Health for Sale
With the help of health buzzwords and smart packaging, beverage companies are taking advantage of our obsession with quick weight-loss solutions and wellness products. (In Japan, even logic-defying "diet water" is for sale.) This has caused bottled water sales to skyrocket.
In 2009, Americans ingested a whopping 8.5 billion gallons of H20. In fact, soda is the only drink Americans reach for more. Although the Food and Drug Administration is charged with regulating bottled water labeling, beverages that claim to energize, increase mental focus, improve memory, prevent heart disease and blast fat can be found on store shelves across the country.
For example, SoBe Lifewater's "B-energy" drink says it will "help your body unlock and release energy found in food." However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) notes that B vitamins help convert proteins, fats and carbs into energy; they do not make a person feel more energetic. Most likely, any "energized" feeling you get as a result of drinking it is due to caffeine -- one bottle of B-energy contains more of the stimulant than a can of Coke.
For those of you concerned about memory loss, San Francisco–based Purity.Organic wants to help. The company's functional-water beverages contain ginkgo biloba, which they claim enhances memory. Unfortunately, there is no conclusive evidence to support an effect of ginkgo on memory or dementia, according to the National Council Against Health Fraud.
Some beverage companies build advertising campaigns around promising -- but preliminary -- research leading consumers to believe a functional water is some kind of prevention miracle. People who purchase Preventiv, a functional water containing the red wine antioxidant resveratrol, are led to think that their bottle of Berry Bordeaux benefits the heart. Preventiv's slogan is "Enjoy the heart healthy, anti-aging benefits of a case of red wine." (The company notes that the statement has not been evaluated by the FDA.) Although animal studies have demonstrated positive effects of resveratrol, a review of research on the chemical in the April issue of the journal Mechanisms of Ageing and Development showed that scientists are still in the midst of figuring out how it works in humans.
So, don't swallow the functional Kool-Aid just yet.
Lessons in Labeling
Last year, the CSPI filed a class action lawsuit against Coca-Cola for the health claims made on its product VitaminWater. CSPI stated that VitaminWater flavor labels such as 'defense' and 'energy' "play on the health-conscious mindset of consumers." The popular brand also came under fire for claiming, among other health benefits, to promote healthy joints, support immune function, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Perhaps most disturbing is that each bottle of VitaminWater contains 33 grams of sugar. CSPI wrote in the suit, "it is just another flavored, sugary snack food like Coca-Cola, except they chose not to carbonate it." (The company does, however, offer VitaminWater Zero that uses a natural sweetener instead.) "The sugars in VitaminWater actually inhibit the body's ability to burn fat," says Esther Blum, a dietician in New York City and author of "Eat, Drink and Be Gorgeous: A Nutritionist's Guide to Living Well While Living It Up." "If you really want to drink flavored water, stick with unsweetened or naturally-sweetened."
Not only was VitaminWater misleading consumers with health claims; it was potentially causing weight gain.
To Drink or Not to Drink ...
In August, San Francisco-based Soma Beverage Company introduced yet another nutrient-rich water. Called Goodberrymint, the beverage is unsweetened -- a plus -- and contains several types of berries, as well as mint. It sounds tasty, sure. But, says Blum, "nothing can replace fruits and vegetables in a diet." So, although the average American is already guzzling 400 calories daily, functional water should not be considered an alternative source of nutrients, or a way to prevent disease. Rather, think of it as just a fancier way to stay hydrated.