Within the past year, sports drinks have taken a health-conscious turn in order to survive in the ever-changing, competitive beverage industry. These electrolyte-filled drinks are no longer a simple rehydration source for athletes; they are now health-enhancement drinks of choice. As consumers want more good-for-you sports drinks, beverage companies have reacted accordingly.

“I would really call it a health and fitness [category],” Erik Rothchild, chief executive officer of WheyUp, Phoenix, Ariz., says. “Year after year, consumers are becoming more conscious about what they are consuming and what they are putting in their bodies. It’s a whole health and fitness lifestyle, with sports a major part of it.”

Vitamin waters and enhanced waters are joining the category as well, which not only broadens it but also increases overall sales for the category. “What is most interesting in the category today is the convergence of traditional sports drinks, functional beverages and enhanced waters,” says Mark Rampolla, chief executive officer at Zico, Oradell, N.J. “The new types of sports drinks are growing in popularity because of the nutritional benefits.”

Much attention also has been given to natural and organic drinks. “The continuing emphasis on health, fitness and nutrition is creating growth in the category and particular opportunity for a healthy alternative to traditional sports drinks that contain more bad ingredients than good ones,” says Nancy Dince, president of Liv Organic, Princeton, N.J.

Comfort zone

Despite the influx of alternative products, traditional brand names continue to dominate the sales charts. Whether it is the price per bottle or the comfort of knowing what is in the traditional sports drinks, the powerhouse brands cannot be beat.

Leaders of the sports drink category are once again Gatorade and Powerade, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI), Chicago. Gatorade dominates the category, as it holds eight of the top 10 spots. Although flagship Gatorade, the No. 1 sports drink, brought in $631 million in sales through measured retail outlets, that is down for the year ending Feb. 24, 2007, by 9.1 percent. Powerade holds the No. 2 spot, growing to $250 million, which is up 18.5 percent from the previous year.

Gatorade’s new release, G2, even made the list at No. 9, earning $23 million in its first five months on the market. Overall, non-aseptic sports drinks brought in a little more than $1.6 billion, which is up 4.2 percent from last year.

Alternative options

Sports drinks rehydrate and replenish lost electrolytes, energy and nutrients after strenuous activities. Many of today’s sports drinks are made with less sugar and fewer calories to appeal to more consumers.

Gatorade G2, released in September, is a low-calorie electrolyte beverage designed for off-field hydration, according the company. The line launched in Grape, Orange and Fruit Punch flavors. Every 8-ounce serving contains 25 calories, 110 mg. of sodium, 30 mg. of potassium and 7 grams of sugar.

The company says consumers should drink G2 after an average workout vs. strenuous activity. Off-the-field drinks were created to compete with vitamin waters, which have been encroaching on sports drink’s territory.

Gatorade also introduced Gatorade Tiger this March. The drink represents the first licensing deal for the $5 billion brand and is also golfer Tiger Woods’ first endorsed sports beverage. According to Gatorade, in-depth scientific sweat testing was conducted by scientists from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI) to measure Woods’ sweat rate, sweat electrolyte concentration, fluid and electrolyte balance and energy needs during a vigorous round of exercise. The test was designed to shape Woods’ own specialized hydration and nutrition strategy.

Powerade Option landed the No. 10 spot in the non-aseptic sports drink category. It brought in more than $19.6 million in sales, which is up 18.8 percent from the prior year. Powerade Zero replaced Powerade Option in April. It is a zero-calorie sports drink that contains B vitamins, and uses sucralose and acesulfame potassium as sweeteners. The product has the benefits of a sports drink without the calories, says Matt Kahn, vice president of marketing for Powerade. The line launched in Mixed Berry, Strawberry and Grape flavors.

Cadbury Schweppes’ Accelerade, though not making the top 10, came out with a new Citrus Grapefruit flavor last year. Additional flavors include Peach Mango, Fruit Punch and Mountain Berry. Accelerade works on a four-to-one carbohydrate-to-protein formula, which the company says extends endurance, speeds muscle recovery and enhances rehydration. The product has 80 calories per 8-ounce serving.

Bottled drinks were not the only sports drink category making news last year. Sports drink mixes made their way onto the IRI charts as well, although some did a little better than others. Gatorade’s Propel Powder Packets topped the list, with $25 million in total sales, IRI reports. The packets make up a little more than 45 percent of the sports drink mix market. Other drink mixes include Gatorade Sport and Gatorade Frost, which landed the No. 2 and No. 3 spots, respectively. Overall sales for sports drink mixes were $55.5 million.

Natural energy

As it has in most beverage categories, the natural and organic trend has caught on in sports drinks as well. Recharge, from R.W. Knudsen, Orrville, Ohio, is a sports drink from all-natural fruit concentrate. The product has 50 percent juice and 50 percent water with a balance of essential electrolytes such as potassium and sodium, says Jasen Cusisk, group marketing manager for Smucker Quality Beverages. In February, the company released a new flavor, Tropical Thirst Quencher. The sports drink is sweetened with fruit juice, and contains no added flavors or preservatives. Other flavors of Recharge include Grape, Lemon, Orange and Organic Lemon. Green Apple and Mixed Berry will be available this summer.

Enhanced waters also have merged to be a part of the sports drinks category. Many of the enhanced waters contain electrolytes, which places them on the same level as traditional sports drinks.

For example, Zico is made with 100 percent coconut water from young coconuts that have five naturally occurring electrolytes in it. Drinking coconut water after a workout helps increase blood volume at least as well, if not better, than typical sports drinks, Rampolla says.

“The only ingredient in Zico is coconut water, and what most people are drinking Zico for is the high level of potassium,” Rampolla says. “Zico has 670 mg. of potassium, and since Zico has a natural blend of glucose and sucrose, no high-fructose corn syrup or even sugar cane, it is readily absorbed by the body and put to use almost immediately.”

Zico is available in three varieties: Natural, Mango and Passion Fruit-Orange Peel. All flavors have the same nutritional profile with no additional calories or carbohydrates. Zico primarily is targeted toward athletes who recognize the importance of electrolytes for post-workout recovery.

Another alternative to traditional sports drinks is WheyUp, a beverage that combines a non-carbonated, sugar-free energy drink with 20 grams of whey protein. The drink has two flavors, Tropical Citrus and Wild Berry.

Rothchild says WheyUp uses a whey protein isolate, which is absorbed quickly in the body. He also mentions that protein is the essential supplement to maintaining, building and repairing muscle. WheyUP provides protein and energy before or during a workout, he says.

“People drink [WheyUp] now to lose weight because it’s like having a cup of coffee with 20 grams of protein in it,” Rothchild says. “It combines two elements that athletes, from a weekend warrior to you and me in the gym to a pro-athlete, are continually using.”

Liv Organic, formally Liv Natural, is on the same page as WheyUp in terms of giving consumers a natural option for sports-related drinks.

“Liv Organic contains all the carbohydrates and minerals found in traditional sports drinks but none of the artificial sugars, flavors or dyes,” Dince says. “We use agave nectar as the sweetener. Agave has a lower glycemic index than most sweeteners so it is ideal for active people.” Besides agave, Liv Organic also uses rice syrup as one of the ingredients. Liv Organic’s name is not the only thing changing within the company. A 16.9-ounce Powerflex bottle was produced with a label that clearly says “sports drink” on the bottle. The bottle cap also displays the image of an agave leaf.

“As media continues to be consumed with the perils of obesity, and as the benefits of a healthy and active lifestyle continue to be promoted, more consumers incorporate exercise into their daily routine,” Powerade’s Kahn says. “When exercising, it’s important to replenish the body with lost fluids and electrolytes … If this formula holds true, we expect the sports drink category to continue expansion.”