Exercise junkies, trend seekers, and the just plain thirsty are happily sipping a whole slew of new beverages that boast a myriad of health benefits. The big question: Do they deliver? By: Maureen Callahan, MS, RD
August 15, 2012
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Health Drinks 101
Supermarket aisles are burgeoning with a new line of functional thirst quenchers that promise Mother Nature’s own healthy serum. Health seekers are drawn to these liquid wonders because they lack the additives, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial ingredients found in common processed drinks. Some of these nature-inspired beverages do hold some unique and unusual benefits; others, not so much. From smooth coconut water to tart vinegary teas, here's a look at how these "health" drinks stack up.
2 of 8Photo courtesy of Zico Natural
Can this tropical treat (the liquid inside young green coconuts) slow aging, prevent cancer, and live up to its cure-all image? Well, no. It’s not a magic health elixir. But as a post-workout hydration cocktail? Definitely. A few small studies suggest coconut water is just as effective as sports beverages at rehydrating exercisers after short to moderate workouts. For strenuous activity, experts worry coconut water is too low in sodium to replace what’s lost in sweat during intense exercise. It is a potassium powerhouse though, with as much potassium as two oranges and a skinny 60 calories and zero fat in each cup of Zico Natural.
Bottom Line: Think of it as trendy. Maybe grab one instead of a sugary sports drink.
3 of 8Photo courtesy of Synergy
Slightly fizzy with a vinegar-like tang, this fermented black tea beverage has been around for centuries. Lab reports and animal studies show it to be a potent antioxidant and immune system stimulator, but scientific evidence in humans is lacking. Still, with a taste reminiscent of sixties soda, we’re kind of partial to Synergy Grape Chia. Omega-3 rich chia seeds add fun texture and fiber, the yeasty taste is subtle, and the sugar content (1 teaspoon per cup) is far lower than most.
Bottom Line: At nearly $4 a bottle, it’s a splurge rather than a necessity. Caution: experts say don’t drink this acidic tea if you have weakened immune function or are taking drugs that need normal pH levels in the stomach to be absorbed.
4 of 8Photo courtesy of Tempt
Dr. Oz calls it his favorite alternative milk. And natural medicine guru Andrew Weil sings the praises of its good quality protein. It also contains all 10 essential amino acids. What do we like? A thicker, creamier texture from brands like Tempt Hempmilk makes this a standout sipper or cereal “milk.” What’s not so good? The nutrition hype is a little over the top since the amount of omega-3 rich hemp seeds in each cup (we estimate around 1 to 2 tablespoons) is minimal.
Bottom line: It’s a good-tasting alternative to cow’s milk if you opt for unsweetened or plain versions. Sweetened chocolate and vanilla varieties typically pack 20 to 70 extra calories per cup, mostly in the form of added sugars. Oh, and no worries about getting “high;” hemp seeds contain none of the THC found in marijuana plants.
5 of 8Photo courtesy of Rice Dream
With the popularity of nut and seed “milks,” and a growing number of consumers who avoid dairy for a whole list of reasons, beverage companies are turning to nutritious grains like oats and rice to make beverages for sipping and cooking. Expect subtle flavors and thin textures (despite the use of gums and thickeners). Our favorite splurge: Rice Dream Horchata served over shaved ice. It’s a sweet 160-calorie take on the traditional Mexican beverage for those who can’t tolerate dairy.
Bottom Line: Averaging one to three grams of protein per cup and 25 to 28 grams of sugars, they are definitely not an even swap nutritionally for cow’s milk with its 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of sugars. Still, these drinks are versatile for anyone avoiding dairy.
6 of 8Photo courtesy of Good Belly
From fermented dairy products like Lifeway Low-Fat Birthday Cake Kefir to GoodBelly’s Tropical Orange juice drink, flavor choices on the probiotic aisle are mind-boggling. Probiotics function by adding healthy bacteria to your digestive system. Which live cultures are best? Harvard researchers say there’s still a lot of work to be done piecing together which “good-for-you” bacterial strains best treat what conditions. Prefer kefir? Opt for low-fat plain varieties to keep saturated fat and calories low and sidestep the extra 2 or more teaspoons of sugar in flavored varieties. Can’t drink dairy? Go for juice drinks. But go easy; it’s still sugar.
Bottom Line: Probiotics do help to regulate your digestive system and restore imbalance. Not convinced you need probiotics? You could be right. Most of us already have a lot of “good” bacteria in the gut—an estimated 100 trillion of them.
7 of 8Photo courtesy of Honest Tea
Green Tea with Extras
No question about it, drinking fresh-brewed green tea is a boost to health. Studies connect the beverage to a lower risk of stroke, depression, dementia, heart disease, several types of cancer, and even bone fracture. Trouble is, bottled and canned green teas contain fewer antioxidants than fresh brewed varieties. And it’s questionable whether a few B vitamins, tiny amounts of herbs, or stimulants like guarana offer much added benefit, particularly in teas packaged with lots of sugar and additives.
The Bottom Line: The best option: Brew it yourself; allow tea to steep for three to five minutes to get the highest concentration of antioxidants. Second best: Honest Tea Classic Green Tea, 30 calories per 8 ounces or unsweetened, sugar-free canned varieties like Xing Tea Unsweetened.
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Read the Label
When it comes to pinning down the pros and cons of functional beverages and their purported health benefits, the best advice is to carefully read the label. And to verify health claims somewhere other than the company website, preferably with a reliable health or medical professional. For the most part, products that come from Mother Nature and offer minimal additions of sugar and additives are your best bet. But there’s nothing wrong with indulging in “fads” or fun beverage trends, as long as the list of ingredients is safe. And hey, in the end, good old H20 is still one of the best functional beverages out there, one that’s easy to swallow and light on the pocketbook.