Over the course of the past year, one of the most popular posts I've done (based on the number of hits it gets) was about the gluten-free status of Gatorade. Of course, Gatorade is hardly the only sports drink on the market. To that end, the folks at owater recently sent me a sampling of four of their "sport owater" beverages, an electrolyte sports drink that might be considered a direct competitor of Gatorade.
Right off the bat, the sport owater drinks are labeled gluten-free, and a quick glance at the ingredients label confirms this: water, cane sugar, natural flavors, and electrolytes. That's it. There's no high fructose corn syrup, and no artificial dyes to impart color. All the beverages - no matter the flavor - are clear.
For the most part, the lack of artificial dyes is a good thing. Who needs them? Other than giving us a neon visual cue as to what flavor we're drinking (and maybe some psychological placebo-effect experience of flavor), they don't do anything for you in terms of sports performance. In fact, some people experience headaches from the artificial dyes! The one possible snafu I can think of would come in a scenario such as this: when I'm racing in Xterra, I carry two bottles on my mountain bike...one with water, and one with a sports drink. If both beverages are clear, I could foresee times when a racer might grab for a bottle expecting one thing, and get another. But for me, I always rack my sports drink bottle in the forward bottle cage and my water bottle in the rear bottle cage, so the chance of a slip-up is pretty minimal.
Now, in terms of flavor, I had a mixed opinion with regard to the four flavors owater sent me. The lemon-lime and the strawberry-pomegranate rocked. The black rasberry and blueberry, while still good, had a bit too much berry flavor for me. All four flavors lacked the syrupy sweetness of drinks like Gatorage that use HFCS. The sport owater drinks had a nice, subtle sweetness that I can only describe as "clean" as it went down the hatch. This was a good thing.
In order to do my full due diligence, I felt it important to test the sport owater drinks under "field conditions." It's one thing to sip a drink after I've been sitting at my computer for three hours. It's quite another to reach for a sports drink in the midst of a race, when your thirsty, maybe dehydrated with a raging case of cottonmouth, and possibly even nauseous from pushing yourself to the limit. I find that under those kind of conditions, the exact same drink can taste quite different (and often times, something that tastes too sweet at home tastes just right under intense physical exertion...). So, I bundled up in a sweatsuit and went out for a good, hard run. Immediately upon returning home (very sweaty and quite thirsty) I resampled the sport owater drinks. The short answer: I liked them even better.
Nutritionally, sport owater contains 35 calories and 9g sugar per 8oz serving. Compare this to 50 calories and 14g sugar for an equal-sized serving of Gatorade. At first glance, I wasn't convinced that this difference mattered much. For endurance racing, you need to keep calories and easily-accessible forms of energy (certain sugars) going into your system to fuel your body. From this perspective, it would seem to tip the scales in favor of Gatorade (purely from a nutrition standpoint). But as I thought more about it, I realized a few things: 1) The main source of my race nutrition (as opposed to hydration) comes from energy gels like GU (and other sources of nutrition), NOT from my sports drink. 2) The main focus for my sports drink, on the other hand, is two-fold: hydration, and to replace electrolytes and salts lost during the race. And 3) During longer races, less sugar in your sports drink is probably a good thing from a tooth enamel perspective, since you don't want to repeatedly coat your teeth in sugars that will eat away and ultimately cause cavities.
And so, when it's all said and done, my personal opinion is that the sport owater drinks are a great option for gluten-free athletes, whether you're working out for personal fitness, recreation, or competition and racing. Drink up.