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Why Sports Drinks No Longer Have a Health Halo

This week the American Academy of Pediatrics destroyed the delicate health halo Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) have spent the past several years crafting for sports drinks. In a report published in the scientific journal Pediatrics, the association declared that sports drinks are nothing more than "extra calories that children don't need," and that the best thing for America's kids to be drinking is plain, old fashioned water -- a message also delivered as part of the government's updated dietary guidelines in January.

None of this is good news for the beverage industry, which has ramped up its positioning of sports drinks as smarter alternatives to full-sugar soda. As part of an effort to blunt criticism over sugary drinks, the beverage industry agreed to voluntarily phase out full calorie sodas for high schools. No Coke, Pepsi or Mountain Dew, but Powerade and Gatorade, which have 50% less sugar than soda, made the cut and are still being sold in high school (though not middle or elementary schools).

This accounts for part of the reason that soda is on the decline in the U.S. while sports drinks sales are soaring, up 7.5% in 2010 to $7 billion, according to Beverage Digest.

The AAP report also debunked the idea that kids need to rehydrate with candy-colored Gatorade every time they run around on a soccer field for 30 minutes, a concept reinforced by Pepsi and Coke's consistent use of sweaty athletes in ads and other marketing. The AAP, which also arrived at the more obvious conclusion that caffeine-containing energy drinks are inappropriate for kids, acknowledged that sports drinks can be beneficial for "young athletes participating in long periods of intense exercise." Of course, most kids are not athletes participating in long periods of intense exercise, as the authors noted:

For the average child engaged in routine physical activity, the use of sports drinks in place of water on the sports field or in the school lunchroom is generally unnecessary.
Maureen Storey, senior vice president of science policy for the American Beverage Association, which represents Coke, Pepsi and their bottlers and generally speaks for them on issues like this, put out a statement emphasizing that sports drinks -- or "functional beverage products" -- have a "long history of scientific research showing their benefits for hydration, which is necessary for overall health and wellness." Although the studies she's referring to are those demonstrating benefits for extreme athletes, not kids riding their bikes home from school.

In the past, Storey has argued that kids often need flavorings and sugar in order to drink adequate amounts of water. But this is something of a false choice. Offer kids a choice of a sweet, Elmo-colored beverage or a glass of water and there's no contest. But if water is increasingly promoted as the drink of choice, as both the AAP and USDA are trying to do, and sugary options simply aren't around, thirsty kids will find water amazingly appealing.

It remains to be seen whether the AAP's pronouncement or the USDA's advice actually gets people to change their behavior, but one thing's clear -- sports drinks can no longer slide by as healthier drinks.

Image from Flickr user M Carmody Photography

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