The Organic Gatorade Illusion

A new “sports drink” stands to further confuse health-conscious consumers into buying sugar water.

Alex Brandon / AP

The multinational corporation PepsiCo has announced that it will begin selling a new iteration of its blockbuster “sports drink,” Gatorade.

It will be similar to the flagship Gatorade Thirst Quencher (which used to simply be Gatorade but required clarification as the line of Gatorade products grew). The key difference in the new product is that it will be called G Organic. It will also be made with sugar from organically farmed sugarcane and carry a label whose largest word is a sprawling “ORGANIC.”


The basic idea of using organic sugarcane seems good, or at least innocuous. Organic farming is often—though debatably—environmentally preferable. But with a similar nutrient profile, the organic label stands to land the product in the hands of people who mistakenly believe it is better for their bodies.

The market for products labeled “organic” has exploded in recent years, to $43.3 billion in the U.S. alone in 2015. Marketing to capitalize on that demand sometimes confuses consumers into thinking that organically-produced products are healthier for us, a hope that has not born out. As dietician Lisa Cimperman told NPR, “I think it's a marketing ploy to apply this organic health halo to this product.”

Executives from PepsiCo have implied as much. According to PepsiCo executives in Ad Age, the approach is an attempt to reach the growing market of consumers who seek out the term. The company is responding to pressure from challengers like coconut water, “as consumers are focused more than ever on ingredients.”

A socially conscious cerebral cortex may be drawn to organically farmed sugar over inorganically farmed sugar, but a pancreas makes no such distinction. It releases insulin in both cases, spreading word throughout the body that this is a time of fantastic abundance. The insulin signals the body to save and pack these calories away in fat cells, for use when food is scarce. For most Americans, that scarcity never arrives. All that does is more food.

In 1991, Michael Jordan set a precedent for
celebrities selling sugar water. (Mark Elias / AP)

Gatorade Thirst Quencher is itself a flat, decaffeinated version of PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew. Gatorade Thirst Quencher has somewhat less sugar, and slightly more sodium than Mountain Dew, but for public-health purposes, the two could be considered one. These sugar drinks are among the leading causes of the global crisis of metabolic disease. In the U.S., two out of three adults are overweight or obese.

Gatorade Thirst Quencher is perennially among the best-selling sugar waters, claiming 70 percent of the “sports drink” market (which is itself a concept created by the marketing Gatorade).

The secret to the success of Gatorade seems to be that it has has always sold an idea much grander than sugar water. Since signing a long-term promotional contract with Michael Jordan in 1991, the drink has promised performance enhancement. A greater version of the self, under the guise that it will optimize rather than impair the functioning of our humble bodies. Gatorade didn’t have to offer a scientific argument, because Jordan was the implicit case in point. He would be succeeded by Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, and Usain Bolt, to name a few.

1968 (AP)

For serious athletes doing prolonged exercise—the sort that drains their blood sugar, and depletes their sodium stores as they soak themselves in sweat—adding some sugar and sodium back into the mix does help to keep a person moving.  This is why Gatorade was useful to the University of Florida’s football players, who were succumbing to heat exhaustion after hours of summer practice, when the product came into existence in 1965.

Still, the sugar content in Gatorade Thirst Quencher today is much too high, and the sodium content much too low, to re-hydrate a truly dehydrated person. Properly balanced oral rehydration solutions do exist, but they don’t taste as good to most people as the much sweeter concoctions. (Last summer I tried every oral rehydration solution that’s commercially available, as well as the one that’s distributed by the World Health Organization. I get into them in detail elsewhere.)

Like everything we put into our bodies, the drink is only effective in the right context. Most of Gatorade’s $3.3 billion in annual sales come from consumers in much less extreme circumstances, where it is simply empty calories. The product is positioned as an optimal approach to hydration—to quenching thirst. This is purportedly because of the “electrolytes” (meaning a bit of sodium and potassium), but for people who eat food, these additives are moot. A serving of Gatorade Thirst Quencher has about as much sodium as a slice of bread.

The full ingredient list of the new product as compared to the old is:

G Organic: water, organic cane sugar, citric acid, organic natural flavor, sea salt, sodium citrate, potassium chloride

Gatorade Thirst Quencher: water, sugar, dextrose, citric acid, natural flavor, salt, sodium citrate, monopotassium phosphate, sucrose acetate isobutyerate, gum arabic, glycerol ester of rosin, acesulfame potassium, coloring agents

Some of the names of the trace ingredients do sound ominous—like the emulsifier sucrose acetate isobutyrate (SAIB). To test SAIB’s safety, researchers once kept a group of beagles on a diet loaded with SAIB for 12 weeks. The dogs ate SAIB to the point that their livers showed evidence of overload. I can’t recommended doing the same. But the dogs cleared the compound from their systems and came out fine. To give a product any health credit based on the absence of such compounds is distracting. Any risk they might pose in such tiny amounts is infinitesimal compared to the clear and pervasive metabolic effects of excessive sugar.

So the enduring rule for hydration is simple, just at odds with the messages we get from soft-drink marketing. Outside of prolonged, strenuous exercise—going a long time without getting some sugar and sodium from food—water will hydrate us. We have evolved elaborate homeostatic mechanisms to keep our electrolyte and sugar levels in balance.

Tap water, specifically—if we could become so enlightened as to be happy with it—would also skirt the environmental issue that G Organic invites by being sold only in “single-serving” 16.9-ounce bottles. Even if organic farming of sugarcane does have significant environmental benefits, single-serving bottling and global shipping has costs that stand to negate any benefit.

The single-serving approach is an attempt to give people a chance to taste the product, Gatorade general manager Brett O'Brien told Bloomberg. “There’s that misnomer that if it’s organic it can't taste good, and that’s not the case,” said O’Brien. (That’s not a misnomer, though it may be a misconception.) “We're just trying to get people familiar with the product, what it means, what it does, and try it. Once we've checked those boxes, we’ve got a big opportunity here.”