Sports drinks have long been criticized by health advocates who claim, for most people, water is better than a sugary, flavoured drink for hydration when exercising.
Now, sports drink giant Gatorade is rolling out a certified organic version of its drink in the U.S. and will look at bringing the product to Canada.
It's just the latest example of a marketing trend to lure consumers with health claims, say critics.
"There's a perception in the marketplace that organic equals healthy," says Greg Wells, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto.
But, unless you tackle the core ingredients that are problematic in a product, it will remain an unhealthy choice, he warns. Organic Gatorade is still high in sugar — 29 grams per 16.9 ounce bottle.
"It's brilliant marketing," says Wells about the new offering. "They're associating themselves with healthier options, even if, at its core, the fundamental ingredient is still extremely unhealthy." He describes the organic version as "the devil in disguise."
Organic fuel for athletes?
Gatorade, which is owned by PepsiCo, says it introduced an organic option to meet the needs of its customers.
"There has been a growing demand in the marketplace for organic certified foods and beverages and that includes what we're hearing from some of our athletes," said Gatorade's senior vice-president Brett O'Brien in an email to CBC News.
In a handout for media, Gatorade boasts that its new drink — called G Organic — contains just seven ingredients. They're also easy to pronounce: stuff like organic natural flavour, sea salt and organic cane sugar.
The handout offers detailed information about G Organic, but excludes the sugar content. CBC News had to inquire to get the listed amount of 29 grams.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation in recent years has encouraged Canadians to limit their intake of added sugars to less than 10 per cent of their total daily calories — that translates to about 48 grams for a typical adult. A bottle of organic Gatorade provides more than half the recommended sugar limit per day.
Remember how low-fat didn't work
Remember the low-fat craze? The one that convinced us we could overindulge in fat-free cookies or flavoured frozen yogurt because we got the impression they were somehow good for us?
Turns out those foods often contained more sugar to ensure they were still tasty. Consequently, the low-fat craze helped make us fatter.
We finally wised up about low-fat advertising. But marketers are constantly finding new ways to dress up food products to give them an aura of health.
"There's just so many of those stories where they just try to change a little bit," says Jean-Philippe Chaput, pediatrics professor at the University of Ottawa. "They add vitamin D or vitamin C. Now it's magic, it's good."
McDonald's recently launched an expensive TV ad campaign to promote its new preservative-free Chicken McNuggets. The commercials say, "We all want what's best for our kids."
But, preservatives or no preservatives, health advocates point out that deep-fried and salted chicken pieces remain an unhealthy choice.
When it comes to organic Gatorade, both Wells and Chaput say, whether it's regular sugar or the organic cane version, sugar in excess amounts is unhealthy.
When asked about the criticisms, Gatorade's O'Brien responded that "G Organic helps athletes achieve peak performance during training and competition." He explains the sports drink does this by providing hydration, energy from organic cane sugar, and electrolytes.
Gatorade drinks also contain sodium and potassium to help replace electrolytes lost during exercise.
But Wells says 99.9 per cent of the population doesn't exercise hard enough to require the extra boost of sugar and sodium.
He says Gatorade could be useful for elite athletes training in hot weather for longer than 90 minutes. And, in those cases, the organic drink would be a better choice than the regular version.
But Wells adds that, for the rest of us, organic or non-organic, "there's no need for it." Instead, he's a fan of water.
Don't trust the hype
The marketplace is now serving up an ever-growing plethora of food products that are marketed as having some kind of health advantage.
Chaput cites as an example potato chips advertised as containing no cholesterol. "There's no cholesterol in chips anyway. But they just add that so you think it's healthy."
The problem with this type of marketing is not only that people might be blinded by a small health benefit, but they also could end up overindulging.
Chaput says studies have shown that people tend to eat more when they think a food is good for you — such as fat free cookies during the low-fat craze.
"In the end, it's more bad [for you] because you can gain weight with the claim that it's supposed to be healthy."
Wells says the strategic labelling of food products is leading to confusion amongst consumers "who are trying to make good decisions."
So, next time you're pondering a food product that includes buzzwords associated with health, take some extra time to investigate exactly what you're about to consume.
Chaput says one fail-safe measure is to eat food that we know is good for us, no matter what it does or doesn't contain. "The best is real food and to cook it ourselves."