Are Sports Drinks Safe for Kids?

little boy drinking orange sports drink
There's a lot of sugar in a store-bought sports drink. If your child does need the electrolytes, try making a homemade version instead. (Photo: Chris [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

I asked myself this one a while back when the only way I could get my 3-year-old to his soccer game was if I bribed him with an orange Gatorade at the game. (Granted, if I have to bribe my toddler to play soccer, I probably shouldn’t have signed him up, but how was I supposed to know?) As other parents (judgingly) gazed on, he downed the whole sports drink in one fell swoop — and had to leave the game to pee moments later. But I couldn’t help wondering, rather guiltily, if all that Gatorade was too much for my little man.

So what’s the deal? First let’s clarify the difference between sports drinks and another popular beverage among teens — energy drinks. Energy drinks, like sports drinks, have a ton of sugar. The major difference? Caffeine content. These drinks, though consumed by many teens, are considered to be dangerous for this age group, particularly because of the caffeine levels, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. High levels of caffeine can induce nausea, dizziness, vomiting and can even lead to caffeine withdrawal. The amount of caffeine found in energy drinks is often 3 or 4 times as much as a larger can of soda. Another potentially dangerous ingredient in energy drinks is guarana, a South American tree extract that also contains caffeine. High levels of guarana can lead to nausea, diarrhea and even vomiting. So buyer beware. Especially if that buyer is a child or teenager.

Sports drinks, on the other hand, don’t contain any caffeine. They contain electrolytes, which the cells in our body use to maintain electrical impulses between each other. When you sweat a lot during rigorous exercise, your body loses those electrolytes. Sports drinks replace those lost electrolytes and restore balance to your body’s systems. So they’re harmless and we can give them to our kids, right? Not so fast. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that sports drinks are really not meant for teens after an hour of basketball practice (or, I presume, for my 3-year-old after 10 minutes of running after a soccer ball). They are meant for athletes doing intense exercise for an hour or more. Why? Well, for one, these sports drinks contain a lot more sugar and calories than, say, water. At this age, says the AAP, children should be getting their calories from healthy food, not from sports drinks. Compounding the issue, routine consumption of these drinks can lead to tooth decay.

Recently, Gatorade introduced an organic version of its popular sports drink. Although the product doesn't have artificial food dyes, it still has lots of sugar. Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells the New York Times that each 16.9-ounce bottle of the new G Organic has seven teaspoons of added sugar, which is more than the max six-teaspoons a day recommended by the American Heart Association, she points out. So organic is good, but organic sports drink still probably aren't necessary for most kids.

There is a time and a place for sports drinks, like when your child needs rehydration after an illness. But even then, many doctors say to use Pedialyte, which has more electrolytes than many sports drinks and less sugar. (Though truth be told, my son would much rather drink Powerade when he’s sick than grape Pedialyte, and at that point I’m just happy to get anything in him.)

So what’s the bottom line? Energy drinks are a big no-no for kids. Sports drinks can be a yes, in very limited amounts. It’s important to get your little athlete used to drinking water when he’s thirsty. Good thing soccer’s over for the season. I’ll drink to that!