Not Offensive and Fine to Drink
Experience Triathlon athletes are used to drinking. I almost never see them without a water bottle full of water or a sports drink. But what sports drink do they choose? And how do they know if their choice is appropriate? To encourage hydration and explain the differences between beverages, I held a sports drink taste test for participants of the 2011 ET Summer Camp in Madison, WI.
When I talk to athletes about their hydration, I find one of three situations in sports drink preferences. First, the athlete has found a drink they like, can tolerate, and can afford, and they don’t want to change because they might not get all three attributes in another sports drink. Second, the athlete can tolerate everything they’ve tried, but they assume all beverages are pretty much the same, so why change if there’s no difference? Last, the athlete is willing to try new beverages but has a hard time finding individual portions of most drinks. It can be every expensive to buy a $30 tub of drink powder to try a few sips of something new!
Sports drinks contain some combination of water, carbohydrate, and electrolytes. Carbohydrate is best tolerated in the range of 4-8%, and the main electrolytes are sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Sodium is lost at a rate of 400-1800 mg/L sweat, so it is the key electrolyte that needs to be replaced. Potassium is also important, but is lost at a rate of 200-400 mg/L sweat. Calcium and magnesium are important for endurance athletes, but losses are generally covered by a healthy diet.
The tasting was well received. Two tasting stations had ten samples offered in three groupings. The ETers pulled out the exquisite vocabulary honed by everything from frat parties to highbrow wine tastings to describe their feelings.
The first set of beverages included Gatorade G Series 02, Gatorade Pro 02, and Ironman Perform. Gatorade G Series 02 is the standard Gatorade beverage that the brand was built around. The lemon-lime flavor was considered to be “light, bland, and mild in flavor.” It did have an “artificial” flavor but was “not offensive and fine to drink.” The orange version had “a strong Smartie taste, intense and smooth,” and was described variously as “bitter” and “sweet.”
The Gatorade Pro 02 is the endurance version of the G Series 02, with more electrolytes to support longer periods of sweating. With the higher sodium levels, the flavor should change. Indeed, tasters noted that it “tastes strong” and was “heavier, thicker, and artificial” in flavor. It was familiar to many tasters, too. “Brings back Chicago Marathon memories!! :)”
The Ironman Perform, an endurance beverage designed to compete with Gatorade Pro, struck many people as a milder option. For some, this was a bonus. “More oomph than G 02, not nearly as sweet as Pro.” “Soft smell, no aftertaste. LOVE!” For others, it was unbearably bland. “Watery tasting, not as ‘lemony’.”
The second set of beverages included a homemade sports drink, Powerade, and Accelerade. The homemade sports drink was concocted of about 3.5 C water, 0.5 C orange juice, 3 T sugar, ¼ tsp salt. Responses covered the entire range on this one. “Yummy, natural flavor.” “Smooth and easy on the palate.” “Kind of tasteless – could use vodka.” “Gross! Not! Hate it!”
Powerade is Coca-Cola’s version of PepsiCo’s Gatorade. The primary difference is the ION4 technology, which indicates that it contains not only sodium and potassium but also calcium and magnesium. Tasters generally felt it was stronger and sweeter than Gatorade. “Sprite-flavored – short lemon aftertaste.” One joker claimed, “I could really taste all four of the ions.”
Accelerade has standard amounts of carbs and electrolytes, but also contains protein. On the plus side, this provides another energy source and provides protein for recovery as soon as it’s needed, but it also changes the consistency and flavor. It was described as having a “smell like sherbet” and a “thick, creamier” flavor that contrasted with a “clumpy, gritty” texture. It finished with a “bitter, metallic aftertaste.” One athlete noted, “Reminds me of Tang.”
The last set of beverages contained three electrolyte only beverages: Nuun, Nathan Catalyst, and Endurolytes Fizz. These come in tablets and dissolve when dropped into water. They have the advantage of being easily transported and can provide consistent flavor over a long day of exercise, but have a very different flavor. They’re not sweet, have a sharp finish on the tongue, and are very much an acquired taste. Nuun had a “strong smell,” coupled with a “decent taste initially.” It sank quickly into “medicinal and salty, with a bitter (zinc) aftertaste.” Only one thought it was “like a light, fruity seltzer.”
Nathan Catalyst was “watered down, very bland, and not as concentrated as Nuun,” with a “gross aftertaste.” Only one person indicated that they “liked this one.”
Endurolytes Fizz had a “very light flavor, hardly any.” It was “better than Nathan Catalyst, but still on the bland side.” While a few people clearly disliked it (“Yuck!”), most thought it was merely “nice and light.”
Lastly, the tasters trialed one sport food: Perpetuem Solids in a strawberry vanilla flavor. These were universally reviled! “Chalk! Chewy chalk! Stuck to my teeth!” “They sell this stuff??!” “Absolutely horrid.” “Like a bad Tums! Yuck!” “Funk-nasty chalk. Would NEVER use.” “Consistency of foam packing peanuts; protein aftertaste.” Fully 35% of tasters compared the product to chalk. Coincidence?
In general, responses were neutral. It’s hard to be excited about beverages designed for utility first and flavor second. But the ET athletes enjoyed getting to taste some new products and look for a new favorite, even if the general consensus was “better than expected…”
If you would like help developing and meeting your nutritional needs, please contact me.
Laurie Schubert is the Team Dietitian at Experience Triathlon Coaching Services. She specializes in working with clients to meet nutritional needs and goals within the boundaries of food preferences, cooking ability, medical limitations, and budget. She has a particular interest in sports nutrition, but gets personal satisfaction from encouraging people in weight loss, finding the right meal plan for a diabetic, and watching young children learn to enjoy a variety of foods.