The Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine is currently in the process of assessing the benefits and risks of electrolytes in water and sports drinks in a bid to set out recommended intake levels of the increasingly popular ingredients.
Electrolytes play a major role in restoring the body's natural balance after exercise, and as such are widely used in sports and energy drinks. But the proliferation of products containing electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and chloride has led to fears that unchecked consumption could prove dangerous.
The US Food and Drug Administration has already set recommended daily intake levels for food and nutrients, but the FNB is currently carrying out a more detailed assessment to see whether these levels are realistic. Among other things, the FNB is attempting to ascertain whether consuming too much water is bad for the health, and whether sports drinks containing potassium, sodium chloride and sulphates are beneficial or dangerous.
The researchers will attempt to set new RDIs for water and electrolyte-fortified fluids for healthy people, pregnant and nursing women and people who have chronic disease.
The FNB's project has been underway since September last year, but it has been hampered by a lack of useful scientific data. Most previous studies were carried out only on a handful of people or by the companies producing the products in question - research which is not rigorous or independent enough to satisfy the FNB.
The decision to investigate the use of electrolytes in fluids has, however, prompted much new research, and the latest presentation of some of these studies took place earlier this week.
Dr John Greenleaf, a scientist with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told the FNB that his research had shown that most Americans were badly under-hydrated, and that the best way to entice consumers to drink more water was to add something to it - such as a flavouring agent, sugar or salt. However, he stressed that his research remained inconclusive as to whether these fortified waters were in fact better at hydrating the body than 'normal' water.
Dr Greenleaf's findings were supported by separate research from McMaster University in Canada which showed that children would drink more water when it contained added salt and sugar.
The FNB will continue to assess existing and new research in this area, and will make its recommendations in a report in March next year.