Beware the hidden sugar in sports drinks

Experts say plain water should be enough for most active schoolgoing children. This applies even to those involved in sports co-curricular activities (CCA).

Forget soft drinks. Children are taking a greater liking to sports and energy drinks, but these may not do their health any favours.

Several recent studies in the United States have highlighted the rising popularity of these drinks among youth as well as the health dangers linked to them, sparking concern from health experts and parents.

These beverages may not be suitable or even necessary for them, especially young children.

Sports drinks, for instance, are designed to provide glucose for energy and to replace water and minerals lost through perspiration, especially for those who sweat profusely.

"The concern with sports drinks is that they are consumed routinely by youth who do not sweat or exercise much," said Dr Ang Poon Liat, a consultant paediatrician at Thomson Paediatric Centre.

"In this case, they are no better than taking regular soft drinks."

But consumers, including young people, are snapping up these drinks. Sales of energy drinks rose by 53 per cent from 2007 to 2012 in the US, in contrast to declining sales for most other sugary drinks.

Meanwhile, calls to poison centres related to energy drinks shot up, from 672 in 2010 to 3,028 in 2013. Six in 10 calls involved people who were 18 or younger, according to a study published in the international journal Nutrition Reviews in April. The youngsters had complained of seizures, delirium and irregular heartbeat after consuming energy drinks.

Another study, involving 1,649 students aged 11 to 14, found that those who took energy drinks were 66 per cent more likely to be at risk for hyperactivity and inattention. The study was published in June in the Academic Pediatrics international journal.

The trend is similar for sports drinks. About one in five youth up to 17 years old in the US consumes sports drinks at least once a week, according to separate research published in May.

There is no equivalent data for Singapore. Yet, the concerns are similar, say experts, as sports and energy drinks are freely available to young people here as well.

Experts agree that plain water should be enough for most active schoolgoing children.

This applies even to those involved in sports co-curricular activities (CCA), said Dr Ang.

"Under normal circumstances, sports CCAs and games are brief activities. Fluid and energy replacements are not necessary," he said.

"After the activity, a catch-up replacement with tap or mineral water is adequate."

Sports drinks may be useful for school athletes engaged in vigorous sports for more than an hour, said Ms Phuah Kar Yin, principal dietitian at KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

Examples include basketball, netball, badminton and tennis.

"Even then, sports drinks are recommended only during training or competitions, as they do not provide any benefit when consumed outside of training time," she said.

The danger lies in the hidden sugar in these products, which can cause unwanted weight gain.

For instance, Ms Phuah pointed out, sports drinks contain up to 8 per cent of carbohydrates.

It does not help that some parents are confused by the touted health benefits of such drinks.

A US study released in March by the Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity found that more than 25 per cent of 982 parents polled considered sugary sports drinks to be "healthy".

These parents, who have at least one child between two and 17, said they were sold on nutritional claims on the packaging.

Singapore housewife Emma Chng, 42, told Mind & Body that she would prefer her 10-year-old daughter to take sports drinks instead of other popular soft drinks, especially on hot days.

"Most canned drinks are not considered healthy, but one has to choose the lesser of two evils," she said. "Sometimes, kids just want to drink something flavoured. I try to encourage my daughter to have fruit juice or herbal tea."

This article was first published on Oct 13, 2015.
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