12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.11: Energy in a Can

Gareth MorganHealth

Image by AU Kirk

Image by AU Kirk

Any number of drinks boast the ability to ‘fuel’ you throughout the day. What truth is there to the claims?

We have talked a lot about the damage wreaked on our bodies by Coke and other fizzy drinks, as well as many so-called fruit juices. We have also been arguing for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. However there are other culprits in this battle – particularly sports drinks and so-called energy drinks.

Let’s start with the rort of sports drinks – Powerade and their ilk. According to Powerade’s webpage, the ‘science of hydration’ there are three reasons to drink a sports drink as opposed to water: the supply of carbohydrates, electrolytes and that it will hydrate you more. We will look at each of these claims in turn.

First up, Powerade supplies carbohydrates. Well, this is true, at least if you are drinking the full sugar versions (yes, sugar is a carbohydrate). But is it a good thing? As we set out in the article on Coke, when we drink these sugary drinks the body doesn’t recognise that it is taking in energy, so we tend to overeat. Also the body is stressed as it deals with a sugar spike, and unless there is a similar spike in exercise it will store the sugar as fat. If we repeatedly take in more energy than we need we are travelling down obesity road.

Powerade has less sugar in it per 100ml than Coke, but it also contains maltodextrin. This technically isn’t a sugar but your body converts it into sugar so quickly it may as well be. Also, at 750ml a bottle of Powerade is bigger than a 600ml bottle of Coke so the total amount of energy in the bottle ends up being almost the same. How much energy is in the bottle? Well, a bottle of Powerade contains the amount of energy that you normally burn on a 20 minute run or a 40 minute walk. If you are doing a lot more exercise than that then maybe you can justify the sugar intake, but for most people the extra sugar probably isn’t helping the battle of the bulge.

Secondly, Powerade helps replace the ‘electrolytes’ lost through sweating. These mystical electrolytes are actually sodium and potassium. We usually eat them in the form of salts that come tucked away in lots of our food. In fact, if anything most Kiwis get too much sodium, so you probably shouldn’t fret about topping up that. As for potassium, well you can get plenty of that from fruit and veg, like bananas. And because it is real food, your body at least recognises that it is eating energy and you feel less hungry as a result.

In terms of hydration, sip for sip sports drinks are no better than water. The only reason Powerade can claim that it is better than water in terms of hydration is that in studies people tend to drink more of things that are flavoured over plain water. So actually anything with flavour in it (like a twig of mint and a squeeze of lemon) could claim the same hydration benefits as Powerade. In fact, Powerade is designed to make you drink more because the mix of sugar and salt in the drink doesn’t quench your thirst, so you keep drinking. Of course, that conveniently also helps sell more bottles.

How many people has Powerade helped hydrate compared to the damage done by the extra sodium and sugar? Given that there was no evidence of mass dehydration before Powerade came along, the positive impact is probably very small. The negative impact from excess energy intake on the other hand is evident from the latest obesity statistics.

Now to ‘energy’ drinks. Part of the supposed energy hit comes from sugar. We have talked about the havoc this wreaks on the body, ultimately leaving the body exhausted (the post sugar crash) once it has dealt with the sugar spike. However energy drinks get around this by popping in caffeine to ensure the buzz continues long after the sugar has worn off. Caffeine basically jolts the body into a state of alertness, which can ultimately induce stress and anxiety.

For this reason, the official Ministry of Health recommends that people under 18 consume no caffeine at all. Beverage manufacturers responded to this directive by calling for parents to not allow their kids to drink energy drinks. What a joke – as if brands like Mother are not targeting the teen age group? A 500ml can of Mother has the same amount of caffeine as two cups of coffee – the recommended intake for an adult per day. Energy shots such as the V Pocket Rocket are similar, and despite their warnings seem designed for the younger market.

All the evidence suggests that parents lose control over what their kids eat from 7 years onwards, so what hope do the parents of teens have in preventing them drinking caffeine? Only better regulation of advertising and sales to minors can correct this issue. If beverage manufacturers really want to be responsible they should put their hand up and do an independent study of who actually buys these things.


This blog is part of a series – “The twelve fake foods of Christmas”

We don’t want to get all bah humbug about your Christmas celebrations, after all this is the one time of year you should be able to let your hair down a bit and not feel guilty about it. But it is a good time to highlight some of the fake foods that can cause some damage if we get into the habit of eating them. We’ve particularly targeted the foods that are marketed to us as “healthy” in an effort to get us to eat them every day, when in fact they are complete junk and should be confined solely to the annual Christmas binge. 

Other posts:
12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.1: Cereal Killers

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.2: Low Carb Beer Belly

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.3: Chip on Your Shoulder

 12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.4: Gettin’ Saucey

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.5: Just Juice?

 12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.6: Nothing to make this a Happy Meal

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.7: When is Fruit no Longer Fruit?

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.8: Time to Raise the Bar

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.9: Milky Goodness

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.10: Humble Pie


12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.11: Energy in a Can was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

Facebook Twitter

Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.