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Sugar and sports drinks

Sports drinks have gained popularity over the past few decades and are readily available at many supermarkets, tuckshops and sporting events.

Since becoming the official sports drink of the American National Football League in 1983, many different brands, formulas and iterations of sports drinks have become available on supermarket shelves, giving consumers a wide range of choices in flavour, ingredients and nutritional content. 

Sports drinks are specifically designed to help replenish glucose, fluids and electrolytes that are lost during strenuous exercise. When used appropriately during long duration exercise they can provide benefits to performance and endurance. However, for the average person doing short duration, moderate intensity exercise, sports drinks are not recommended as necessary, and experts say that consuming these drinks in excess, particularly when not performing rigorous exercise, can provide extra kilojoules that may lead to weight gain and other related health issues. 

What is the nutritional content of sports drinks?

The main ingredients in sports drinks are carbohydrate, electrolytes and flavours. Most sports drinks contain 6-8% carbohydrate in the form of sugars (glucose, sucrose or fructose). Sodium and potassium are the common electrolytes in sports drinks. Sodium helps to hydrate and retain fluids and potassium helps to maintain electrolyte balance and assist muscle contraction. 

Other common ingredients include additional vitamins and minerals, protein, caffeine or herbal ingredients. There is a growing number of low or no sugar sports drinks on the market which may contain non-sugar, low-kilojoule sweeteners like Apspartame or Acesulfame-K. These options are intended to hydrate and replace lost minerals but not replenish carbohydrates.

Who should consume sports drinks?

Sweating during strenuous exercise leads to a loss of fluid and electrolytes which can cause dehydration and cramping. Glucose stores are also reduced which can reduce energy levels causing exhaustion. It takes approximately 90 minutes of vigorous exercise to deplete glucose stores to the point they would need replenishing with a product like a sports drinks. For this reason, sports drinks are recommended for exercise and sports which are performed for over 90 minutes, providing quick delivery of fluid and fuel during and after the exercise. 

For children and adults who are participating in play-based physical activity, incidental exercise, or exercise under 90 minutes, water alone is recommended as sufficient to hydrate the body. Dietary Guidelines in Australia and New Zealand recommend that we limit our intake of food and drinks containing added sugars, including sports drinks, as part of a healthy balanced diet.


  1. Burke L, Hawley J, Wong S, Jeukendrup A. (2011). Carbohydrates for training and competition. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(S1): S17-S27.
  2. Shirreffs S, Sawka M. (2011). Fluid and electrolyte needs for training, competition, and recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences,29 (S1): S39-S46.
  3. Orru S, Imperlini E, Nigro E, et al. (2018). Role of Functional Beverages on Sport Performance and Recovery. Nutrients, 10(10): 1470.
  4. Sports Dietitians Australia. Sports Drinks. Available at:

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