Gatorade’s Mystery Ingredients

Gatorade’s Mystery Ingredients

What's in Gatorade, your go-to carbohydrate and electrolyte beverage.

Training for the Philadelphia Marathon has had me downing my fair share of Gatorade and other sports drinks over the past several months. And though I’d normally advocate for fresher, more natural, not-flourescent-or-in-powdered-form foods, it can be admittedly tough to resist the temptation of grabbing a cold cup at the finish line of a race, or filling up a bottle for a training run. And for good reason, as Gatorade has dedicated a huge amount of time and money to producing a drink that’s not only optimal for proper hydration, but also pretty delicious.

Unfortunately for anyone who scrutinizes nutrition facts and ingredient labels the way I do, Gatorade is surprisingly laden with a slew of unpleasant surprises. So while this sports beverage is thankfully free of corn products, ingredients like monopotassium phosphate, red 40, and glycerol ester of rosin can be a bit of a turnoff. And what exactly is this “natural flavor” they speak of?

A solid sports drink really only needs three ingredients: water, carbohydrate, and salt, and perhaps a bit of potassium as an added bonus. What then is purpose of Gatorade’s additional eight additives? A breakdown:

1. Water

2. Sucrose:
A natural sweetener made of glucose and fructose, found in fruits and vegetables.

3. Dextrose:
Just a fancy term for glucose – a simple sugar that also happens to be our body’s primary source of fuel.

4. Citric acid:
This is a byproduct of carbohydrate metabolism, as well as an organic acid found in citrus fruits like lemons and limes. It’s added to Gatorade as a preservative and flavor enhancer. Have you ever squeezed lemon juice on an apple slice to prevent it from turning disgusting and brown? Same idea here – citric acid preserves your Gatorade by preventing oxidation.

5. Natural flavor:
This one made the USDA Food and Nutrition Information Service’s FAQ list (along with a question about “meat extracts”…gross). So here it is straight from the source: “Spices (e.g., black pepper, basil, and ginger), spice extracts, essential oils, oleoresins, onion powder, garlic powder, celery powder, onion juice, and garlic juice are all ingredients that may be declared on labeling as ‘natural flavor,’ ‘flavor,’ or ‘flavoring.’” In Gatorade, the “natural flavor” is likely an essential oil used to give each drink its “red” or “blue” flavor.

6. Salt:
Salt is made of sodium chloride, two of the major electrolytes lost in sweat.

7: Sodium citrate:
This is a safe and widely used substance in processed foods. It helps to control the acidity of foods and keeps it in the proper pH range over time. It also contributes citrus flavor and electrolytes.

8. Monopotassium phosphate:
This is simply a compound made of potassium and phosphorus, two minerals important for critical physiological processes, like muscle contractions, fluid electrolyte balance, and cell metabolism. It is the source of potassium in Gatorade.

9. Modified food starch:
Starch is a natural component of carbohydrate used in food processing to keep beverages homogenized. Have you ever let a smoothie or protein shake sit out for too long so the solids and liquids separate? This ensures that doesn’t happen to your sports drink.

10. Red 40:
According to Center for Science in the Public Interest, this should be consumed with caution. If you eat a lot of processed foods this can be tough, because it’s the most widely used food dye. As a result, it has also been the most tested. It can cause allergy-like reactions and studies have found “inconsistent” harm to mice in animal tests. Red 40 is not as dangerous as other food colorings. Those to avoid include: Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6.

11. Glycerol ester of rosin:
This is a natural extract of wood, often used in citrus-flavored drinks and chewing gum. It is used as an emulsifier to keep oils (like the “natural flavoring” in Gatorade) suspended in water, giving it a cloudy appearance.

12: Caramel color:
This is the last ingredient on the list because this is one to AVOID! Common in dark processed foods like sodas, condiments, and chocolate-flavored snacks, it’s made of sugars, ammonium, and acids or bases. This stuff is processed with ammonia, a caustic chemical use in commercial cleaning products (yum…is your mouth watering yet?). Studies have found that contaminants from this processing cause cancer in mice, and the World Health Organization deemed them “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” That sounds worth avoiding to me, especially in something like Gatorade, which you’re likely consuming in large quantities.

Good until the last ingredient…what’s to be done? Luckily for you, this assessment was based on the ingredients in the Fruit Punch flavor (Red), meaning not all Gatorade colors/flavors will contain caramel coloring. If a “possibly carcinogenic” ingredient concerns you, look for flavors with safer additives. A full list can be found here. OR just stay tuned for my next article on do-it-yourself sports drinks!

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About the Author

Alyssa grew up in New Hampshire and is a lover of any activity that involves mountains (especially the Greens and the Whites!). She speaks Mandarin Chinese and Japanese and lived in both countries as an undergrad (which partially explains her love for Beijing eggplant, lychee, and anything green tea flavored). Currently, she lives in New York City and is working on her master’s degree in public health nutrition at NYU. For the past year, she has been working at NYU School of Medicine’s Center for Immigrant Health, and last fall was awarded the Gstalder Memorial Scholarship for her research and service in minority health. Active in the Greater New York Dietetic Association, Alyssa is working with student members to create a low-literacy cookbook and nutrition guide for cancer patients, which she hopes to have translated into Chinese and Spanish. Before getting into nutrition, she spent time working for several environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy in Yunnan, China, the Missouri Botanical Gardens in Madagascar, and the Green Mountain Club on The Long Trail in Vermont. Alyssa was recently accepted to a dietetic internship program at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in the Bronx, where she will begin work in the fall.