I speak, of course, of lemonade. No, there’s no salt in the basic recipe. But there is a host of electrolytes from the lemon, lots of water, and sugar. At first, it seems to not be a perfect sports drink. As a summer thirst quencher, however, it’s pretty good.
Let me start with the classic recipe. (Yes, I’ve got this in my grandmother’s book, but I’ve seen it in civil war period recipe collections as well. I suspect we can chase it further back than that, but I’m not going there right now.) The classic is simple: six lemons, six cups of water, one cup of sugar. (My grandmother’s recipe: juice of six lemons, equal part sugar, another six parts water.)
First things first – this is too sweet for me. My very first change is to reduce the sugar to 3/4 cup. I also add a quarter teaspoon of salt.
When I make this, I make a simple syrup of the sugar and one cup of water. As soon as the water’s dissolved, I add the lemon juice. (Another side note – I don’t usually use fresh lemons. I’ve discovered that unless I keep the pulp and use some of the zest, nobody seems to be able to tell the difference in a blind taste test.) Once the juice is added I pour it over two cups of ice. (I fill pint containers with water and keep them in the freezer for this and for iced tea making as it cools the hot liquid down FAST.) Once the ice has cooled the liquid I add another three cups of water, stir, and serve.
Now, I’m going to take the rest of this post in two different directions. First, I’m going to play with variations for taste. Then I’m going to pursue this as a sports drink, noting its strengths and weaknesses. So go with the part that interests you.
As I said, I add that quarter teaspoon of salt. Nobody seems to be able to taste the salt itself, but it plays its catalytic role quite well. I’ve used both cloves and peppers for this as well, and while they both work they also get noticed more than salt.
Wait, peppers? Yep. ONE jalapeno, seeded, crushed, and added to the sugar and water while making the syrup. Add the lemon juice, remove the pepper. Along with the bit of heat (that seems to unlock the taste buds for everything else) you get this hint of a fruitiness.
I’ve also used an addition of a bit of ginger and cinnamon sticks and mint leaves. Partial (or full) replacement of lime or grapefruit also works. If you add a touch of grenadine to the regular lemonade you get “pink” lemonade – yes, it’s that simple. You can use a bit (or a lot) of milk for part of the water. In Brazil, sweetened condensed milk is used in place of the simple syrup. If you have it, try using a cup of coconut milk in place of a cup of the water. Maybe a juice (cranberry? peach? mango?) as partial swap for the water could be tried. The point is there is no reason to be wedded only to lemon and sugar. It makes a great base — don’t be hesitant to try something different. Remember that in the end it is YOUR taste buds that matter.
Here’s the big deal, though, and why it works so well. First, it’s cold, it’s wet, and it tastes good, which means people are willing to drink it and drink a lot of it when their hot and sweaty. Replacing the water lost through sweat is The Big Deal. But lemonade does a bit more. Yes, we’re headed into sports drink regions.
When you sweat you lose water, but you also lose several minerals and electrolytes. A sports drink is not just water. It has a bunch of replacement minerals and electrolytes. It also has sugar.
The replacement minerals and electrolytes are pretty obvious — you’re losing them, you need them replaced. Interestingly, lemon juice carries almost all the electrolytes you’re losing. Suddenly lemon water seems like a good idea just for that. But what about that sugar?
There are two reasons for sugar in sports drinks. Reason one is the carbohydrate boost. Your muscles burn carbohydrates by preference. Second choice is, well, depending on some secondary issues it might be fats and it might be proteins, so we’ll call it a tie for now. Thing is by preference your body wants carbs. If you replenish the carbs, especially if they’re SIMPLE carbs, the body will regain some energy.
But the other reason for the sugar in the water is to help water move from the small intestine to the body. Most studies have shown that the optimal level to move the water (and any electrolytes and such it is carrying) is around 5%. (As a minor digression, there are a couple of studies of endurance athletes showing they do better on 15%. These are contrary to the majority and study a small subset of athletes so should be taken with caution — but I think it worth noting.)
Let me pause to bring in a simple data point. 1 cup of sugar in a quart (eight cups) of water gives us a 10% sugar solution. My ‘drinking lemonade’ above, with 3/4 cup of sugar to seven cups of liquid (six cups water, one cup lemon juice), is about 8.5%. If I add a cup of water in the form of ice in the glasses to ‘keep it cool’ it’s going to approach that 5% line.
What does the excess sugar do? On the one hand it slows water absorption from the small intestine. On the other hand it creates a solution that is heavier in content than blood. In that particular case osmosis goes into effect and while I don’t get quite as much liquid moving into the bloodstream I do get more minerals.
A caveat to that last. I don’t get as much water moving across the small intestine wall PER QUANTITY INGESTED. On the other hand, the extra sugar may be tasty enough that I drink more. Making up a set of numbers, assume that at 5% sugar, 80% of the liquid crosses the line while at 10% only 70% crosses. If the extra sugar causes me to drink twice as much volume, then the reality is 80 units vs 140 (2 x 70) units of liquid into the body. It’s not all about the percentages.
Bottom line, there’s a reason lemonade has been a if not the drink of choice for summertime. It’s not just the taste. It actually helps cope with the heat. It turns out to be pretty much a basic sports drink — except it tastes good.