Weekly Feature

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Jack Dempsey/AP

What Are You Drinking?

July 17, 2008
by Liz Colville
A beverage craze, seemingly in honor of the new millennium, is pitting regular old coffee against energy drinks, fortified water and sports drinks. Sales for these types of drinks are strong, with soda remaining stagnant. But how healthy are these drinks?

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Eat This, Not That, a blog by the authors of the book of the same name, has a warning for us: “even if you've traded regular Coke for diet, whole-milk coffee drinks for low-fat lattes, and you barely touch the booze, you could still be taking in 20 percent or more of your calories from beverages.” They take a look at two culprits being sold across America—energy drinks and flavored water—and weigh the pros and cons of so-called healthy hydration.

Energy Drinks

Energy drinks are on the rise, finding popularity among hard-working students who want more energy, as well as mothers juggling kids and a career. There are more than 250 such drinks on the market, and many of them contain similar ingredients. Sugar, caffeine and guarana are three that come under scrutiny, especially when kids and teens are the drinkers. The Associated Press recently reported on efforts to ban energy drinks in schools and limit youth caffeine intake, interviewing kids and parents to get their thoughts on the energy drink craze.

The bad news: For kids, adolescents and women, there is concern that these drinks are replacing milk and its important nutrients of calcium and Vitamin D. But sugar may be the biggest culprit, simply transferring the nation’s penchant for sodas like Coca-Cola to another type of drink that also contains caffeine. On BevNet you can find nutritional ingredients for many of the energy drinks on the market. As an example, Monster contains grams of sugar in at least four forms: maltodextrin, glucose, fruit juice concentrates and sucralose.

The iffy news: Many energy drinks, including the pioneer Red Bull, contain taurine, an amino acid produced naturally in the adult body, usually with the help of Vitamin B6. A 2008 study at Weill Cornell Medical College investigating the roots of taurine in the brain suggest that it may have more of a sedative effect than an energy-boosting one. “Remarkably little is known about the effects of energy drinks on the brain,” lead researcher Neil L. Harrison told the Cornell Chronicle, but the ingredient “may actually play a role in the crash people often report after drinking these highly caffeinated beverages.”

The good news
: Energy drinks typically contain B vitamins, which are essential to our bodies’ energy system. HowStuffWorks explains that B vitamins help the “breakdown of carbohydrates into glucose,” which gives us energy; the “breakdown of fats and proteins,” which regulates the nervous system; and help to maintain muscle tone and skin, hair, eye, mouth and liver health.

Fortified Waters

You’ve seen them everywhere: colorfully packaged fortified waters, marketed as healthier than soda and sometimes fruit juice. The brands that led this kind of drink onto the market include VitaminWater, SoBe and now Snapple. But in a popular article that debuted in May on Yahoo Health, the authors of the book “Eat This, Not That,” Matt Goulding and David Zinczenko, warn us not to be deceived by elegant packaging and healthy-sounding promises.

The bad news: Once again, sugar is the secret killer in fortified water. A 20-ounce bottle of VitaminWater contains about 33 grams of sugar in the form of crystalline fructose, leading the “Eat This, Not That” author to call it America’s “Worst ‘Healthy’ Drink.”

The iffy news: Drinks like VitaminWater contain a combination of vitamins, typically including A, B, C and E, but recent research is starting to suggest that vitamin supplements—vitamins that are not found in the foods and drinks we eat throughout the day—may be unnecessary and even detrimental to our health. FindingDulcinea analyzed some of the latest studies in an April article, “Vitamins Might Raise Risk of Death.”

The good news: As a beverage choice, fortified water certainly isn’t the worst a person could make. A bigger indulgence would be soda, so-called “fake juices” and certain types of smoothies. The amount of sugar in a smoothie can climb upwards of 80 grams, sometimes passing the three-digit mark. Some British diet experts, interviewed by the Daily Mail, note that “peeling and blending fruit reduces both its fibre and vitamin C content—and releases sugars usually locked inside the fruit,” suggesting that fruit is better au naturel. And perhaps water is, too.
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