Wednesday, October 24, 2018

DIY Electrolyte Drink Mix - The Why, How and Is It Worth It?

Dabbling in DIY health related recipes seems like, if you'll pardon the pun, a recipe for disaster. But I found Paul the Backpacker's approach to a DIY electrolyte drink mix to be compelling enough to risk making my own batch.

The Strategy

I encourage you watch his video on the topic, but here's my take on his strategy. First, electrolytes is a fancy term for a family of common minerals. The biggies are sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium, though there are others.

Paul looked at the nutritional data for Nuun electrolyte tablets and noted how much sodium, magnesium and potassium are in one tablet. He then found cheap sources of these minerals and measured them out in small quantities to match a Nuun tablet. The resulting powder is ready to be added to water, and consumed like any other drink mix. Finally, carbs are added to the water help "pull the electrolytes through," letting your body easily absorb them.

This approach, based on an existing product rather than Internet Voodoo, is what motivated me to give it a try. I also did additional research, and found this peer reviewed paper to be especially interesting: Improved Marathon Performance by In-Race Nutritional Strategy Intervention. The paper underscores the importance of consuming calories at the same time you ingest the electrolytes, a concept I wasn't previously familiar with.

Let's Make a Batch

Paul's recommended sources of electrolytes include: Baking Soda for sodium, Epsom Salt for magnesium and Potassium Chloride for potassium. The first two ingredients I had lying around the house, the second one I special ordered off of Amazon. Though, I didn't have to: Potassium Chloride is marketed as salt substitute, and sure enough in the salt section at our local Giant I could buy Morton's Salt Substitute which is nothing more than Potassium Chloride.

To my surprise, when I inspected each of these products I found a precise explanation of their mineral content. For example, baking soda explicitly reports that 1/2 tsp contains 616mg of sodium. Again, no Internet Voodoo needed.

For a few bucks, I picked up a set of measuring spoons designed for small quantities. These allow for measurements as small as 1/64th of a teaspoon.

Rather than base my recipe on Nuun alone, I researched a variety of products:

It's interesting to see the variation among the different brands. I then worked out a table showing how many milligrams of each mineral per 1 teaspoon, half a teaspoon and so forth down to 1/64th of a teaspoon for each ingredient:

The recipe I ended up settling on was:

Sodium: 1/4 tsp + 1/32 tsp 347mg
Potassium: 1/32 tsp + 1/64 tsp 137mg
Magnesium: 1/16 tsp 31mg

For a source of calories, I opted to use 1 tablespoon of maltodextrin and 1 tablespoon of regular old table-sugar. This is 24g of carbs, or 100 about calories. Maltodextrin was a Paul recommendation, and research on the web and the above paper support it. Maltodextrin is fast digesting carbohydrate, so its energy is quickly available. Table sugar is for providing another source of carbs, and as I note below, for taste.

Here's a couple of packets I put together of this recipe, using tea bags for scale.

Field Testig

I've tested this mixture on a few runs and it seems effective. Though, admittedly I haven't used it enough times to know if it's the powder or the placebo effect that's providing real value.

This approach to electrolytes has a lot going for it. From a cost perspective, it's ridiculously cheap. DripDrop powder is great stuff, but at $25/box, it has a 'special occasion' feel to it.

The real value of this experiment for me has been demystifying electrolytes. Rather than depend on labels and product claims, I've come to understand this topic at a more fundamental level. And with this understanding comes control. I can use my new knowledge to tweak the above recipe, use these ingredients in interesting ways, or find alternative sources for electrolytes altogether. For example, getting potassium on the morning of a hike may be as simple as sprinkling some salt substitute on my oatmeal, or better yet mixing in sunflower seeds.

So the powder is cheap, takes only a few minutes to prepare and opens your eyes to an important nutritional landscape. What's the catch?

Taste. Without adding sugar or tea, the water spiked with these minerals taste like pool water. Not undrinkable, but hardly pleasant. Put this in a plastic bottle in hot conditions and it tastes worse. Add sugar and let a green tea packet soak in it and it tastes like sugared-tea-pool-water. More drinkable, but hardly pleasant.

Perhaps with experimentation, I can arrive at a better tasting formula. For now, I have a healthy respect for companies that produce electrolytes and make it actually drinkable.

Even with the subpar taste, I'd encourage you to experiment with this approach to electrolytes. It's too important a topic to leave to product labels and Internet Voodoo.

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