It’s game time. What’s your kid drinking?
From soccer fields to football stadiums across the country, young athletes are glugging thousands of gallons of sports and energy drinks.
Water, especially among young athletes, is seldom the hydration drink of choice.
Massive sports and energy drink advertising campaigns are directed at all ages and all ranges of athletes, creating $25 billion in annual sales and one of the fastest growing sectors of the beverage market.
A study published this month in the journal Pediatrics reported that the National Football League (NFL) has the most food and beverage sponsors, followed by the National Hockey League and Little League.
The study notes that the majority of those advertisers promote unhealthy food and drinks that are high in calories, sugar, fat, and caffeine.
“We ranked all televised sports programs for 2015 according to their number of views among youth ages 2 to 17 years,” Marie A. Bragg, PhD, a study author and assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University School of Medicine, told Healthline.
“We then kept only the top 500 sports programs with the most views among youth ages 2 to 17 years, and we summed the number of views for those programs. Because these data include repeated views, we know the shows were seen 412 million times overall but cannot conclude how many of these were repeated views by the same person.”
With this kind of an advertising juggernaut, it’s no wonder sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, and energy beverages RockStar and Red Bull, can be the first thing thirsty kids grab on the field.
The terms “energy” and “sports” drinks are frequently used interchangeably and the products are often sold alongside soft drinks in the grocery store.
However, there are important differences in their ingredients.
Commercial sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade contain sugar and electrolytes (like potassium and sodium). They were originally intended for adult athletes who push their bodies to the max.
Sports drinks are designed to restore electrolytes, calories, and carbohydrates in order to maintain performance and recover more quickly.
With advertising slogans such as “Power Through” and “Win from Within,” it’s not surprising that young athletes get swept up in the promotional tidal wave.
Their parents sometimes go along with the hype, figuring a sport drink must be healthier than a soft drink.
Sports drinks, however, are loaded with sugar.
A 12-ounce serving of Gatorade Thirst Quencher contains 21 grams of sugar. A soft drink of the same size totals 23 grams of sugar
And if kids grab a 32-ounce bottle, they ingest a total of 56 grams of sugar.
Research shows that excessive amounts of sugar contribute to hyperactivity, weight gain, obesity, and tooth decay.
On the other side of the drink-to-excel spectrum are Red Bull, Monster, and Rockstar, among others.
Promising to increase energy, endurance, and mental performance, their primary market is teenage and college athletes.
Red Bull, the top-selling energy drink in the United States, was introduced in the U.S. market in 1997. Today, there are 500 varieties of energy drinks on the worldwide market.
A 24-ounce energy drink can pack 500 mg of caffeine, the equivalent of five cups of coffee.
And like coffee, energy drinks are highly addictive. Teens and college kids often consume more than one a day, giving them the energized buzz they’re looking for to perform on the field or in the classroom.
But once their energy plummets, they grab another powerhouse drink, feeding the cycle of caffeine addiction.
Excessive amounts of caffeine can contribute to high blood pressure, heart palpitations, nausea, decreased insulin sensitivity, vomiting, convulsions, and, in extreme cases, death.
Even the military has recognized the dangers of excessive caffeine consumption and advises service members to limit caffeine to no more than 200 milligrams every four hours, and no more than 800 milligrams throughout the day.
The bottom line
Simply put, experts feel that sports drinks and energy drinks are inappropriate hydration sources for children.
“Energy drinks and sports drinks can interfere with sleep, spike blood pressure, and possibly even contribute to substance abuse and mental health problems like increased anxiety,” said Bragg.
Dr. John Higgins, a sports cardiologist with McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center, has led multiple studies on energy drinks and cautions that additional studies need to be conducted to determine the negative health effects of energy drinks.
“They’re sort of a black box,” Higgins told Healthline. “We really don’t know a lot about them.”
What’s a parent to do?
Experts advise parents to encourage their children to drink water.
“Most young athletes should be just fine drinking water when they exercise,” Bragg said. “Of course, if someone is running a half marathon or doing two-a-day practices in the middle of summer, consuming something in addition to water could be helpful. Healthier drinks like no-sugar-added coconut water can provide some of the same benefits.”
Parents can model healthy drink choices, provide access to healthy beverage options at home and on the playing field, and get active in the crusade against energy and sports drinks.
“Parents are one of the most powerful forces for change when it comes to sports organizations promoting healthier drinks,” said Bragg. “Companies care a lot about what parents think because they are the gatekeepers to most food purchases for the family, and they are raising the next generation of consumers. So if enough parents get fired up and demand that healthier drinks are promoted, there is a good chance their voices will be heard.”