With summer finally here, it’s the time of year where kids are participating in various sports and camps. As tradition, a cold sports drink is the go-to for many parents and coaches.
School’s out. It’s time again for summer sports. In my community, every baseball diamond, soccer field, basketball court, LAX complex, and swimming pool is brimming with young athletes waiting to take their turn in the rotation and become star performers in their beloved sport. We parents are ever so happy to cheer, shout, and cajole our kids through the heat and sweat to give them (and us) a memorable experience participating in the time-honored tradition of team sports.
When our children are done with their 10 minutes of physical activity (10 minutes because every kid gets a turn), a team parent rewards them with a huge sugary drink and a big bag of chips.
That was, at least, the norm in my community until a few years ago. Times are changing. Recently, the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity published a paper that details the interim results of Howard County Unsweetened, our community’s attempt to redefine what is “normal” when it comes to sugary drink consumption in children and families. For maximum impact, the Foundation designed this campaign to include a media campaign, community engagement, and policy changes (e.g., we have been working to improve the food and drink environment in schools, child care facilities, community organizations, and government offices, parks, and libraries).
From the beginning, the Rudd Center tracked sales of sugary drinks in our community and compared them to a control community (alike in key ways with the exception of a sugary drink campaign like ours). During the first three years of our campaign, soda sales plummeted in our community by 20 percentmore than the control community, and fruit drink and 100 percent fruit juice sales went down 15 percent. The Foundation also observed a drop in self-reported sugary drink consumption both in adults and youth - all good signs of progress. Yet, we still have much to do.
One thing that stubbornly did not change during the study period was sports drink consumption. Turns out, the heavy marketing of Gatorade by sports teams and major athletes has taken its toll on the psyche of parents and the purchasing behavior of our residents. We have all seen Gatorade logos and paraphernalia on the sidelines of every major professional sport. Who can miss Gatorade’s bright orange jugs, sippy bottles, towels and let’s not forget the classic Gatorade dump on the heads of winning coaches?
More ominously, Gatorade marketing has now crept onto the sideline of every high school sport. We now have “Gatorade players of the year” memorialized on gym walls and countless free Gatorade coolers are being distributed to athletic directors and booster clubs. Last year, one local parent even reported that a Gatorade marketing representative was a featured speaker and spoke about the importance of using Gatorade products during her daughter’s high school athletic orientation. We shouldn’t be surprised that sports drinks are so engrained in family life. In our early campaign focus groups, local children who could barely read knew that Gatorade had cholytes, rectofytes, neoglytes, electrolytes, or something like that inside and that those chemicals seemingly improved their young athletic performance (or so they were told).
Despite all the sugar inside, parents thought (hoped) that sports drinks were healthier for their children than soda. In fact, they were somewhat sure that soda and energy drinks weren’t all that healthy for their families to consume while all other drinks, including sports drinks, fell into the haze of “maybe healthy”? And in surveys, even our local pediatricians thought that sports drinks might have a role in hydrating youth athletes. If you ever wondered if marketing works, the Gatorade story is a textbook example.
As a result, many children and their parents guzzle Gatorade on the couch watching sports or hungrily drink it up after minor physical exertion. Over the years, researchers, physician groups, and exercise experts learned more about sports drinks and now agree that their use, in most cases, is not warranted. With very few exceptions, you don’t need sports drinks to hydrate your body even when you participate in intensely physical sports. Who knew? Drinking water, it turns out, is the best way to fuel athletic performance for most athletes of all ages.
In an effort to get the message out about the high sugar content of Gatorade and other sports drinks, the campaign recently held an all-day, community wide casting call for teens and adults who wanted to be in a Howard County Unsweetened commercial. Almost 100 local residents showed up for the casting call. Everyone who came (most whom were not actors) had an opportunity to participate in two commercials that were filmed on the spot. In one concept, groups of people took a look at nutrition labels and compared Coke and Gatorade. In the other, groups made their own Gatorade using real ingredients from the label.
The campaign ended up with 13 new ads, all unscripted, containing real reactions to what participants read, saw, and made. They are being aired on social media, in digital ads, and on local cable TV. I invite you to take a look at these ads and pay close attention to what Howard County teenagers, their younger siblings, and their parents think about Gatorade and sports drinks now. This past week, Howard County Unsweetened also released an additional new ad challenging sports drink marketing. Times are changing. Spread the word.
About Glenn E. Schneider:
Chief Program Officer, The Horizon Foundation of Howard County
Campaign Director, Howard County Unsweetened
Voices for Healthy Kids Action Center loves to encourage kids and parents to continue to participate in sport activities this summer and year-round. We know how important being physically active is not only for our current health, but how instrumental building physical activity into our lives now can be for our health in years to come. If you’re looking for more ways to get physically active in your community, check out some of our nationwide partners like YMCA and see what summer activities they have near you.
Take action in your community to encourage more physical activity and healthier drink consumption at sporting events. Check out our toolkits for helpful resources here.