Should We Be Switching to Low-Sugar Sport Drinks?

Do the principles of the “sugar is bad” movement translate to how we fuel our workouts? 

Sport drinks are a necessary part of the endurance athlete’s fueling strategy—not just for their hydrating properties, but for a quick caloric hit as well. This hit usually comes in the form of sugar: Sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltodextrin, and their ilk are mainstays in sport drink, touted for their easy digestibility and potent punch of energy. But those ingredients are also demonized in today’s media, with headlines proclaiming sport drinks contain as much (or more) sugar than soda, candy, and donuts.

With so many sources saying “sugar is bad,” it’s natural that today’s athletes would be confused—should we be switching to low-sugar sport drinks? There are a certainly a lot of sport nutrition products to fit this niche: new “all-natural” and “low-sugar” formulas are one of the biggest trends in sport nutrition, a craze driven by today’s shrewd, health-conscious consumers. In 2016, 35 percent of new sport drinks touted some form of “natural” or “low-sugar” advertising, an increase of 6 percent from 2015, according to market researcher Mintel, and one in four U.S. consumers said they would be more comfortable drinking energy drinks or shots made with all-natural ingredients.

“There’s a clear market trend with sports nutrition products touting ‘natural’ ingredients, or natural carbohydrates, with an emphasis on clean labels and transparent line of ingredients without the bad stuff, like artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners,” says physiology expert Dr. Nima Alamdari. “I believe the trend is driven a more savvy label reader today who cares about what they are putting in their body.”

But Alamdari also says there’s such a thing as being too careful. Though reducing sugar intake is certainly important for weight and health management, avoiding sugar altogether can backfire during times of intense training.

“While sugar should not exceed certain levels in our daily diet, we should receive carbohydrates in an easily digested and tolerated forms during endurance exercise in order to maintain a given pace for longer workouts,” explains Monique Ryan, MS, RDN a Chicago-based sports dietitian and author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes“These carbohydrates supply fuel for our muscles and brain during exercise.”

For workouts of 60 minutes or less, a low-sugar formula is fine; you can pull from your body’s energy stores without consequence. Longer workouts, however, require replenishment of those energy stores. That’s where carbohydrate—specifically, sugar—comes in.

“Carbohydrates have been shown to improve exercise performance,” says Alamdari. “It’s been well established that carbohydrates and sugar help to optimize fluid balance during prolonged exercise along with key electrolytes, like sodium, better than water alone. Carbohydrates also play a key role to fuel and refuel glycogen energy stores.”

Does it matter if the sugar is “all-natural?” Probably not, says Ryan: “Your body won’t absorb it any differently. It all breaks down to glucose or fructose and can be sourced from beet, cane, corn, etc. Basically a glucose or fructose molecule will cross the small intestine and enter the bloodstream. Certainly, athletes can choose products without artificial sweeteners or artificial colors and opt for natural sweetness if that is their preference, but obviously all these drinks have been made from something or processed in some manner to become a sports drink.”

For athletes looking to cut down on their sugar intake, Alamdari suggests a methodical approach to sport nutrition, rather than simply grabbing a bottle with every workout: “I would advise what you consume, and how much you consume, should depend on what exercise bout you just did or are going to do.” In other words, only grab the sport drink for sessions lasting 60 minutes or longer.

It’s also important to look at sugar intake outside of sport nutrition—unnecessary added sugars and artificial sweeteners are everywhere, and your sweet tooth is likely more harmful than your sport drink. “Cut down on added sugar in your daily diet,” advises Ryan. “Reach for fresh fruit if you crave something sweet.” A bowl of berries, after all, really is a low-sugar option compared to your nightly scoop of Ben & Jerry’s.