Review and Comparison of Sports Drinks: Gatorade, Carb BOOM!, GU Brew, Vitargo, Heed, Cliff Shot

Over the years, I’ve tried more different kinds of sports drinks than I can remember. As a new one comes along, it always has some claims about its perfect blend of electrolytes and carbohydrate types that make it superior to all the others. My experience is that none have ever been as quite as satisfying as Gatorade. I’m always open to trying something new. This year I intentionally experimented with 5 different potential alternatives to Gatorade. There are many other products that I have not tried yet. I would welcome any comments and suggestions regarding other quality sports drinks to try. My goal was to find a more natural replacement for Gatorade.

Time to Leave the Artificial Coloring and Flavoring Behind

Gatorade has always worked for me. I like its taste. And I like that it is satisfying and thirst quenching. What I don’t like is that it is artificially colored and flavored. Sure these artificial flavors and colors may be FDA approved, but unfortunately given the history of the FDA, that does not mean they are safe for consumption. In a quest for finding a product that has no artificial ingredients, I selected for comparison, 5 different products that claim to have no artificial ingredients.

Sports Drinks: Gatorade, Carb BOOM!, GU Brew, Vitargo, Heed, Cliff Shot

Sports Drinks: Gatorade, Carb BOOM!, GU Brew, Vitargo, Heed, Cliff Shot

For the common goal of providing energy (carbohydrates) and electrolytes, there is surprising variation among these 5 products. My interest is not so much in the details of carbohydrate type/amount and electrolyte balance but in the overall subjective impression of taste, satisfaction, stomach emptying, thirst quenching and most importantly how well they work overall during multi hour training or racing efforts.

Long rigorous physical events tend to make stomach issues and taste preferences even more finicky than usual. The last thing I need is gastrointestinal discomfort or some weird taste hanging around in my mouth for hours in addition to the pain of exertion I am already self-imposing.

I’ll give my subjective assessment of each one. Please remember, these are just my impressions and your personal tastes may be totally different. I encourage you to experiment and find what you like and what works for you. I used the dry or powdered form of each product and mixed as suggested on the label.

I am not going to compare prices. Price can vary significantly depending upon where you purchase from. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning; expect to pay upwards of 3 times as much for equivalent amounts of any of these “Natural Products” compared to Gatorade. Considering the main ingredients (variations of sugar) are not all that different than Gatorade it is next to criminal what some of these products cost.

The following table is a quick comparison of my subjective ratings. The ratings are three levels: Poor, OK and Good. The Taste column is descriptive.

 

Product Taste Satisfaction Stomach Emptying Thirst Quenching Overall
Carb BOOM! Stevia After Taste OK Good OK OK
GU Brew Medicine Mineral Taste OK Poor OK Poor
Vitargo (Plane) Mild Starchy OK Poor OK OK
Heed Sticky Drying Chalky after Taste Poor OK Poor Poor
Cliff Shot Too Sweet Good Good OK Good

 

Carb BOOM!

This product is very similar to Gatorade in taste, but it makes a fatal mistake of using the natural sweetener Stevia. For those unfamiliar with Stevia, it leaves a lingering anise (licorice like) aftertaste. I find that it is most unpleasant to carry around the stevia after taste in my mouth for hours during a long endurance effort. Carb BOOM! is not as bad as Heed, but its lingering after taste burden render it a candidate for my avoid list.

Sorry Carbboom Nutrition, your product comes close but you ruined it with Stevia. Why do you need to add a sweetener to a product that is already mostly sugar?

GU Brew

This product tastes a bit like medicine. It must be from some of the electrolyte types, concentrations and blends as it has a pronounced mineral taste. It reminds me of a solution of sodium phosphate or magnesium sulfate (mineral based laxative). Maybe because of all the minerals, GU Brew is also the slowest to dissolve and mix when preparing the drink. Even after an aggressive mixing effort there are mineral solids left on the container bottom that stubbornly refuse to dissolve. GU Brew tends to stay in my stomach while running and slosh around. It seems that the high mineral content pulls even more fluids into my stomach to dilute the minerals – just a theory. Other than the mineral taste, GU Brew’s taste is tolerable and leaves no after taste.

The manufactures need to work on figuring out what in their product gives it is medicinal mineral taste. Find it and remove it and perhaps they would have a better product.

Vitargo

I’ve included Vitargo here as there are some runners sponsored by Vitargo that have been heavily promoting it. It is really not a sports drink intended for use during an endurance event, but there are some people using it that way. Based on research and product claims, it is intended for carbo-loading before events or for carbohydrate replenishing after events. Nevertheless, as have others, I thought I would try it during physical exertion.

If you are using it during an event, take into consideration that it has no electrolytes. But that is easy to remedy with some electrolyte capsules.

I’ve only used the plain unflavored version of Vitargo. The flavored versions are artificially sweetened with Sucralose (chlorinated sucrose). The artificial sweetener Sucralose releases chlorine in the gut. This leads to gastro upset and disruption of healthy gut bacteria balance. These characteristics of Sucralose are negatives in the short term during an endurance event and also long term negatives for gut health.

When using the plain version during long training runs, it works pretty well. It has a very neutral taste and when mixed with plain water tends to make the water a bit thicker and slimier, but it only adds a slight starchy grain taste which is not offensive at all. The problem with using it during a run is that it is a bit of a gut bomb and leaves you with a full stomach feeling. It is slow to digest and empty from the stomach. That is my opinion and may run counter to some of the wild claims about stomach emptying speed for Vitargo.

When it comes to stomach emptying, there has been decades of research of what mixture of carbohydrates, type and concentration empties the stomach fastest. Most research points to a simple 7% to 15% solution of a mixture of sucrose and glucose (dextrose) as being the best way to deliver the most calories in the shortest time with the least stomach distress. It is puzzling why sports drink manufactures don’t conform to this as research shows other forms of carbohydrates to be inferior.

Heed

Sorry Hammer Nutrition, but I just do not like Heed. I’ve tried all the different flavors and some are less offensive than others, but they all are bad. Heed leaves me with this sticky dry cotton mouth thirsty feeling. After drinking Heed, I find myself in search of just plain water to get rid of the cotton mouth and thirsty feeling. Perhaps that is a good thing because it stokes your thirst and you drink more. But that is not the purpose of a sports drink and counter intended.

The lingering thirst, bad after taste (Heed like Carb BOOM! suffers from stevia after taste) and bloated feeling I got from Heed, negative impacted my workouts. I avoid using Heed when physical performance counts.

Cliff Shot

This product actually tastes good. It comes across as a bit sweeter than Gatorade and has a bit more of an aftertaste than Gatorade, but not to the point where it interferes with a run. Consequently, this is the product that I will be using for the foreseeable future – until something better comes along. For now this is my natural Gatorade replacement.

Ridge Run Considerations and Plans

In the past, I have carried a bottle with plain water (no sports drink) and refilled at aid stations with plain water. I’ve supplemented with a bit of Gatorade available in cups from aid stations. For calories, I have carried a gel flask with Hammer Gel. I preferred plain, but Hammer Nutrition discontinued plain so lately I have used vanilla. I find that when I take a swig from the gel flask, I immediately feel woozy and light headed. It is as if all the blood rushes to my stomach to deal with the ingestion of gel. Other than the poor initial reaction to gulps of Gel, this strategy of water and Gel has worked well for me.

This year I will try to limit my ingestion of Gel. I will start out with a water bottle filled with Cliff Shot sports drink solution. I will also carry a small container of Cliff Shot still in powder form to mix when I refill my bottle with water at aid stations. I will carry a small gel flask to supplement my fuel needs if I start feeling like I need more calories than I am getting just from the Cliff Shot sports drink. We will soon see how this strategy works!

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About Bridger Ridge Run

The Bridger Ridge Run blog is an information portal for all those seeking to learn more about the Bridger Ridge Run event held every second Saturday of August in Bozeman Montana. This blog contains notifications about important registration dates and deadlines, history of the event, training advice and other stories and entertaining tidbits of information about the Bridger Ridge Run.
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4 Responses to Review and Comparison of Sports Drinks: Gatorade, Carb BOOM!, GU Brew, Vitargo, Heed, Cliff Shot

  1. Tara says:

    I helped carefully craft the CLIF SHOT drink and I can tell you we have something new you will like if the sweetness has got you down. The carb blend is important but if it doesn’t taste good enough to drink…well….it won’t get past the first point of digestion very well – that is the mouth.

  2. Jackie says:

    I really like the Exercise hydration Mix from Skratch Labs. http://www.skratchlabs.com
    They have a nice mild flavor and do not leave that stickly, sugary feeling of some sports drinks.

    • Thanks for the comment and suggestion.

      The ingredients of the Exercise Hydration Mix do look good – simple and pure and conforming to the sucrose glucose blend that research indicates is absorbed the quickest.

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