The findings have led the UK's governing body for sport and exercise medicine to call for tighter regulation on price, availability and marketing of sports drinks to children, “especially surrounding the school area”, to protect overall and dental health.
President of the body, Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine (FSEM) UK, Dr Paul Jackson, said: “The proportion of children in this study who consume high carbohydrate drinks, which are designed for sport, in a recreational non-sporting context is of concern.
“Sports drinks are intended for athletes taking part in endurance and intense sporting events, they are also connected with tooth decay in athletes and should be used following the advice of dental and healthcare teams dedicated to looking after athletes. Water or milk is sufficient enough to hydrate active children, high sugar sports drinks are unnecessary for children and most adults.”
The Cardiff University researchers quizzed 160 children aged 12–14 from four schools in South Wales about their sports drink habits.
Published in British Dental Journal, the results showed 89.4% drink the products, and half do so at least twice a week.
Sports drinks like Lucozade Sport – which was the most popular brand among the young teens – are isotonic drinks formulated to provide added carbohydrates and electrolytes to help hydration and maintain performance during “prolonged endurance exercise”, and have a calorie count comparable to a can of Coke.
Typical values of 500 ml bottle of Lucozade Sport:
Energy 590 kJ (140 kcal), Fat 0 g, Saturates 0 g, Carbohydrate 32.0 g, Sugars 18.0 g, Fibre 0 g, Protein <0.1 g, Salt 0.63 g
Yet 90% of the teenagers said they drank them for the "nice taste" and only 18% because of the perceived performance enhancing effect.
More boys in the self-complete questionnaires claimed to drink them during physical activity compared to girls, at 77.9% and 48.6%, respectively.
Meanwhile girls were slightly more likely to drink them socially than boys, at 51% and 48.5%, respectively.
“Sports drinks intended to improve performance and hydrate athletes taking part in endurance sport are being marketed to children, for whom these products are not intended. Popularity among children has grown exponentially,” the researchers wrote.
“Worryingly they consume them socially, as well as during physical activity. Sports drinks are high in sugar and are acidic. Product marketing ignores the potential harmful effects of dental caries and erosion.”
The researchers urged dental health professionals to “be aware” of the popularity of these products with children when giving health advice or designing health promotion initiatives.
‘Sports drinks are rarely a healthy choice’
Commenting on the findings in a statement to press, Russ Ladwa, chair of the British Dental Association's Health and Science Committee, said these drinks were “laden” with acids and sugars, and “could be behind the decay problems we’re now seeing among top footballers”.
Last November a study into the dental health of 187 professional football players in the UK found nearly four out of ten had active tooth decay, while one in 20 had irreversible gum disease.
The study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed nearly two thirds (64%) drank sports drinks at least three times a week, yet the researchers said the association between sports drinks and dental erosion remained unclear.
Ladwa added: “The rise of sports drinks as just another soft drink option among children is a real cause for concern, and both parents and government must take note.”
She said sports drinks were “rarely a healthy choice”, and marketing them to the general population and young people in particular was “grossly irresponsible”.
“Elite athletes might have reason to use them, but for almost everyone else they represent a real risk to both their oral and their general health.”
A spokesperson for Lucozade Ribena Suntory (LRS) said Lucozade Sport was "designed, advertised and marketed" to those doing exercise for longer than 60 minutes where fuel and hydration support is needed.
It added that a ‘Lite’ version with less carbohydrate, i.e. less sugar, was also available for those doing shorter, lighter exercise.
However it rejected the notion that the drinks were only for elite athletes.
"Sports drinks are not just limited to elite athletes and form an important aspect of any exercise regime, especially when performance is key," the company said.
A recent report from the European Commission investigating the need, if any, for specific regulatory provisions for sports nutrition products noted that the sector was increasingly mainstream in its appeal.
“There are clear indications that sport has become mainstream in the general population. Consequently, people carrying out sports activity can hardly be characterised as a specific vulnerable group of consumers but rather as a target group of the general population who is protected at an appropriate level by horizontal legislation,” the Commission concluded in its much-anticipated report.
“From this analysis, it can be concluded that there is no necessity for specific provisions for food intended for sportspeople.”
In the UK, news of a sugar tax - set to be levied in 2018 against drinks containing over 5 mg of sugar per 100 ml - sparked the creation of a new industry lobby group, Sports Drinks Britain (SDB), last week.
SDB is seeking exemption from the tax, which was prompted by record obesity rates.
The group was unable to respond to our request for comment for this article because it has not been officially formed yet.
However Lucozade Ribena Suntory (LRS) said it agreed with the government that current levels of obesity were too high and that "action needs to be taken by all of us to tackle this highly complex issue to which there is no simple solution".
A spokesperson said the company had been working to reduce calories in its products and launch lower calorie options.
Last year it announced it would reduce calories by 20% per 100 ml across its portfolio within ten years through reformulation with sweeteners and smaller portion sizes.
Source: British Dental Journal
Published online ahead of print, doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2016.449
“A survey of sports drinks consumption among adolescents”
Source: D. Broughton, R. M. Fairchild and M. Z. Morgan