Schools Selling Out: Free Gatorade for Students

Gatorade in Schools

My husband wishes I would learn to stay quiet…at least until I get tenure at my high school teaching job.

See, I have a tendency to rock the boat about issues that I am passionate about (remember the pie-eating-contest-fiasco from a few years ago?).  This time around, I had a hard time keeping my trap shut when I heard that Gatorade reps would be on our high school campus handing out free samples to our students during G-week.

When I tried to find out how this came to pass, I got the run-around, with several people shunting the responsibility to others.  One coach finally admitted that Gatorade called to offer free “nutrition classes” for our athletes.

I was suspicious.  Gatorade offering nutrition classes?  I would no sooner take a class on healthy eating from McDonald’s.  But I had some students do some investigating so that we could learn what these classes would entail.  When a student called Gatorade on my behalf, they said that they do not offer any such classes, and that “it might be something special that your sales rep came up with on his own.”  Clever guy.  It’s hard to imagine that his sales wouldn’t increase after he shares his products on a campus teeming with over 1,000 thirsty students.  Needless to say, no nutrition workshop or teaching was offered…unless you call advertising “teaching.”  Students were, however, encouraged to drink the pre-game formula, the during-the-game-formula AND the replenisher after the game is over.  Woah – 3x the buying power.  And I thought ONE product is all we needed. I’ll say it again – clever guy.

Bringing gatorade to coaches

When one student asked me “what I have against Gatorade,” I told him that we have a California state education code that is intended to protect students and to ensure that they are not offered “non-nutritious” items at school.  The majority of the samples being served exceeded the legal limits on sugar, sodium and/or potassium.

Never one to shy away from a teachable moment, we talked about artificial colors and sweeteners and the benefits of eating food that grows on plants, and not foods made in plants (thanks, Michael Pollan!).  There is now a joke in class about my enthusiasm for coconut water, a natural source of electrolytes, as opposed to the colorful chemical concoctions that were being handed out on campus.  When I asked a colleague who runs marathons about her favorite sports drink, she agreed that coconut water was ideal because it was “real” and helped her to recover quickly after a long workout.

Their presence on campus also raises ethical issues about where to draw the line between business and education.  I understand that the athletic department needs funding for equipment, transportation, coaches etc.  However, they should not be selling out or trying to get sponsorships from companies that don’t comply with the law.  Students and athletes require exemplary nutrition – and chemically formulated compounds hardly qualify.

What’s really going on?

Every 4 grams of sugar in your beverages = 1 teaspoon.  We are an educational institution first and foremost.  If we allow sugary beverages to be handed out on campus, it looks like we endorse the consumption of beverages that contain up to 10 spoonfuls of sugar.  But heck – elite athletes claim that sports drinks have hydration benefits, so it must be true, right?   Gatorade has its own institute to conduct and publish research and to educate sports health professionals and athletes on sports nutrition and exercise science. “Perhaps one of Gatorade Sports Science Institute’s greatest successes was to undermine the idea that the body has a perfectly good homeostatic mechanism for detecting and responding to dehydration—thirst.”  It’s no wonder that an analysis by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that over a quarter of American parents believe that sports drinks are healthy for children. Too bad they aren’t taking my biology class!

Gatorade samples

People have been so brainwashed by marketing campaigns about what they “need“ that they may ignore what their bodies REQUIRE from a nutritional standpoint.  Younger children have more body surface area than adults, and so they can become more easily dehydrated during an equivalent workout.  Need a rule of thumb?

Try this: Salt replenishment may be necessary for younger children after a 60 minute-long strenuous workout, and for adults after 90 minutes.  Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to drink your sodium!

Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition suggests that athletes eat a handful of whole grain salted pretzels or crackers, eat some orange slices, and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and replace salts and water lost through sweat.

When I told my friend Susannah, a nutritionist and school-lunch-reform colleague, about G-week, she rolled her eyes.  Like me, she promotes nutrition from real food.  She says, “athletes are the ONLY ones who MAY benefit from drinking sports drinks, and even then, it’s not the best way to hydrate and replenish electrolytes.”   She also turned me on to this interesting article, The Truth about Sports Drinks, which I highly recommend.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending: I invited Miguel Villareal, our food service director, to campus to take a gander at G-week.  He met with our principal, and after discussing the state education code and what is best for our students, they agreed that Gatorade would not be welcomed back on campus.

About the Author

the-whole-family-cookbookMichelle Stern is a former high school biology teacher and founder of What’s Cooking with Kids, a certified green cooking school for children in the SF Bay Area. She is the author of The Whole Family Cookbook, and was invited to the White House to be a part of the launch of Michelle Obama’s Chef’s Move to Schools Program. With sixteen years of combined teaching experience, Michelle is uniquely qualified to share strategies for parents, teachers, and homeschoolers for using healthy cooking as a teaching tool. You can follow Michelle on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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October 26, 2012 9:02 pm

Thank you! As a parent I am so grateful to you. My children and I talk about making healthy choices in what we eat and drink, but sometimes it feels like an uphill battle when they go to school and the teacher is handing out candy as rewards and the PTA is selling ice cream and nachos for a fundraiser every Friday. So it’s great to hear that you’re helping our kids stay healthy.

Michelle (What's Cooking with Kids)
October 30, 2012 2:41 pm
Reply to  Greenstrivings

It drives me crazy when they sell junk at school or give it as prizes. What ever happened to a bonus of extra playtime outside? Or a spontaneous dance party?

October 26, 2012 2:29 pm

Way to go! Not only is it a victory against unnecessary marketing in schools, but a victory over “frankenfoods” disguised as beneficial or healthy additions to an active lifestyle. Good for you for speaking up as there are so many better options for kids (I am a coconut water convert!). Still, I do keep a bottle of Gatorade in the pantry as an emergency in case I get the stomach flu- do you think they may want my testimonial?

Michelle (What's Cooking with Kids)
October 30, 2012 2:40 pm
Reply to  Jackie

That is so funny!

October 26, 2012 2:00 pm

I liked this article – I talk to my daughter about these drinks all the time. the one thing I did not see you mention at all about Gatorade or Powerade, or any of these other sports drinks was that there is bromenated vegetable oil as one of the ingredients in all of these “sports drinks”. I got my daughter to quit drinking them and will never ask for them again, by putting some vegetable oil on a spoon and telling her to “drink it”. She looked at me like I was crazy, then I told her that’s what you drink when you drink those. Needless to say, she goes for water now all the time.

October 26, 2012 1:27 pm

I just started being a mom-with-a-kid-in-public school. I’m constantly horrified. But I’m learning that it’s okay to open my mouth. Most parents and teachers I talk with also want healthier schools, but are unsure how to start. Thanks for your great post.

October 26, 2012 10:07 am

I LOVE this site. Thanks for posting this!

My husband looooooves Gatorade. He is not an athlete – neither of us work out at all. But he wants to lose weight and thinks Gatorade will help him so he’s replacing his pop with Gatorade!! Maybe Gatorade is a teensy bit better than pop, but I doubt it esp. b/c it gives you a false sense of healthiness. I say DRINK WATER and he doesn’t listen.

October 28, 2012 8:45 pm
Reply to  bri

I am not sure gatorade is “healthier” than soda… I was able to finally get my parents to kick their soda habit by replacing it with no calorie seltzer water and adding a splash of orange juice or lemon juice for added flavor.

Michelle (What's Cooking with Kids)
October 30, 2012 2:39 pm
Reply to  bri

Unfortunately, he is replacing sugar with more sugar! Maybe he can find satisfaction with sparkling water with a little juice splashed in? You are right – it is NOT healthy. As long as there are artificial colors and ingredients he can’t pronounce, it is not a healthy choice. Thanks for encouraging him, though – it can be a long battle…

October 26, 2012 9:24 am

Michelle, I applaud your success in this venture. I am a mother too. When I think of my teenager’s mind being degraded by the actions of educational advocates (whom he has been taught by me to admire the opinions of), it makes my blood boil.

Thank you for being willing to speak on behalf of our children to protect them from the mediocre minds of who don’t think of the ramifications of their actions.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Albert Einstein

October 26, 2012 8:45 am

What a great article! I am continuously fighting the Gatorade battle in my son’s baseball dugout. Why do people look at me like I am a complete moron for not knowing that our little athletes “NEED” Gatorade or they may wither away and die?!?

Michelle (What's Cooking with Kids)
October 30, 2012 2:37 pm
Reply to  ellen

The sports drink companies have done their jobs well! It is unfortunate that the dollar often reigns over common sense.

sunny stewart
sunny stewart
October 26, 2012 8:42 am

Congrats. Thank you for standing up for our kids. Most kids (including my own) will not always make the best choices left to their own.
When I noticed soda machines in our Jr High, I was so upset that I questioned the reasoning behind that poor decision.I watched kids throw away apples and drop $ in for 16 oz of poison. Those machines were unplugged and moved to the teachers lounge- not much better, but a consolation.
It reminds me of (a funny movie) “Idiocracy” where the future inhabitants on earth became so stupid, they believed that even plants needed electrolytes! oh the power of advertising.

October 26, 2012 8:27 am

Bravo, Michelle! I wish more people would speak up like you do. Great job!

Michelle (What's Cooking with Kids)
October 26, 2012 9:27 am
Reply to  Midge

I was pretty nervous – but thank goodness, my school district praised me for raising the issue instead of reprimanding me for making them look bad 🙂 I think they see it as progress, which was a huge relief.

October 26, 2012 8:20 am

Way to go!! I am a Zumba addict, and I notice SO MANY of my Zumba friends drink Gatorade – every single time! Yes, we do sweat a lot, and I usually am hungry after, but I’d much rather drink bottle after bottle of water and consume real nutrition than drink sugar-filled juices. I wish I’d had you as a bio teacher 🙂

Michelle (What's Cooking with Kids)
October 26, 2012 9:26 am
Reply to  Christina

Aww shucks 🙂 It certainly makes my job nicer when I have students who are eager to learn. It does blow my mind to see how counterintuitive drinks like this are – especially for people who appear to be “fit minded”.