Ask SciMoms: Are sports drinks safe for kids?

Recently, a mom emailed us with some questions about food dyes and sports drinks after she was told to send her preschooler to his mostly outdoor school with a drink with electrolytes. She sent them with the red sports drink which led the school director to tell this mom that the red dye was probably causing some bad behavior and hyperactivity. She asked us “are sports drinks safe for kids”?

This raised a couple of questions that I decided to look into.

Are sports drinks recommended for kids?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has specifically stated that kids rarely need sports drinks and should not consume energy drinks. The main points of the AAP report from 2011 are:

  • Energy drinks and sports drinks are different. Energy drinks contain excessive amounts of caffeine and other stimulants, while sports drinks are meant to replace water and electrolytes lost during excessive exercise and do not typically contain caffeine. (For more information on the safety of caffeine for children, please see this post)
  • Energy drinks are never appropriate for children.
  • Sports drinks contain a high level of sugar. AAP recommends that they should be avoided or restricted. As with all sugary beverages, consumption of sports drinks can increase the risk of being overweight and can lead to dental problems.
  • Sports drinks should only be used in combination with water during prolonged, vigorous physical activity and are of limited utility for children.
  • Water should be the primary source of hydration for children and teenagers.
bottles of colored sports drinks

Are food dyes linked to hyperactivity or bad behavior?

Independent reviews by both the FDA and European Food Safety Authority have found that existing studies do not support a link between food dyes and behavior.

In 2011, the FDA Food Advisory Committee met to discuss the association of food colorings and other additives with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The neurotoxicology analysis concluded that artificial food colors are not neurotoxic in children and do not cause ADHD, but that there may be a predisposition for food intolerance or hypersensitivity in certain children (regardless of whether they are ADHD or not). The committee concluded that elimination diets are not recommended to universally treat hyperactivity, about half of the committee favored adding information about these additives to labels, and they recommended further study. 

As with any allergy or sensitivity, including this information on labels helps parents to avoid food dyes if they want and to see if this has an effect on behavior in their child. However, it can be difficult to isolate effects in a single person, especially if removing the food dyes causes a concurrent shift in diet. Often, removing food dyes leads to higher consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and reduced consumption of sugary snack foods and any benefit could be due to the improved diet rather than the removal of food dyes themselves.

On some level, if you remove food dyes and improve their diet as a result, and they do better, does it really matter to you as an individual if it was the dye or the diet change? However, this question is very important at a population and regulatory level.

A 2009 overview of dietary issues in ADHD from the Harvard Mental Health Letter concludes:

“A diet or dietary supplement that eases the symptoms of ADHD would be a boon for anyone living with this disruptive disorder. So far, though, the evidence provides only limited support for restrictive diets, avoiding preservatives or artificial food colorings, consuming more omega-3 fats, or taking specific vitamins or minerals.

For now, the consensus on a sensible approach to nutrition for children with ADHD is the same recommended for all children: eat a diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthful unsaturated fats, and good sources of protein; go easy on unhealthy saturated and trans fats, rapidly digested carbohydrates, and fast food; and balanced healthy eating with plenty of physical activity.

A healthful diet may reduce symptoms of ADHD by reducing exposure to artificial colors and additives and improving intake of omega-3 fats and micronutrients. But it certainly will improve overall health and nutrition, and set the stage for a lifetime of good health.”