When athletes are working out, they’re losing sweat and expending energy, and the purpose of a “sports drink” is to replace that liquid as well as other necessary electrolytes and carbs to keep the athlete’s energy up as they continue to exert themselves (or recover).
To develop a recipe for a natural electrolyte sports drink, I did my best to achieve the proper proportions of all those things as well as mimic the fun taste of Gatorade that my husband enjoys. It irks me when he (a) spends $1+ a bottle on junk and (b) drinks the junk. I try to jump in when I know he’s going somewhere that he’ll want Gatorade and hand him our homemade sports drink instead.
We’re going to do a lot of Math today, so put your thinking caps on and I’ll grab my chalk. (I know, that dates me. I actually had a white board when I taught but still think of chalkboards as the standard.)
What’s in Gatorade?
Gatorade drinks (and any other electrolyte-replacing sports drink, as well as drinks designed to rehydrate and heal during a bout of diarrhea or childhood illnesses) contain five major components:
- water (for hydration, obviously)
- sugars (for energy/carbs)
- citric acid and sodium citrate (both preservatives, also sodium citrate in some forms has been shown to increase running performance – but it also chelates calcium, a necessary electrolyte that needs to be replaced!)
- salt (to replace the electrolyte sodium)
- monopotassium phosphate (chosen form of potassium, another essential electrolyte)
Besides the questionable “natural and artificial flavors” and the artificial food dyes, that’s all that’s needed to be “Gatorade.”
We can do that.
Real Food is Even Better
In fact, we can do one better with real food. We first look at the World Health Organization’s recipe for a rehydration drink, which serves a very similar purpose for dehydrated individuals: replace electrolytes, give energy, hydrate the body. It includes:
- sodium chloride
- trisodium citrate
- potassium chloride
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How Much Sugar?
Regular Gatorade has a lot of sugar. Check this out:
- Gatorade = 21 g sugars in 12 oz. (over 5 tsp. sugar)
- 12 x 5 = 60 (pretty close to 64 oz. in a half gallon)
- 21 x 5 = >105 g sugars in a half gallon of Gatorade
- 1 teaspoon sugar = 4 g
- 105 / 4 = 26.25
- **Over 26 teaspoons of sugar in a half gallon Gatorade**
(I chose a half gallon for comparison’s sake, since that’s what this homemade sports drink recipe will make.)
The idea behind the sugar (carbohydrates) is to give energy to the athlete. I wonder how much athletes really need to keep going though.
WHO rehydration recipes range from 6-8 tsp. sugar for a liter, about 5 cups (1.2-1.6 tsp. per cup) or the latest calls for 13.5g anhydrous glucose per liter. Wikipedia lists it at 2 Tbs. (6 tsp.) per quart, or 1.5 tsp. per cup.
x 8 cups in a half gallon = 9.6-12.8 tsp. sugar in a half gallon
x 4 g sugar in a teaspoon = 38.4-51.2 g sugar in a half gallon rehydration electrolyte drink, according to what a dehydrated person needs to perk up
So the first lesson, which is not surprising, is that commercial Gatorade is far sweeter than it needs to be to give someone appropriate carbs for energy purposes – by more than TWICE as much!
The Sweetener Makes a Difference
To make a natural electrolyte replacement that is also good for athletes to replenish their energy in the form of carbohydrates, we’d want approximately 40-50g of sugar, which is 10-12 tsp., or a scant 4 tablespoons in a half gallon.
I’d rather use honey, which is a much better carbohydrate energy source because “honey contains three different natural sugars – glucose, fructose and maltose. Each of these sugars is absorbed into the bloodstream at a slightly differently rate,” explains HoneyMaxx, “making it virtually time-released, which is perfect for endurance athletes.”
Besides that, there are other benefits to honey, especially natural raw honey, that white sugar certainly does not share. It still increases your glycemic index, however, so for diabetics it is no better than sugar (or not enough to make a marked difference).
To use honey, we do a little more math:
Honey = 16 g sugar in a Tbs. (about 5 1/3 g per tsp.)
We want between 40-50 g sugars in our drink, a little lower for people who are just replacing sweat, I’d think, and higher for hardcore athletes in training (and maybe children?). So that’s between 2-3 Tbs. of honey for a half gallon.
That amount is a good “sweet” for some, but considering your average American is expecting double that, we can make up the sweet without extra unnecessary carbs with a little stevia.
Gatorade happens to have a “low calorie” version of the sports drink called G2. Guess how many carbs (sugars) it has? 40g per half gallon, exactly what it should have. The remainder of the “sweet” is made up by Sucralose (Splenda) and acesulfame potassium, another artificial sweetener i.e. poison. We can do better than that!
Rehydrating When Sick
For a diabetic or someone who only needs to replace electrolytes, not carbs, such as a more medicinal use like during a bout of diarrhea, you could totally skip the honey and double the stevia, more to taste if necessary. If you have the unrefined brown stevia concentrate like in the picture, you need at least double the stevia, or a half teaspoon total for a half gallon.
My husband thought that ratio was just perfect, although some may want a bit more. That’s the wonderful thing about sweetening beverages with stevia; you can always add a few drops to an individual serving or taste and improve the whole batch (can’t do that with muffins, for example).
For children who are ill, I might still keep the honey in, especially if you have raw honey, for its antibacterial, immune boosting and upper respiratory supporting properties (source) and because kids need carbs for energy, even if they’re not expending as much because they are sick. Pedialyte does include sugars (refined corn sugars, ick), although I’m unclear whether that’s for a health purpose or just taste. Livestrong says that the dextrose increases the absorption of water and sodium.
Pedialyte also includes zinc, which is great thing to have when you’re under the weather. Pumpkin seeds are really high in zinc, so be sure to buy pie pumpkins this time of year and make crispy roasted pumpkin seeds as often as you can. Please keep in mind that I am neither a doctor nor a nurse, and I don’t give out medical advice of any kind.
How Many Electrolytes?
“Electrolytes are minerals that use electric charges in the body to produce reactions such as muscle contraction, nerve movement and a regular heartbeat.” (source: Livestrong)
Let’s take them one at a time:
salt / sodium
- Gatorade = 13.75 mg/ oz.
- WHO rehydration recipe = ~18 mg / oz. + baking soda usually recommended in the same ratio I use (technically sodium is measured as an osmolarity of 245 mmol/L, my first chance to use high school chemistry in 15 years…and heck if I can remember how to figure molarity.)
- Our recipe = ~18 mg / oz. from salt and 4.8 mg / oz. from baking soda
Baking soda is included because it’s a different kind of salt than table salt (sodium chloride) and our bodies need both kinds:
Strenuous exercise leads to the buildup of lactic acid with associated muscle pain and fatigue. The longer an athlete can delay lactic acid buildup, the better his performance, especially in situations that require endurance. That’s exactly what drinking baking soda does for athletes. Baking soda has been found to be effective in boosting multiple sprint performances by neutralizing lactic acid buildup, thereby delaying muscle pain and fatigue. (source: Livestrong)
A rough guide to the amount of salt is that the solution should taste no saltier than tears. The sports drink will taste too salty if your body doesn’t need the salt. When you are genuinely depleted, it should taste just right (I love that God made our bodies so well that they can teach us what we need!).
Too much baking soda – like massive amounts – can be dangerous for children, but it would be highly unlikely that someone could overdose on baking soda by drinking homemade sports drinks.
Folks with high blood pressure need to be careful of sodium intake overall, so it might be a good idea to check with your doctor if you have that condition. “Lite salt” could be a safe substitute in a homemade recipe – but those with high blood pressure really should check with their doctor before drinking the commercial sports drinks, too, as they have a high sodium content as well. How many people drink Gatorade as a random “I’m thirsty” drink when they haven’t expended enough energy to need to replace electrolytes and sodium? It’s really not a good idea.
- Gatorade = 3.75 mg. / oz.
- WHO rehydration recipe = might be up to 44 mg / oz. (Wiki says it uses 1.5 g/L; a liter is 4.22 cups = 33.76 ounces, 1.5 g / 33.76 ounces * 1000 = 44.43 mg / oz.)
- Our recipe = just over 2 mg / oz. (lemon juice has 35 mg potassium per ounce; 35 x 4 oz. = 140 mg in a half gallon divided by 64 ounces = 2.18)
- One could add 1/8-1/4 tsp. Morton “lite salt” which is potassium chloride if potassium feels more important. Some WHO rehydration recipes list 1/4 tsp. salt substitute per liter for potassium (so about a scant 1/2 tsp. for our half gallon batch).
- If using orange juice, you’d have 3.5 mg. potassium / ounce (orange juice has 56 mg potassium per ounce)
Lemon juice even has enough potassium to treat kidney stones in place of potassium citrate, so I feel pretty confident that it can replace electrolytes. However, for serious rehydration, you couldn’t use enough lemon juice to equal the WHO recipe; that would make it so sour it would be undrinkable. The orange juice version fares better on the potassium scale, but my husband really didn’t like that flavor (although the 8yo boy thought it was the bomb). It’s still not quite enough, so if potassium is a key factor for you, be sure to try the lite salt.
Another option I’ve seen is potassium citrate, which is in Kool-aid type powders – if you’re really interested in getting enough potassium, you might look for a natural drink packet, and that would add a lot of flavor too, hopefully without any additional sweetener.
This electrolyte seems largely unaddressed in Gatorade and most of the homemade recipes I’ve seen, including the WHO version, but HoneyMaxx includes it in theirs. Real Salt does have trace elements of , so please be sure to use whole, unrefined salt when making this recipe and at least you’ll get a little magnesium, as well as calcium and 60 other trace minerals, including silica, which can even help calcium be absorbed better into your body.
Magnesium is a very important mineral for overall health, so if you happen to have some on hand as an oral supplement, I’d include a serving in this recipe.
I’m really not sure if the WHO recipe includes calcium or not, but the sodium citrate in Gatorade chelates (removes) calcium from the body, so that seems awfully counter-productive.
The Recipe: Homemade Electrolyte Replacement Sports DrinkPrint
- Mix the salt and baking soda with water until dissolved. Some people heat the water to get it all perfectly dissolved; I just shake it up and call it good enough. Add the lemon juice, lime juice and sweetener and shake well to combine. You may find that the honey is difficult to mix in; just keep trying, try a long knife to stir, and shake well before serving. Store refrigerated for up to a week.
I squeeze lime juice in bulk and freeze tablespoon-sized servings, then just add one cube to this mixture.
**Another flavoring option is to use 1/2 c. orange juice and 2 Tbs. lemon juice in place of the lemon/lime mixture.
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- If you do use real lemons, you should be aware of the chemicals sprayed on citrus after picking.
- You can freeze the drink, then add a few cubes to a glass of the full stuff or use a frozen concentrate cube (i.e. mix up with only about a 1/2 cup of water plus the other ingredients) and mix with a cup of water as it melts.
- I use a bottled organic lemon juice with zero added ingredients (from Costco). It’s delicious, and so much easier than juicing my own lemons (which would be a decently big chore if you were making this regularly). I don’t recommend most bottled lemon juice though – check the ingredients and you’ll see why.
- Stevia drops, for me, came out to about 35-40 drops per quarter teaspoon, but my friend Adrienne at Whole New Mom gets 44 drops in a teaspoon…so you might want to try it yourself to see how many drops are in a teaspoon to help you divide into single servings if necessary.
- I use NuNaturals stevia or Sweetleaf brands. Liquid stevia extract is less refined than the powder, although my husband prefers the powder.
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Other workout resources:
- Homemade protein drink
- High protein Quinoa oat bars
- Grain-free quinoa bars
- High protein snack ideas
- Working exercise into a busy parent’s routine
- Real Food Weight Loss & Exercise series
Other Homemade Sports Drinks