With Olympics on in full swing, sports drinks makers are raking a fortune. However, a well-known science journal, BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal), has questioned the efficacy of these drinks. It says water works just as fine.

In an investigative article ‘The Truth About Sports Drinks', the magazine probes the “links between the sports drinks industry and academia that have helped market the science of hydration”.

In the 1970s, the role of hydration was thought to have little scientific value, it says. It quotes Prof Tim Noakes, Discovery health chair of exercise and sports science at Cape Town University, who says that in fact “in the 1970s, marathon runners were discouraged from drinking fluids for fear that it would slow them down.”

The investigations throw light on how a market for sports drinks was created by spending millions of dollars. It found that companies had sponsored scientists, who developed a whole area of science dedicated to hydration. “These same scientists advise influential sports medicine organisations, which have developed guidelines that have filtered down to everyday health advice.” They also spread fears about the ‘dangers of dehydration’.

“What started life as a mixture of simple kitchen food stuffs has become an essential piece of sporting equipment,” it says. So much so, that today sports drinks have become the fastest growing sector in the UK soft drinks market. It is even bigger in the US. In 2009, forecasters, Mintel, valued it at $1.6 billion, and the market is projected to reach $2 billion by 2016.

According to Web site Alternet, there are seven investigative papers on sports performance products, which reveal long-standing financial ties between the makers of Gatorade (PepsiCo), Powerade (Coca-Cola, an official Olympic sponsor), and Lucozaid (GlaxoSmithKline) with sports associations, medical groups, and academic researchers.

Just like drug companies, “In 1985, Gatorade, then owned by Quaker Oats, set up its Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI) in Barrington, Illinois, to conduct and publish research and to educate sports health professionals and athletes on sports nutrition and exercise science”, it says.

Citing conflict of interest, it points out that the editors of a sports medicine book on performance, Ron Maughan, Louise Burke, and Edward Coyle, Food, Nutrition and Sports Performance II: The International Olympic Committee Consensus on Sports Nutrition, published in 2004, all had financial links (personal or institutional) to Gatorade and their book was supported by Coca-Cola, the makers of Powerade.

It quotes a meta-analysis of data from cyclists in time trials which concluded that relying on thirst to gauge the need for fluid replacement was the best strategy. And, water was enough to take care of dehydration.

Rubbishing all the guidance about the ‘dangers of dehydration’ during exercise, Arthur Siegel, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard University and adviser to the Boston marathon, is quoted as saying that there was no evidence that anyone doing a marathon had ever died from it.

“Dehydration has gotten all the press and attention partly because of sports medicine associations who have endorsed the dangers of dehydration, but in fact dehydration is not life threatening,” Siegel says.

“It [dehydration] is a normal biological response to exercise. You lose water; you get thirsty; you drink. End of story,” Noakes adds.

Another BMJ study finds that the European Food Safety Authority, which assesses health claims in food labels and advertisements, relied on a “seriously flawed review process in approving statements related to sports drinks.” A third study reports that hundreds of performance claims made on websites about sports products, including nutritional supplements and training equipment and drinks, were largely based on questionable data, and sometimes no apparent data at all, according to Alternet.

aditi.n@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on August 3, 2012)
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