By: Lindsey Aurbuckle, 11 Health Nurse

Standing in the aisle of the grocery store deciding on an electrolyte drink can be as overwhelming as the cereal aisle. Do I pick the one with the brightest packaging? Maybe I should get the variety pack? My wallet will appreciate the one on sale. Perhaps the option that is endorsed by athletes will give me the best result. My waistline hints at the low calorie and low sugar options. The “on the go” ones are convenient. With all these options, how do you know the best choice? Let’s break them down together to better understand what we are shopping for.

WHAT IS AN ELECTROLYTE AND WHY DO I NEED TO DRINK THEM?

It is important to know what we are putting in our bodies as well as what purpose we want it to serve. Electrolytes are chemicals that conduct electricity when mixed with water. They are distributed through all the fluids in our bodies and use their electrical energy to assist with our important bodily functions. The chart-topping essentials include fluid balance, muscle contraction, and balancing blood pressure. Any sort of water you might drink likely has small amounts of electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. However, when our bodies loose electrolytes through sweating, diarrhea, or vomiting, it is often best to reach for a higher concentration of electrolytes. This can be found in electrolyte drinks, tablets, or mixes.

SUGAR, NO SUGAR?

Sugar can go by almost sixty different aliases. Being the ultimate master of disguise can make it incredibly challenging to know what, or how much, you are eating or drinking. These sugar groupings are metabolized differently throughout our bodies. More importantly our unique bodies may tolerate them differently as well. Sucrose is the most common type of sugar. This is your basic table sugar which consists of half glucose and half fructose. Sugar can change the balance of the bacteria that is in the gut. This can lead to some bowel discomfort. Processed sugar can also cause the body to have an inflammatory response. When the sugar enters the body, our blood sugar goes up. This causes our inflammatory messengers to increase which then causes inflammation in the body. Additionally, sugar has also been shown to decrease the immune response. A 16-ounce sports drink has more sugar than a Snickers candy bar. It contains 8 teaspoons of sugar! If you don’t want all the sugar, the common drink alternative we see is “low sugar” or “zero.”

For a drink to be “low sugar” or “zero” the sugary sweetness, must be replaced with something else or we wouldn’t want to drink it. Many of the brands replace sugar with sucralose. This sugar substitute you might know better as Splenda. Much like its other friendly substitutes of modified forms of sugar, there has been research performed on both animals and humans. Some studies have shown that along with other health issues, sucralose had a negative effect on the good bacteria that is housed in our gut. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a widely used sweetener. Thanks to many recent studies of the effects of HFCS on the body, many food and drink manufactures have steered away from its use. Fructose is not very easily absorbed by the body. The absorption usually occurs in the small intestine. For many that have an intolerance to fructose, that fructose travels to the colon. This can cause gas, pain, bloating, and diarrhea. The reason we do not see this reaction with table sugar is because fructose’s counterpart, glucose, helps this absorption process [1].

Another popular sweetener we see in these products is Stevia. Stevia has gained popularity likely due to it being derived from a plant. Stevia sweeteners are broken down in the large intestine, and most people do not report gastrointestinal symptoms. However, many products that contain stevia are often paired with its bowel irritating counterpart sugar alcohol.

THE MEMBERS OF THE “OL” FAMILY

The “ols” are a family of very low-calorie sweeteners. They are a rather large family which are either naturally derived or synthesized in a lab. Some of the popular ones are sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, and erythritol. They are low in calories because they are so difficult for our guts to absorb. If we can’t absorb them, then our bodies can’t access their calories. The result of not being able to absorb them is usually gas and diarrhea. Erythritol is a so-called “sugar alcohol” which is somewhat better absorbed than its other “ol” cousins. However, if you are intolerant to fructose, it can still provoke gas and diarrhea [2].

ALL SIPS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL

Whether poured from a bottle off the shelf, dropped in, or stirred into your favorite water bottle, what your body is gaining from an electrolyte replacement drink can vary greatly. Most of the larger popular sports drinks will supply you with sodium and potassium. Some of the mix packets and the drop-in tablets offer a higher amount of these electrolytes but will also toss in additional electrolytes magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus. You can find up to four times more sodium, and eight times more potassium in a mix-in packet compared to a bottled sports drink. Additionally, many of these options will have you saving half the amount of sugar.

TIME TO CHECK OUT

With all this information, it is now time to decide what to put in your shopping cart. Most things are okay in moderation. Consuming too much of any type of an artificial sweetener may likely lead to gas, bloating, or diarrhea. Read your labels and know your options that are out there. You may be one of the many people who have an intolerance to fructose. Perhaps you are diabetic. Therefore, you should not be spending all your carbohydrates on a sugary drink that will fill you up. Maybe there is only one manufacture and one flavor that you like the taste of and know you will drink. There are plenty of options out there to choose from and new products to try. If all this information has steered you away from all the above options, you can leave the store and step into your kitchen. Search the internet and you will find countless recipes to make your own natural electrolyte drinks. Many are made with coconut water which already has many naturally occurring electrolytes. Regardless of what you choose, the most important thing is to listen to your body. Your body know you very well and does a pretty good job of telling you what it likes and does not like.

References

  1. Kirchheimer, Sid. “Fructose May Cause Digestive Problems.” WebMD, July 14, 2003, https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/news/20030714/fructose-may-cause-digestive-problems#1
  2. Duker Freuman, Tamara. “The Best and Worst Sweeteners for Your Gut.” U.S. News and World Report, April 17, 2018, http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2018-04-17/the-best-and-worst-sweeteners-for-your-gut