Author: Dr. Daniel Spaulding, PT, DPT, CSCS
When you go shopping for electrolyte drinks without sugar, you’re probably not going to like what you find — if you find anything at all. Sure, your local grocery store has some drink options with bold words like “Thirst Quencher” or “Low Sugar,” but your skepticism tells you these may not be ideal options. (That is if the neon-colored liquid didn't give it away).
When you take a hard look at the nutrition facts label, it’s unusual to find a good balance of electrolytes or low sugar content. Chances are it’s a solution of mostly sugar — or artificial sweetener — and an insignificant amount of sodium and potassium (and rarely all of the other major electrolytes).
Before going in-depth on electrolytes, we need to preface this article with our thoughts on sugar.
Specifically, sugar in drinks.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are one of the main sources of added sugars in the average American’s diet — making up roughly 46% of daily added sugars. And the health risks associated with high sugar intake far outweigh any benefits.
In fact, research suggests that choosing the immediately available, sugary option even only once a day puts you at a higher risk for several chronic diseases and disorders.
In our guide to finding electrolyte drinks without sugar, we’ll discuss some key points and several misconceptions about electrolytes, sugar, and hydration.
Why Do Electrolytes Matter?
Electrolytes are life-sustaining minerals consumed as food and fluids. They include sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonates — with the first three being the most significant. Note that sodium chloride, or salt, is simply a 1:1 ratio of two essential electrolytes, so we don’t incorrectly use sodium and salt interchangeably.
Assuming a healthy diet and regular exercise, electrolytes support a variety of bodily functions — proper fluid retention, nervous system function, acid/base (pH) regulation, and more. And if you’re on a keto diet, it becomes increasingly important to get the right balance of electrolytes.
But to give you a deeper understanding of why electrolytes matter for your health, we’ll give a quick overview of each electrolyte.
A Basic Overview of Electrolytes
So, let’s skim over the roles of electrolytes:
(Don’t worry, we’ll keep it simple).
- Sodium. Your body uses sodium to support two vital functions: electrical signals and regulating your overall hydration. Without diving too deep into the science, these functions work because of the positive charge found in sodium — Na+. Although most of your sodium comes in the form of sodium chloride — aka salt — your body assigns a unique role to each charged particle.
- Potassium. In a proper balance with sodium intake, potassium is used to support your fluid retention and blood volume. However, the sodium-potassium pump is a complex function with multiple functions. It manages blood pressure, prevents kidney stones, and balances overall water retention.
- Chloride. This highly abundant electrolyte plays an important role in maintaining proper hydration, supporting digestion, and preventing metabolic acidosis or alkalosis. Along with sodium and potassium, chloride is a major element for total hydration.
- Magnesium. With several key functions, magnesium is often forgotten or supplemented with pills. It supports muscle and nerve function, protein synthesis, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation. Additionally, research suggests it supports bone development and could be a key element in preventing osteoporosis.
- Calcium. No, this isn’t all about dairy and bone health — although it’s one benefit. Calcium supports healthy blood clotting, muscle activity, and other nervous system functions. And fun fact, your bones literally store calcium for your body and can release it when needed — although your body cannot synthesize calcium.
- Phosphate. Found in phosphate ions, the phosphorus mineral generally serves to support your bones, teeth, nervous system, and muscles. Phosphate and calcium have a unique relationship pertaining to neuromuscular function — but for now, just know it’s important.
- Bicarbonates. Bicarbonates help to reach homeostasis — or balance — in your body’s pH level. Unlike some other electrolytes, bicarbonates are a byproduct of your metabolism. By excreting and reabsorbing bicarbonate, your kidneys can regulate the acidity of your body.
You’ll notice how many of these electrolytes have overlapping functions — fluid retention, neuromuscular activity, and other moderating responsibilities. That’s why they’re often marketed on packaging simply as “Electrolytes.” But remember, the nutrition label is everything.
But what happens if you have a poor diet and lack a major electrolyte?
You might be surprised by what happens.
Signs & Symptoms of Electrolyte Deficiencies
Now, we’ve already talked about what electrolytes do. So to keep things concise, let’s look at what a deficiency in the most common electrolyte — sodium — can lead to:
Assuming regular fluid intake, lower concentrations of sodium can lead to hyponatremia — which may result in nausea, fatigue, dehydration, muscle spasms, and even seizures in more severe cases. The at-home remedy for mild, diet-related hyponatremia is simple: rest and consume more sodium. This could be saltines, a homemade electrolyte drink, or another source of sodium.
It’s not uncommon for thru-hikers and long-distance runners to encounter hyponatremia if they’re consistently taking in more water than sodium. The key is to strike a balance between fluid intake and electrolytes to maximize fluid retention.
And it’s not uncommon for a Western diet to contain too much sodium. So consider talking to your doctor or using government resources to understand what your Daily Value should look like.
But what are the best sources of healthy electrolytes?
Where Do You Get Your Electrolytes?
When you’re trying to avoid sugars for your health or other dietary reasons, it’s important to know where you can find the healthiest sources of electrolytes.
Whole wheat bread, grains, potatoes, white meat, fish, and kosher salt are excellent sources of sodium chloride. And if you’re trying to cut carbs, you can look to some cheeses, nuts, and broth. For potassium, look into green and black tea, citrus, bananas, leafy greens, avocado, and alternative milk. There’s a fair amount of overlap between potassium and sodium, but always check your calorie counting app or the nutrition facts label!
Calcium and magnesium are found in unsweetened tea, fruits, vegetables, legumes, some dairy, and some condiments. Although some supplements claim to be suitable for meeting these needs, all-natural options are far superior in bioavailability and safety.
But if supplements are your preferred choice, be sure to check a trusted resource like Labdoor.
How Do Electrolytes Affect Your Performance?
In previous blogs, we’ve talked about how electrolytes help you to perform and maintain focus. But in summary, it’s the improved muscle function, heart activity, and hydration from proper electrolyte intake that improves your performance.
You may be thinking, “But some people work out before eating. How does that affect their workout?” And that’s a huge topic to talk about, but it really comes down to what goes in and what goes out.
With a whole food diet and adequate water intake, a 5 a.m. workout doesn’t take as much of a toll on your body as you may think — although getting up so early in the morning could make your morning routine a pain of its own.
Electrolyte drinks without sugar are excellent for kickstarting your workout for any time of the day. But why skip the sugar? Aren’t simple carbohydrates a quick source of energy?
Well, it turns out that sugary drinks aren’t as innocent as they seem.
The Dark Truth About Sugary Drinks
Did you know the CDC recommends that added sugars make up less than 10% of an adult’s daily caloric intake? Then this shouldn’t sound good to you:
The average American adult consumes roughly 17% of their daily calories with added sugar.
That’s nearly 22 teaspoons of sugar — or almost a half cup if you’re a baker.
And the main source of that added sugar? Sugar-sweetened beverages.
Energy, fruit, and soft drinks are the main source of added sugars in an American’s diet. And the evidence is pointing to these added sugars having a direct relationship to the development of several chronic diseases.
Obesity, Chronic Diseases, and Added Sugar Consumption
Increased consumption of added sugars can lead to a higher risk of obesity and other chronic diseases associated with rapid, unmonitored weight gain.
By all means, we are not trying to shame weight gain — there are several misconceptions about obesity that ought to be considered in any discussion. However, we do want to warn our community about how added sugars can negatively affect your health.
As of January 2022, over 30% of the global population is overweight or obese — that’s 2.1 billion people. And although it isn’t guaranteed, the medical issues stemming from excessive body fat may include:
- Cardiovascular disease. This is a broad, chronic disease that may affect multiple areas of a person’s life. Poor sleep, high blood pressure, increased risk of a heart attack or heart failure, and other chronic diseases may all be attributed to poor cardiovascular health. Proper exercise and a whole foods diet help to prevent this disease and the other following conditions.
- Type 2 Diabetes. This condition is most commonly developed in adulthood. It results in high blood sugar levels due to the body’s inability to process and use sugar.
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Covering multiple liver conditions, NAFLD affects people who abstain or drink very little alcohol. Affecting one-quarter of the U.S. population, it is the most common form of chronic liver disease that can be linked to obesity.
- Gout. Gout is an inflammatory arthritis that comes in waves, known as flares. Because belly fat produces inflammatory chemicals, obesity heightens your risk for developing gout.
- Cancer. Obesity is linked with a higher risk of developing 13 kinds of cancer. Changes in inflammatory chemical release, hormones, growth factors, and other metabolic processes affected by obesity can lead to the development of cancers.
That said, we aren’t trying to scare you away from sugar. Rather, we want you to consider the benefits of cutting sugar out of your diet — especially from energy, sport, and other electrolyte drinks.
Is All Sugar Bad Sugar?
In short, no, sugar itself is not, “bad.” However, context is key. When talking about sugar consumption, it is important to consider factors such as application and dosage. As mentioned above, added sugar should comprise roughly no more than 10% of your total daily caloric intake. For example, in a 2,000 calorie diet, there should be an upper limit of 200 calories, or 50 g from added sugar. The remainder of carbohydrate sources, ideally, should come from whole-food sources such as whole grains, lentils, fruits, and vegetables. So, not all sugar is bad sugar. In fact, sugar can be used to support proper hydration by carrying sodium through your gut and into your bloodstream for transportation. Although sugar isn’t required for this process, moderate amounts of sugar support a healthy brain. That being said, the most advantageous time to consume should would be around exercise, ideally after a workout and primarily after sessions lasting longer than 60 minutes at a moderate-to-high intensity. Following a light exercise session shorter than 60 minutes, an individual would be fine with using a sugar-free electrolyte drink and waiting until their next well-balanced meal to refuel.
So don’t avoid all sugars, but do look for ways to cut added sugars from your diet and consider the timing, or application, in which you consume sugar. Whether it’s a sugar-sweetened beverage, candy, or your favorite snack, there are always a few ways to make huge improvements to your diet.
What Is Hydration?
Now that you reviewed electrolytes, sugars, and other key statistics, we can answer this question.
In our terms, hydration is the process of obtaining an optimal fluid balance through the consumption of water, assuming an optimal distribution of electrolytes.
It really isn’t a complicated subject, but it’s essential to understand the principles behind hydration itself before you understand what to look for in a sugar-free drink.
But where do you look to buy electrolyte drinks without sugar? We’ve got some suggestions.
Sugar-Free Alternatives for Hydration
Now, we’ll give you a recipe recommendation and one of our own:
Inspiration for an At-Home Electrolyte Drink
Making your own electrolyte drink without sugar is easy, especially if you already have all of the ingredients at home: (1 serving)
- 32 oz of water
- ¼ teaspoon of iodized salt (about 1.4 g)
- 1 teaspoon of potassium citrate powder
- ¼ teaspoon magnesium malate
- 1 pinch of baking soda
- (optional) A squeeze of lime, lemon, or orange for flavor.
- (optional) Ice and shake for a frothy, smoother drink.
Just combine the ingredients in your favorite bottle and shake well. In addition to shaking the drink with ice, you could also blend it with ice to create an electrolyte slushie.
But what if you don’t have the time in your day to make a drink? We have a solution for you.
Save Time: An Even Easier Way to Hydrate
HYDRATE is the plant-based MANTRA Labs solution to your hydration needs. Just combine one scoop or packet with 12 to 24 oz of water, mix well, and enjoy anytime for rapid hydration!
It contains more than 1,200 mg of 6 broad spectrum electrolytes, along with other vitamins and minerals. Oh, and it’s sugar-free. So when you’re looking for electrolyte drinks without sugar, try our solution for total hydration.