The Gatorade Sports Science Institute, in Barrington, is about much more than corporate research and development. The research that happens here is applied to new products, but it’s also used by local athletes and sought out by some of the world’s top performers.
August football is brutal. Between the punishing heat and stifling humidity, athletes donned in several pounds of equipment take a beating on the practice field – not only from their teammates. Sweat pours like rain, draining players of the essential nutrients needed to sustain their performance and avoid illnesses, like sun stroke or dehydration.
Most football fans watch August play with an eager anticipation of the season. But not Kelly Barnes, MS, CPT. As a scientist who specializes in nutrition and exercise physiology, she’s more concerned with players’ hydration and nutrition plans as they work in the sweltering heat.
Barnes is a senior scientist at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI), in Barrington, and she works alongside nearly 20 scientists who travel the world studying amateur and elite athletic performance. Research at GSSI may lead to Barrington High School as easily as it leads to some of the biggest sports arenas in the U.S.
“We’ve worked with a pro football team where the coaching staff didn’t fully appreciate having carbohydrates during practice,” says Barnes. “They would have it available during games, but in training but they only had water. We said their athletes would actually train better if they had carbohydrates on hand, to give them energy during training.”
The coaches agreed and began supplying Gatorade at practice. Barnes and her team monitored the athletes’ progress.
“We found that, after testing them for three years in a row, the athletes are better hydrated during practice,” she says. “They’re training better and their results are very good. That’s fun to see them succeed and say, ‘I tested them. I had a tiny role in that.’”
Leaning on the Gatorade brand’s connections with professional and collegiate teams, GSSI is just as much a source of education and insight for the world’s top athletes as it is for the greater world of sport nutrition. Research and development is baked into its mission. Nestled where it is, inside a PepsiCo R&D facility in Barrington, GSSI is just as likely to impact the development of Gatorade products as it is to affect pro athletes and their trainers.
From its global headquarters in the northwest suburbs, GSSI maintains an essential bridge between Gatorade and its most valued market: amateur and elite athletes. Barrington, it turns out, is an ideal teammate.
Science Baked In
Gatorade was born from a simple question: Why were football players at the University of Florida getting so dehydrated in the southern heat? University researchers soon found a link between an athlete’s sweat and performance. Working in their lab, these scientists crafted a sports drink that could replace the carbohydrates and electrolytes that athletes were losing through their sweat. Gatorade was born.
Whether it was because of their new drink or other factors, the Gators made 1965 a winning year and dominated the Orange Bowl the following season. Other college football teams started ordering the new Gatorade formula and it became a fixture in the NFL, which named Gatorade an official sports drink in 1983.
GSSI opened in Barrington two years later, inside a research and development facility operated by then-parent company Quaker Oats. PepsiCo acquired Quaker and its brands in 2001.
“The initial charge of the Institute was to prove that Gatorade worked,” says Dr. Kimberly Stein, senior principal scientist for GSSI. “So, they spent a lot of time over the years looking at how the beverage would leave the stomach, how it would be absorbed, the amount of sodium and carbohydrate it delivered – to prove that the formula was right to both hydrate an athlete appropriately and improve athletic performance.”
The Gatorade brand today has partnerships with the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA the College Football Playoff, more than 60 Division I colleges and universities and eight collegiate conferences, including the Big Ten. It also partners with international soccer clubs, motor sports, youth sports and more than 350 races, including the Chicago Marathon.
As its affiliations have grown, so too have the brand’s offerings. Products now span from the classic sports drink to protein products, on-the-go chews and bars – all designed to help athletes “prime, perform and recover.”
GSSI research is focused on two areas: athletic performance as related to nutrition and the application of that knowledge to enhance elite athletes.
“While we exist to provide innovation and support the Gatorade products, we also want to support the greater sport nutrition and sport science community, in terms of providing knowledge,” says Stein. “The world of sport nutrition is fairly broad, so there’s a lot an athlete needs to know beyond hydration.”
A good amount of research conducted at GSSI is published in sports medicine-related journals. Nearly 250 such papers have been released since 1987.
When Stein started at GSSI a decade ago, much of her work focused on whether additional product ingredients could impact an athlete’s performance.
Many of her colleagues are partnering up with outside institutions and researchers. One GSSI team, for example, is exploring the connection between dietary nitrates found in beetroot juice and these compounds’ effects on athletic performance.
This sort of research often is conducted on amateur or semi-professional athletes, typically recruited from Chicago and its suburbs. In one of her first studies with GSSI, Stein tested a nutritional intervention program on teachers at Barrington High School, which is located across the street from the lab. More often, studies recruit area triathletes, cyclists and others engaged in competitive circuits.
“It is a pretty high-level athlete that we’re looking for,” she says. “The Barrington area has a very nice pool of very well-trained endurance athletes, but we also have some really talented high school athletes as well.”
Stein now spends much of her time in an engagement role, connecting GSSI and its research with industry influencers, be it sports dietitians, athletic trainers, coaches or sports scientists. She also oversees GSSI’s professional athlete testing program.
In Barrington and a sister facility in Bradenton, Fla., GSSI scientists like Barnes do research in the lab and in the field, often connecting with professional players in Gatorade-sponsored teams and leagues.
“In our elite athletes, we will help guide them on nutrition plans based on their goals,” Barnes explains. “So, if a basketball player wants to gain weight but build lean mass and get stronger, we’ll take a look at their baseline, see where they are, and work with their coaches and strength team to help them get where they want to be.”
Inside the Lab
The original environmental chamber is noticeably warm on a winter’s day. A heating system pipes in warm, humid air, replicating the conditions a cyclist might encounter on an endurance ride. A couple of stationary bikes wait for riders who will be tested. In one corner, there’s a scale where athletes are measured for their body mass before and after a workout.
“We then record what they drink, if they eat anything, if they have to use the restroom – we record their weight and through a calculation we can determine their sweat rate,” explains Barnes. Her research specialty is sweat electrolytes, which can be measured with a Band-Aid-like patch affixed to the athlete’s forearm. When the patch has absorbed enough sweat, it’s analyzed in the adjacent biochemistry lab.
Barnes undergoes many of the tests that happen inside GSSI and its various labs. She figures it’s good to do a practice test beforehand, to work out any kinks in the process and to provide an honest explanation for test subjects. She’s been an avid runner and triathlete, so an hour-and-a-half bike ride or stress test feel quite familiar.
“I want to do it first, so that when I bring new people in, I can say, ‘This is how you’re going to feel,’” she says.
Around the corner, the DXA lab helps to read body composition of athletes. This room holds a dual X-ray machine – a large table with an overhanging arm. The athlete lies down, is scanned and then evaluated.
“It gives us the body composition through different parts of the body – the legs, the arms, the trunk – and it measures for lean body mass and fat mass,” Barnes says. “We use this in a lot of our athletes who are trying to gain lean mass, like muscle. You’re not going to gain a lot of bone, but it does take bone density tests, as well. Some of our cyclists have issues with bone density because they don’t do a lot of impact exercise.”
Body composition can also be read in a lab just down the hall, in a room sporting a “Bod Pod” – a device that looks like a science fiction escape hatch.
“The athlete just sits in there, and it actually determines how much air was displaced when they sat down inside,” Barnes says. “And then there are calculations that show us how much lean body mass and fat the athlete has.”
The stress test room is equipped for a variety of tests, from treadmill work to coordination drills and cognitive testing.
“We have Velcro on the wall over there, for a passing drill,” Barnes says, pointing to the corner. “It’s a passing drill, so they have to hit the right spot and we test them at different levels of hydration. Does their coordination improve, or does it decline? If they take in different fluids, does it help or make it worse? We can see what different hydration and compositions of fluids do during drills and endurance.”
The new environmental chamber allows scientists to replicate the sorts of conditions athletes face in the field, by quickly dialing up the temperature and humidity.
“Take football, for example – they start in August and they end in February, if they’re successful,” says Barnes. “Do you want to have August conditions, October conditions or January conditions? We can do all of that in one session, if you wanted.”
Data collection inside the laboratory is a carefully controlled process. Here, scientists work to isolate certain conditions. Then, they travel out to the field, to monitor and evaluate athletes in their natural environment.
“I get to be in the lab doing my controlled research, and then I get to work with the athletes, talk to them, and say, ‘How is it for you?’” Barnes says. “You have a high sweat electrolyte. Do you notice it? Do you do anything different about it?”
Barnes travels to many professional teams’ practices to evaluate players. One of her colleagues is a registered sports dietitian who splits time between the lab and the Chicago Bulls. Her colleagues based in the U.K. visit soccer clubs around the world. Locally, Gatorade maintains relationships with all of Chicago’s professional teams.
Nothing about field testing is ever fully controlled. Coaches can change practice drills at the last minute. Weather can shift unexpectedly. Athletes sometimes forget.
“We might give them a beverage to consume during practice, and tell them we’ve weighed it so we can know everything that’s going in to them, so we can calculate their sweating rate,” Barnes says. “Don’t spit it, don’t share it – that’s yours only. And then we’ll see them drinking out of somebody else’s water bottle. They’re out there practicing and training, and so sometimes they forget we’re even there.”
GSSI maintains a sister facility in Florida where scientists can get even closer to athletes in the field. Though it has many similar labs as the Barrington facility, the Florida center, which opened in 2011, is more focused on field testing.
“We might discover something in the lab in Barrington, and if it’s great and it works in the lab, we might need to know if, when we get it into the field of play, we’re seeing results,” says Stein. “The team down in Florida can pick that up and confirm it. And, they get a lot of insights there, because they’re with these very talented athletes day in and day out.”
If you look carefully near the entrance to PepsiCo’s Barrington facility, you can see the Quaker man smiling back. This carefully protected research and development center is home to not only Gatorade but teams from Tropicana and Quaker.
On any given day, you might see food scientists working with a vat of Cap’n Crunch or engineers tweaking a new production process in the pilot plant. There’s even a sensory department, where members of the community come in for taste tests.
The Gatorade product development team is here, too, and it’s not unusual for its scientists to end up at GSSI.
“We may give them specifications on a new product, based either on our research or on the scientific literature,” says Stein. “They’ll take that to their labs, work on it, then walk down the hall and say to us, ‘Taste this.’ Sometimes, the first generations don’t taste that great, but they ask, ‘If I switch to this type of carbohydrate or I change this ingredient, it’s going to taste better. How’s that affect the physiology or performance outcome of an athlete?’”
The team at GSSI also provides a critical feedback loop to the Gatorade brand, who in turn can adjust or introduce products. Oftentimes, scientists like Barnes are joined by members of the Gatorade marketing team, who also provide feedback to the brand.
“Endurance athletes might say, ‘Can I have more flavor? I’m drinking this for three hours,’ so we’ll take that information back to the brand and tell them this is what we’re hearing,” says Barnes. “And, an athlete might say they wish there was a chew or a gel. Being immersed with the athlete in the field while they’re training, they think more about the products and how they would be better, or how they appreciate what we offer.”
It was athlete feedback that helped to establish the Gatorade Endurance product line, now a common sight around marathon and triathlon race courses. These energy chews, pouches and drinks present a higher electrolyte content.
“That product was a result of research that was done in our lab, to look at greater electrolyte needs of athletes who are exercising for a greater length of time,” says Stein.
New GSSI research is often vetted to ensure there’s no confidential or proprietary information contained inside. In some cases, research can’t be published until related patents are approved. Stein says most, if not all, research is eventually published, mostly to peer-reviewed publications such as professional journals. Still, not all research leads straight to a PepsiCo product.
“If we can help an athlete to understand their carbohydrate need, that does circle back to Gatorade because this is a way we can deliver carbohydrates,” says Stein. “So, while not everything is directly connected, there are connections between the type of research we do, nutrition and our products.”
At Home in Barrington
GSSI’s location in Barrington has proven ideal for several reasons, not least of which is its proximity to fellow Quaker Oats brands. The northwest suburbs also are strategic because of their proximity to Chicago. Less than 40 miles from PepsiCo’s marketing office downtown, GSSI is close to Barrington’s Metra station, which the scientists use frequently when traveling between locations.
Visiting athletes have easy access from Chicago and its airports, and Stein hears that they enjoy Barrington’s many amenities.
“We bring in visitors quite a bit, and we have elite athletes coming in quite often,” says Stein. “Barrington’s a nice area for them to come into, and we have places for them to stay and restaurants for them to visit. It’s a very welcoming community.”
Most of the Barrington-area scientists live within a short drive of the lab and some, like Barnes, have family close by. They join in local festivities, like the Fourth of July parade, and contribute to area nonprofits.
Stein finds an eager relationship with the community, too.
“We’ve had a good relationship with endurance athletes in the area and high school athletes who work as research subjects,” she says. “So, that’s worked well in our favor. And, a lot of cyclists want to come out to the Barrington area because it’s very hilly and they can do weekend workouts.”
At home in Barrington for 30 years now, GSSI embraces not just its hometown but its parent brand’s global footprint.
“We have advisors across the globe, so we really see Barrington as our global headquarters,” says Stein. “We do work around the world and yet these elite athletes and influencers come to Barrington, too. It feels like we’re a lot bigger than we really are.”