Electrolytes and Sugar(s): Stuff You Need To Know

sports-drinkAlthough we are admonished not to mix electrolytes with sugars, we do it anyway. Most of the time it’s isn’t “we”, the consumer; it’s “we”, the marketer. The soda industry wouldn’t sell much product if it weren’t sweet. Plain carbonated lemon juice, cola syrup or turkey gravy just wouldn’t cut it. Even Ragu contains sugar, but thank goodness it isn’t fizzy. Sugar has no place in an electrolyte replacement beverage.

A few electrolyte drinks aimed at professional athletes contain some kind of sugar. The only purpose served by the sweetener is to add palatability. It does absolutely nothing—nada, zilch, zero—for bioavailability and efficacy of the electrolyte minerals. But it sure turns the coach into fly food after a win.

Tests at the University of Nebraska found that fructose increases fecal excretion of minerals, mostly iron and magnesium, but other electrolyte balances are likewise negatively affected (Ivatur, 1986). Sucrose is not without guilt. Well, now, magnesium is an electrolyte, which is supposed to be accompanied by sodium, potassium, chloride and calcium, all of them working to initiate and to inhibit a muscle contraction. In the absence of such contractions you couldn’t pick up the ten dollars your brother owes you. Even more dramatic, your heart might not run on all its cylinders.

Calling sugar a carbohydrate on a food ingredient label is misleading, so labeling guidelines now call it what it is…sugar. Itself, sugar arrests the secretion of stomach acid so that processing of nutrients, including the electrolyte minerals, is stymied. Creating acid in the intestine, however, sugar can lower pH by as much as one or two units, and being logarithmic, represent a tenfold or twentyfold difference in acidity (Rosen, 1965) (Stephan, 1943). Sugar even increases the acidity that tumors find so hospitable to their growth and development (DiPette, 1986).

Many of us are deficient in magnesium, partly because of sugar consumption. Beverage choices are paramount in this affliction (Ballew, 2000), and sports drinks containing sugar elevate insulin as part of the metabolic process, thus increasing the renal excretion of magnesium (Djurhuus, 1995, 2000) and calcium (Hodgkinson, 1965).

Mineral absorption occurs at the juncture of the duodenum and the jejunum. Sugar increases an acidic environment at that point, where it interferes with the alkalinity that minerals enjoy for absorption. The acidity might help the utilization of sugar, but does little for the electrolytes (Daniel, 1986). Major uptake of potassium and sodium occurs at pH of 8.0, with the others close behind. Electrolytes quite possibly are still absorbed at less-than-ideal pH, but why take a chance?


Carol Ballew, PhD; Sarah Kuester, MS, RD; Cathleen Gillespie
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Acidification in the rat proximal jejunum.
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S. Djurhuus
Hyperglycaemia enhances renal magnesium excretion in Type 1 diabetic patients
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*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.

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