Dr. Benjamin Yoo believes in the power of salt, and he has spent the last four years trying to win converts. As the creator of BANa, a high-sodium sports drink that he markets as "an IV in a bottle," he spends a lot of time convincing athletic trainers that the tried-and-true Gatorade formula is salt-deficient.
"We have four times more salt than Gatorade," boasts Yoo, a physician at Health First Rapid Care's Summerville and North Charleston facilities. He's nearly right: A 500 mL serving of BANa contains 800 mg of sodium, compared to 230 mg in the same amount of Gatorade's original formula.
Yoo realizes how peculiar it must sound for a doctor to recommend that people take in more salt — a bit like a dentist chiding his patients for not drinking enough Coca-Cola or a pastor shepherding his flock into the corner liquor store.
Too much salt in the diet can lead to high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, and a report released in October by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that most Americans are getting more sodium than they should. Among the general population, who should be getting no more than 2,300 mg a day, 88.2 percent exceeded the recommended value.
But BANa isn't for everyday use, and the idea of taking in salt after a hard day's work has a storied history. Salt helps the body retain water, and athletes lose a lot of salt through sweat during heavy workouts. Yoo takes inspiration from people living in and around the Andes Mountains, who have long known to carry salt and water with them on treks across the range. He points to the managers of American coal mines and steel mills, who used to give their workers table salt as a home remedy for work-related dehydration. And he says he's had conversations with Alabama football coaches who hand their athletes salted watermelon slices at the end of summer workout sessions.
Yoo got the idea to create a new sports drink in 2007 after seeing several players from the Charleston Southern University football team at Health First's North Charleston facility on Rivers Avenue. Throughout spring training and the grueling summer workouts, he saw feverish players coming into his office suffering from dehydration, some of them experiencing seizures. He treated them with a tried-and-true method: saline solution, delivered intravenously. A normal bag of saline contains a whopping 9,000 mg of sodium, and a few of the athletes required two or three bags before they recovered.
Yoo started researching trends in exercise science, and he found out that some trainers were handing their athletes bottles of Pedialyte, a drink designed to treat childhood diarrhea and vomiting, because it had roughly twice the sodium content of Gatorade. He began experimenting with his own formula, upping the salt content as much as possible without the drink tasting like a gulp of sea water. The name BANa came from "banana bag," medical slang for the multivitamin-tinged bags of yellow saline commonly used in emergency rooms, and from the chemical symbol Na — for sodium, of course.
He added berry flavoring to make his drink more palatable, but people who drink BANa say the end result tastes a lot like Flintstones brand chewable vitamins. The consistency is a bit syrupy, and the stevia that he uses as a sweetener can be cloying unless the drink is served ice-cold.
Still, he says some people love the taste, and the drink provides many of the benefits of Gatorade with zero calories, no sugar, and only one carbohydrate per serving. Yoo, who runs the company from home on his days off of work, has not put a lot of time or money into advertising yet, and he says word-of-mouth recommendations have led to big orders from West Virginia to Washington state. He estimates that he has spent somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 of his own savings on the project so far, and he hopes to start turning a profit in the next two or three years.
One early adopter was Brad Drake, head athletic trainer at CSU. He buys bottles of BANa by the pallet and keeps a steady supply on hand for the football team, which he says made it through the entire summer of 2011 without a single trip to the ER for dehydration. The baseball, softball, and track teams have started using it, too. Drake swears by the drink and has recommended it to other trainers, but even he has reservations about the taste.
"You have to have it really cold," Drake says. "You just get it at room temperature and you try to crack open one of those bad boys and drink it, and it's gonna be pretty awful."
Soon after BANa made its way into the CSU cross country team's coolers in 2009, Assistant Coach Ryan Thompson took a sip and had his doubts. To him, it tasted like straight salt water. And he was skeptical about the purported benefits, which Yoo says he has been unable to prove because of the restrictively high cost of clinical testing. So Thompson called his friend Carwyn Sharp, an exercise physiologist at the College of Charleston who had been interviewed several times by Runner's World magazine. He's the sort of guy who calls up sports drink companies and asks for product samples so he can check out their claims himself. Sharp was not impressed.
Sharp says the sugar in Gatorade is actually a good thing. When an athlete downs his sports drink of choice at the end of a workout, a little glucose in the mix can improve the small intestine's absorption of sodium into the bloodstream. But more importantly, he says Gatorade does a good job at rehydrating sweaty people for a simple reason: It tastes good.
"A lot of people focus on the combination of electrolytes," Sharp says. "The number one thing is, will people drink it? You can have the best combination of electrolytes and carbohydrates and so on, but if you don't have the right taste, people won't drink it."
He says it is a good thing when someone chugs a drink quickly after workout because it causes the stomach to distend, quickening the flow of fluid into the bloodstream. And people are more likely to take down a drink at brain-freeze pace if the flavor is agreeable. In other words, the key to Gatorade's long-standing reputation with athletes (and its nearly 80-percent market share) is not its cutting-edge blend of sodium, potassium, and carbohydrates. It's the fact that, for millions of satisfied customers, a bottle of baby-blue Glacier Freeze tastes like icy ambrosia on a summer afternoon.
"There's optimal, and there's reality," Sharp says. In an ideal world, everyone would drink the most perfectly blended sports drink to rehydrate. But in the real world, he says, only elite athletes are keeping up to date on trends in sports beverages. "The vast majority of us will drink what's available and palatable," he says.
Today, Thompson tells the CSU runners to simply make sure they are drinking enough. He recommends a mix of Gatorade and water before training. He has recently become a fan of Accelerade, a drink mix with a 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, for post-run rehydration. BANa is still available through the university's athletics department, but he is not pushing it on anyone.
"There's a reason that Gatorade has been around so long," he says.
BANa is available at local Bi-Lo and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores and will soon be available at local Walgreens and Whole Foods stores. To read more nutritional information or to order online, visit banadrink.com.