UC Berkeley Study: Sports, Energy Drinks as Unhealthy as Soda

Gatorade was one of the 21 beverages analyzed in the study. (Mike Mozart/Flickr)

Gatorade was one of the 21 beverages analyzed in the study. (Mike Mozart/Flickr)

Because of their very name, sports and energy drinks are often viewed by consumers as a healthier alternative to sugar-sweetened sodas. A study out Wednesday from UC Berkeley researchers disputes that view, finding that 21 popular beverages have high sugar content and other additives including caffeine and sodium, which may be harmful to children and teens.

“All of these beverages that are marketed to kids and teens … as if they’re healthy, are just packed with sugar,” said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy which commissioned the study.

In the report researchers at UC Berkeley’s Atkins Center of Weight and Health looked not only at sugar and caffeine in these 21 beverages but also scrutinized additives such as guarana, ginseng, taurine, gingko biloba and ginger extract.

Dr. Patricia Crawford, the study’s lead author, said of all these additives, only ginger extract is classified as “likely safe” by the NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. She called it “troubling” that the other additives have not been widely studied in children and teens, yet are added to these drinks.

Crawford also expressed concern about the amount of caffeine in some of the beverages. Guarana is a plant that contains caffeine and is used as an energy supplement. It’s hard for people to know how much caffeine they might be consuming, Crawford said.

“Increasingly there are reports about children drinking too much caffeine and being admitted to emergency rooms for heart palpitation and problems they didn’t associate with the beverages,” Crawford said.

Christopher Gindlesperger, a spokesman with the American Beverage Association, called the study “spin and attempted fear mongering from a group that is aggressively advocating to impose taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages in California.” The California Center for Public Health Advocacy sponsored a statewide soda tax bill last year in the California legislature. It died in committee. Gindlesperger said the industry goes “above and beyond what is required when it comes to labeling and information” and referred me to two websites.

Goldstein says that sports beverages were meant for athletes working out for an hour — and sweating — in the hot sun. “That is not most of who is drinking sports drinks,” he said. “Most of (those) drinking sports drinks are people who are — more than anything — drawn to the marketing of these products, who have been convinced they need to replace their electrolytes.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation surveyed the evidence and reported last year that children and teens should drink water or milk that is either low-fat or nonfat.

“The big message of this study,” Goldstein said, “is our kids and our teens should not be drinking sports drinks, energy drinks, vitamin water, even though the beverage industry is trying so hard to convince people that these are healthier products, they’re really nothing other than a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

This post has been updated to clarify CCPHA’s role as an advocate for soda taxes.

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