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Gatorade vs. Powerade: battle of the beverages

[This article originally appeared in the July 2002 issue of Northwest Runner magazine.]

Q. Is there any real difference between Gatorade and Powerade as far as endurance workouts go? I know one has less sodium and the other has more sugar (in a sugar polymer instead of free sugars). Does this make much difference?
--Kerry Kim, Seattle, WA

A. As you point out, there are three main differences between Gatorade and Powerade: the amount of sodium, the amount of sugar, and the type of sugar used. Let's discuss each issue separately.

Sodium

When you perspire, your body loses about 900 to 1400 milligrams of sodium per liter of sweat (Shirreffs & Maughan, Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews 28: 27-32, 2000). Sodium is an important component of blood; having sufficient sodium in the blood helps keep a sufficient volume of water in the blood. Ingestion of sodium during exercise should also help prevent hyponatremia, a condition in which the concentration of sodium in the blood becomes dangerously low (Convertino et al., Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 28: i-vii, 1996; Vrijens & Rehrer, Journal of Applied Physiology 86: 1847-51, 1999; Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 32: 2130-45, 2000; Speedy et al., Emergency Medicine 13: 17-27, 2001).

The sodium content of Gatorade is about 450 milligrams per liter; for Powerade, it is 225 mg/L. Thus Gatorade does a somewhat better job of replacing the sodium lost in sweat.

Amount of sugar

In general, adding more sugar to a beverage increases the delivery of sugar to the blood (Moodley et al., European Journal of Applied Physiology 64: 328-34, 1992; Wagenmakers et al., Journal of Applied Physiology 75: 2774-80, 1993; Jeukendrup & Jentjens, Sports Medicine 29: 407-24, 2000) but slows the rate at which water enters the blood (Coyle & Montain, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 24: S324-30, 1992; Coombes & Hamilton, Sports Medicine 29: 181-209, 2000). The question then becomes, how much sugar should there be to maximize the absorption of both water and sugar? Coyle & Montain (1992) have argued that beverages with 4 to 8% sugar will usually provide adequate amounts of water and sugar to the body during exercise, and the American College of Sports Medicine (2) likewise recommends beverages of 4-8%. (The "% sugar" of a given drink is equivalent to how many grams of sugar it contains per 100 milliliters of fluid. For example, Gatorade contains about 14 grams of sugar in a 240-milliliter serving, which is about 6 grams per 100 milliliters, or 6%.)

Gatorade is 6% sugar, whereas Powerade is 8% sugar. Since both fall within the generally recommended 4-8% range, either drink is acceptable according to this criterion. As a side note, in a 1998 review article, Xiaocai Shi and Carl Gisolfi (Sports Medicine 25: 157-72, 1998) recommended that the level of sugar in sports drinks be limited to 5-7%, a range that would include Gatorade but not Powerade. However, given that Dr. Shi is a Gatorade employee and that the late Dr. Gisolfi used to receive grant money from Gatorade, this recommendation is not surprising.

Type of sugar

While lots of research has been devoted to the different varieties of sugars used in sports drinks, there is no clear consensus on which sugar or combination of sugars is best. Some data suggest that glucose polymers such as maltodextrin are absorbed and used more quickly than plain old glucose (Moodley et al., European Journal of Applied Physiology 64: 328-34, 1992; Bowtell et al., Journal of Applied Physiology 88: 1529-36, 2000). On the whole, however, the evidence for polymers vis-a-vis glucose is quite mixed (Convertino et al., Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 28: i-vii, 1996; Shi & Gisolfi, Sports Medicine 25: 157-72, 1998; El-Sayed et al., Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology 118A: 789-803, 1997; Maughan, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 57: 15-23, 1998). There are also suggestions that drinks with multiple types of sugars may deliver sugar more quickly than drinks that contain glucose alone (Jeukendrup & Jentjens, Sports Medicine 29: 407-24, 2000; Maughan, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 57: 15-23, 1998), but further research is needed to test this idea.

Here again, it's a toss-up between Gatorade and Powerade. The Powerade polymers might offer some sort of edge, but, then again, maybe not.

Summary

Viewed scientifically, the differences between Gatorade and Powerade are small, with neither beverage appearing clearly superior to the other. I personally prefer Gatorade, since it replaces sodium losses more effectively than Powerade does. However, this may not be an important consideration except in very long runs in which several liters of sweat are secreted.


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