs value

Ingredients

Cane sugar, Dextrose, Mineral salts (sodium citrate, magnesium lactate, calcium citrate, potassium citrate), dehydrated raspberries, acidity regulator (citric acid), antioxidant (ascorbic acid)

Dextrose (Glucose), Sucrose, Sodium citrate, Sea salt, Citric acid, Organic flavor, Potassium chloride, Calcium carbonate, Magnesium citrate

Maltodextrin, Sucrose, Dextrose, Natural flavours, Sodium chloride, Potassium chloride, Magnesium gluconate, Calcium gluconate, Citric acid

Maltodextrin, Fructose, Citric acid, Natural flavour, Sodium chloride, Calcium Lactate, Potassium chloride, Magnesium carbonate

Maltodextrin, Fructose, Food acids (citric acid, malic acid), Acidity regulators (Tri sodium citrate, Potassium citrate), Natural flavouring, Sea salt

Maltodextrin, Sucrose, Fructose, Flavours, Food Acid (330), Sodium Chloride, Dipotassium Phosphate, Tri-Sodium Phosphate, Magnesium Sulphate, Natural Colour (Curcumin)

Sucrose, Glucose, Acai, Goji, Pomegranite, Elderberry, Blackcurrant, Blueberry, Cranberry, Strawberry, Rasberry, Citric Acid, Electrolytes (Sodium citrate, potassium citrate, magnesium citrate, Calcium citrate), Ascorbic acid

Maltodextrin, natural flavour, malic acid, citric acid, fructose, sweetener (sucralose), Active Premix (magnesium phosphate, potassium phosphate, sodium phosphate, calcareous marine algae, silicon dioxide, zinc gluconate, dried Cucumis melo juice), natural colour

Maltodextrin, fructose, malic acid, natural and nature identical flavours, Magnesium amino acid chelate, Potassium phosphate monobasic, Calcium amino acid chelate, Sodium chloride

Maltodextrin, Xylitol, Natural mandarin flavor, Vitamin B6, Sodium chloride, Alanine, Histidine, Glycine, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium L-Tyrosine, Manganese, Chromium

Sucrose, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Citrate, Potassium Chloride, Dextrose, Natural Lemon Lime with other Natural Flavours, Natural Colour, Malic Acid, Magnesium Citrate, Natural Colour, Stevia

Sucrose, Glucose, Food Acids (330, 331), Monpotassium phosphate, Sodium chloride, Flavour, Calcium silicate (552), Colour (102)

Sugar, Food acid (330), Tri-sodium citrate, Mono-potassium phosphate, Flavour, Sodium chloride, Colour (133)

A note on osmolality

Osmolality; we can’t really review sports drinks without mentioning osmolality. Osmolality is similar to tonicity, and is often used to categorise sports drinks:

  • isotonic (matching the body’s levels of sugars and minerals)
  • hypertonic (greater concentrations than the body)
  • hypotonic (lower concentrations than the body)

Since so many spruik their isotonic or hypotonic claims, we really feel we had to at least mention it, even if not going into the full detail. And it is a critical factor in sports nutrition since it plays a key role in nutrient uptake, water transport and gut comfort.

Isotonic – meaning behind the word?

Australian and European food labeling standards allow the use of the term isotonic if the osmolality of the liquid is in the range of 250 – 340 mOsm/L.

Isotonic for the human body is approximately 290 mOsm/L. A drink can be substantially hypertonic yet still make claim to being isotonic.

Now, the rate of re-hydration is determined by the rate of gastric emptying (release of stomach contents into the intestines) and the intestinal water flux (water absorption into the body fluids). Both of these are influenced by the osmolality of the liquid being processed, so osmolality is indeed important. However, and this bit is important, when looking at re-hydration and nutrient uptake, the liquid (and its associated osmolality) that is of interest is the liquid mix readying to exit your stomach, not the sports drink itself going into your mouth.

Osmolality is a measure of the number of solute particles in a volume of liquid, measured as mOsm/L (milliosmoles per litre). This is distinctly different to concentration which is a measure of the mass of a solute in a volume of liquid. And since it is the liquid mix readying to exit your stomach that is of importance, it is the blend of all the food, gels, drinks and tablets you have thrown at your stomach that determines the osmolality.

It may help to simplify it and think of osmolality as a measure of the amount of “stuff” in your gastric fluids. Just be mindful that different “stuff” affects the osmolality differently and some “stuff” doesn’t affect it at all, but it is still a useful simplification to get your head around things.

To demonstrate some of the significance of osmolality, consider a single maltodextrin molecule consisting of four bonded glucose molecules; it will have the same osmolality as a single glucose molecule, but have four times the carbohydrate content.

Unfortunately, it just gets even more complicated from here, as there are a whole host of things going on, but some things to consider are:

  • Studies have shown that the carbohydrate content and type has a much stronger link to gastric emptying rate than the electrolyte content, so the overall osmolality value alone doesn’t tell the full story.
  • Studies have shown that the use of glucose polymers such as maltodextrin can increase the rate of gastric emptying as they provide a lower osmolality for the equivalent carbohydrate content.
  • Maltodextrin and sucrose provide lower osmolality than glucose or fructose for the same carbohydrate content, however, a sucrose/glucose combination is best for water and sodium absorption while a maltodextrin/fructose combination is best for carbohydrate uptake – here you can start to see how fueling and re-hydration gives rise to conflict and compromise.
  • Most studies agree that a slightly hypotonic liquid is optimal for re-hydration and nutrient uptake.
  • A hypertonic liquid will restrict gastric emptying and backup in the stomach, and once into the intestines it will then draw in water; combined these effects will temporarily exacerbate dehydration and potentially cause gastrointestinal distress.
  • The osmotic gradient in the intestines is a major mechanism for water transport, however there are other mechanisms such as the co-transport of glucose and sodium, which all contribute to re-hydration.

This osmolality thing is important, but it is also difficult to measure, difficult to manage, not completely understood and there are a host of competing and complementing biological mechanisms at play. However, armed with some information and awareness, we hope you at least have a reference point for something to look into if you experience issues such as gastrointestinal upset.

Importantly, it is not the osmolality of just your sports drink that matters; it is your total nutrition plan.

Those cunning bakers are at it again…

Here at Megabake Kitchens, our Director of Baking also doubles as a Chemical Engineer, so is equipped with some cunning tricks to be able to estimate the approximate osmolality of the sports drink based on their ingredients list and nutrition table. This can not be done precisely without knowing the exact formulation of the sports drink, however there is enough information on the back of the packets to get an indicative result.

MAKER

Skratch

Tailwind

Infinit

Torq

High5

Pro4mance

Pure

Instinct

Endura

Hammer

SOS

Gatorade

Powerade

FLAVOUR

Raspberry

Mandarin-Orange

:SPEED Orange

Pink Grapefruit

EnergySource: Summer Fruits

Produrance Sports Drink

Superfruits

Blood Orange

Lemon-Lime

HEED Mandarin

Citrus

Lemon-Lime

Mountain Blast

Osmolality
mOsm/L

sugars and electrolytes

381

451

301

222

319

250

287

189

275

175

178

280

213

Osmolality
mOsm/L

sugars load only

255

357

239

173

289

206

212

73

203

156

34

232

164

We don’t believe that proper fueling and hydration can be achieved with a single product. Hence there will be other “stuff” in your stomach beyond your sports drink. For this reason we recommend a sports drink mix that is quite hypotonic, so that when it mixes with the other components of your nutrition plan the resulting gastric fluid mix remains slightly hypotonic; good for gut comfort, hydration and nutrient uptake.

We also pay particular attention to the osmolality of just the carbohydrate content, as evidence suggests that the fuel load has a greater impact on how the body responds than the electrolyte load does.

The Bakers’ Assessment

We are massive fans of Skratch Labs and Torq; solid all-round performers. Torq in particular offers outstanding value for such a well-formulated sports drink. Skratch Labs osmolality is getting a bit high, and as such we would use it at reduced strength. We are big fans of Skratch Labs in that they only use real fruit for flavouring.

We like the look of Infinit, but think the carb content and osmolality are getting a bit high. The sodium content isn’t especially high so running Infinit at reduced strength will have the downside of being a bit light on sodium, but this still presents as a good option. A massive plus with Infinit is that it is Australian made.

We like the look of Tailwind, until we consider the osmolality. It has a very high osmolality which increases the chance of gut issues. The osmolality is high since the main sugar is dextrose, a monosaccharide, which pushes the osmolality up versus a more complex sugar such as sucrose (disaccharide) or maltdextrin (oligosaccharide). Its high carbohydrate and sodium content means it could be diluted and still be an effective sports drink, so we would consider using Tailwind at reduced strength.

High5, Pro4mance and Pure certainly look like good drink options, especially with Pro4mance and Pure being Australian and Kiwi respectively.

Instinct, Endura, Hammer and SOS don’t seem to corner any particular angle. Instinct is low on sodium and carbs and is quite expensive for your trouble, however we are intrigued by the calcareous marine algae. Endura and Hammer are very low on sodium and SOS is very expensive for what is really just a flavoured salt blend.

We think Gatorade is not as bad as the “seasoned” athlete will lead us to believe. We are not saying it is great, we just think it gets a bit of an unfair rap. It’s pretty good value for what it is, but does have the downsides of being a bit low on sodium, having artificial colour and flavour, and being owned by PepsiCo.

Powerade is banned from Megabake Kitchens; it is little more than table sugar, table salt and artificial colour/flavour, and it is owned by Coca-Cola.

A few concerns…

We don’t like that the Skratch Labs dosage instructions for their Australian-distributed products are basically twice the concentration of the same product distributed internationally. There is a very complex story behind this, however what you need to know is that to achieve the developers’ intended formulation, you should be halving the dosage listed on the Australian versions.

We don’t like Tailwind purporting to be a complete endurance fueling solution. Tailwind has shown itself to be an excellent sports drink, however with no protein, fat or micro-nutrient content, it will leave the body wanting in the long-term. It will maintain an energy supply and it will aid hydration, however for recovery and for backing-up in stage-races, we feel this product has some short-comings; we just can’t accept its claim of being a complete endurance fueling solution and we struggle with its marketing as such.

A note on sugar-free sports drinks

These are marketed under many disguises but are typically demarked by their proclamations of sugar-free, low-sugar or low-calorie. Their angle seems to be rapid re-hydration, using a formula with low osmolality and hence low carbohydrates, to maximise water transport using the osmotic gradient. The good ones will still include some glucose to further enhance hydration using the added mechanism of the co-transport of glucose and sodium across the intestine wall, which carries a significant amount of water with it.

Rapid re-hydration certainly sounds fantastic, and surely must be better than its non-rapid alternative, however don’t be sold something you may not need. When you have a bit of a think about it, there aren’t too many scenarios where your re-hydration must be of the rapid variety. During exercise, the volume of fluid that is required to adequately re-hydrate (and indeed the volume of fluid that can be physically consumed) is typically a volume that’s easily absorbed by the intestines over a wide range of carbohydrate concentrations, somewhat nullifying the purported advantage of a rapid re-hydration solution.

And a word of caution: some products use the term sugar-free or low-sugar, only in reference to the sucrose content or even just the fructose content, while it may still be loaded with glucose or another sugar polymer such as maltodextrin. Claims relating to “sugar” should never be taken on face value.

The Wrap Up

So there’s our shootout of sports drinks. We hope you found it informative, maybe even entertaining, and that you picked up on our key messages:

All sports drinks are not created equal… so you need to know what you want from your sports drink and then turn over to the back of the packet and review what’s in yours.

It’s not just about the drink… When exercising, it is important to replenish the body with water, electrolytes (primarily sodium) and carbohydrates. The consumption of sports drinks impacts all three of these, so they need to be used with consideration of what other liquids are in your bottles, what gels and pills you’re packing and what solid food is in your pockets.

Know your needs… You need a total nutrition strategy that incorporates all aspects of your hydration and fueling, and this all needs to be customized through practice and training for the individual, you.

So what sports drink do the bakers use… Currently we use either Torq Pink Grapefruit or Skratch Labs Raspberry, however, as is the bakers’ way, we make some modifications with our own blend strength and some added salts/sugars, to optimize the formulation. We are passionate supporters of local supply, so we will be doing some experimenting with Infinit, Pro4mance and Pure to see if we can dial them in to meet our needs.

As always, we are bakers with a passion for sports nutrition, but there is no substitute for guidance from the professionals, so we recommend seeing a sports dietitian.

And if you are interested in a review of sports gels, check out our A Gel is Not a Gel article.

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Data Sources & Further Reading

Tomes
  • Clinical Sports Nutrition 4th Edn (2010) by Louise Burke
  • Biochemistry for Sport and Exercise Metabolism (2012) by Don MacLaren and James Morton
Papers
  • Maughan and Shirreffs (1998) paper titled Fluid and electrolyte loss and replacement during exercise.
  • Vist and Maughan (1995) paper titled The effect of osmolality and carbohydrate content on the rate of gastric emptying of liquids in man.

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