The orange Gatorade cooler is a staple on the bench of nearly every professional sport. But according to Mubarak Malik, the former New York Knicks training director, there are few athletes who actually drink the cooler's offerings.
"It's a marketing ploy," Malik said. "I'd say about 80% of players just drink water, the other half just just drink hydration tablets."
About 10 years ago, Malik started creating his own sports drinks at home. "Back then, I felt like we were just way behind in nutrition," he said. He started a pilot project, creating different formulations and giving them to athletes for testing. Last year, he met Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers' small forward, through a mutual business partner. He gave Kuzma a beverage to test out during the NBA finals. "We decided to become business partners soon after," he said.
This year, both Kuzma and Malik are taking that drink public, with the launch of a beverage company called Drink Barcode (the drink itself is just called Barcode). The company has six full time employees, is headquartered in Los Angeles and raised $5 million in funding (Malik said Drink Barcode isn't seeking additional funding at the moment). The drink is currently available online through Barcode's website, but Malik said it will be available at six Erewhon locations in Los Angeles on June 1.
Barcode consists largely of a combination of coconut water, regular water, and three key ingredients: vitamin D, magnesium, and adaptogens, which are plant and mushroom extracts. It's a bit of a departure from traditional sports drinks, but Malik is betting that athletes, professional or otherwise are looking for something different.
Former New York Knicks training director Mubarak Malik
Traditionally, sports drinks either help provide a quick burst of energy during a workout, like a traditional Gatorade, or are used to help aid recovery, like Gatorade's G Series Recover. Depending on what niche the drink wants to occupy, it might lean more heavily into one camp or the other. The in-game options might provide sugar and carbohydrates. The post-game option might combine carbohydrates with protein to aid recovery.
A newer generation of drinks, like Barcode, is looking to do things differently. Barcode, Malik said, is supposed to be used during games, before games, or by non-athletes who aren't working out. Carbohydrates, sugars, and proteins aren't the focus – Barcode contains just 2 grams of sugar, 6 grams of carbohydrates and no protein. Malik explains the protein's absence: "The recovery inducing properties come from the adaptogens and vitamin D."
The concept that adaptogens and vitamins might be the next frontier in performance drinks, though not definitively proven, is spawning a new cadre of drinks.
There's Gatorade's Bolt24, which advertises high levels of vitamins A and C, or BodyArmor Lyte, which has no added sugar. These are "functional beverages," intended to be light on carbs, calories and sugar, and, in theory, made for drinking during exercise or during the day, just as Barcode is.
Traditional Gatorade still commands 72% of the sports drink market share, but "functional beverage industry"—performance-oriented drinks that include nutrients —is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8% after 2021. The largest segment of the functional beverage industry, according to Research and Markets Report, is the health and wellness sector.
Barcode leans especially hard into the wellness aspect of its formula. Barcode's "adaptogen-rich" descriptor refers to the presence of mushroom and plant extract that have been studied in herbal medicine circles, but are relatively new to sports performance drinks. The watermelon version of the drink contains a cordyceps fungus extract. The lemon lime flavor contains extract from a plant called rhodiola rosea, Malik said.
There are a handful of scientific studies on the efficacy of mushroom extracts, particularly for cordyceps. Some do suggest anti-inflammatory properties and immune boosting potential. As for rhodiola rosea, the European Medicines Agency does note that it "can be used for the temporary relief of symptoms of stress, such as fatigue or sense of weakness."
Still, this research is relatively anecdotal. Guillermo Escalante, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, San Bernardino cautions that research into adaptogens is in its early stages. "I would say it's way too early to completely say that they don't work, but it's way too early to say that they're the next greatest thing, he said. "I think the verdict is still out."
Adaptogens aside, Barcode may be able to bridge the gap between sports drink and wellness drink because of its low sugar content. One of the most common criticisms of sports drinks is that they're more like sodas than performance beverages, and not needed by the majority of athletes, especially adolescents.
If most people have eaten about two hours before exercising, "that's going to cover you during your workout," said Escalante. Those athletes might not need a quick bit of carbohydrates or sugar to keep going.
Barcode, which aims to keep one foot in the world of elite athletics and one in the regular world, does seem to have kept sugar and calorie levels low enough to stay out of soda territory.
"Athletes are being funneled to healthier food during the season, so their palettes are being trained to have a healthier product that's not super sweet. But it also is sweet enough to feed that need of having a sugary drink that they've been relying on for years," he said.
Barcode's sweetness has been refined to reflect the increasingly picky palettes of elite athletes, an important step, because it's their reactions to the drink, and use of it that will probably dictate its success—as would on-court achievement.
Sports drinks often become household names through association with athletic achievement. In 1965, Gatorade was invented at the University of Florida. In 1966, the Florida Gators won the Orange Bowl for the first time. In 1969, the Kansas City Chiefs were the first NFL team to use Gatorade. That year they also won Super Bowl IV.
Barcode could have a similar origin story. Malik said he's tested the drink in real games, and confirms that Kuzma was drinking Barcode during last season's NBA finals.
"This product has won a championship," he said.
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