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Don't be fooled by coconut water and other new sports drinks

Some popular new bottled waters claim extra health benefits, but many just pack more sugar or artificial ingredients

Last updated: September 02, 2015 08:15 AM

Plain old bottled water is sharing more shelf space these days with flavored and fortified drinks. The labels on these drinks say they contain added electrolytes, minerals that help regulate muscle function and water balance which can be lost during long intense workouts, or suggest that they pack the benefits of fruits and vegetables by providing vitamins.

But are those drinks more hydrating (and healthier) than regular water? It’s unlikely, our experts say. Few people exercise so vigorously that they need to replenish electrolytes. And Leslie Bonci, a dietitian and director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says that “any liquid is going to be hydrating, even coffee. Do vitamins and minerals add to hydration? No. What’s hydrating is the fluid.”

“Do vitamins and minerals add to hydration? No. What’s hydrating is the fluid.”

Most Americans simply don’t need fortified drinks. More than 90 percent of us get enough of the important nutrients, according to a 2012 report from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And because of fortified foods and supplements, we might even get too much of some of them.

In addition, many of those beverages are packed with calories, sodium, and sugars. Some back labels indicate food coloring, sweeteners, preservatives, and other agents.

See our water filter buying guide so you can purify your tap water at home for a fraction of the cost of bottled water.

Consumer Reports experts evaluated the ingredients and nutritional value of 20 flavored and fortified beverages. (We didn’t test products to ensure that they contained claimed levels of nutrients.) We also had expert tasters try the drinks. Here’s what we found.  

Sports drinks

They were developed to help athletes re­place carbs used for energy, and electrolytes and fluids lost through perspiration. For years, Gatorade and Powerade were the top ones. Now there are “premium” sports drinks with natural flavoring or ingredients like coconut water that are marketed to all health-minded consumers.

Sports Drinks
These replenish electrolytes, but you won't need them after a regular workout.

But most sports drinks have a lot of sugar. A 16-ounce container of Body­armor, for example, which costs $2.70, has 140 calories and 36 grams of sugar. Compare that sport drink with a 16.9 fluid-ounce bottle of Pepsi, which has 210 calories and 58 grams of sugar.

All of that added sugar increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity, according to a 2014 report from the Atkins Center for Weight and Health at the University of California at Berke­ley. Zero-calorie and low-calorie sports drinks might not have any sugar (or as much sugar) but might have artificial sweeteners. And both types might have food coloring, preservatives, or other added ingredients.

The takeaway: Unless you’re working out intensely for more than an hour, you’re unlikely to lose significant electrolytes. So stick to water, says Marvin M. Lipman M.D., our chief medical adviser. For pure thirst, the Berkeley report says that water is the “gold standard.” Drinking it before, during, and after exercise should quench your thirst and restore lost fluids. And no need to avoid tap water, either. It's actually safer—and more tightly regulated—than bottled water, according to a government report.

Coconut water, maple water, and more

Artichoke Water
Arty claims its artichoke water will increase metabolism and purify toxins

Sales of coconut water, the mildly sweet liquid found in coconuts, have zoomed, increasing more than fivefold between 2008 and 2012. The coconut-water craze seems to have spurred the introduction of a variety of other plant-based drinks, such as artichoke water, maple water, and cactus water.

Many manufacturers claim that the drinks offer better hydration. Zico, for example, says that its Pure Premium Coconut Water, which costs $2.25 for 14 ounces, is a “miracle of hydration and replenishment.”

Other companies make more far-reaching promises. Arty claims that its artichoke water, which has many other ingredients in addition to artichokes and costs $2.70 for 8 ounces, can “elevate antioxidants, increase metabolism, enhance digestion, purify toxins.”

Happy Tree says that its Organic Raw Maple Water is 100 percent maple sap with “nothing added,” and has 48 calories and 12 grams of sugar in a 16-ounce bottle. Our tasters described it as “sweetened water.” It costs about $4. Vita Coco says that its 100-calorie Pure Coconut Water, $2.50 for 16.9 ounces, has “more potassium than a banana,” with 470 milligrams in an 8-ounce serv­­ing. (A medium-sized banana has about 450 milligrams.) Of course, if you simply drink a glass of water and eat a banana, you’ll probably be more satiated and get about 3 grams of dietary fiber.

The takeaway: If you’re tired of the same old same old, coconut water and maple water can make for a nice—but pricey—change once in a while.

Water with vitamins added

Water with vitamins added
Some new beverages provide over a day's supply of certain vitamins. You may not need them.

Those drinks might contain the daily recommended amount or more of certain vitamins. Vitaminwater’s orange-flavored drinks, $1.20 per 20-ounce bottle, have 150 percent of vitamin C and 100 percent of three B vitamins.

But there’s no need to replenish vitamins just because it’s hot out or you went for a run. “You don’t lose vitamins when you sweat,” Lipman points out.

More might not be better when it comes to vitamins. And fortified drinks can displace food sources of vitamins and nutrients in children’s diets, according to the Berkeley report. The drinks also might have a lot of sugar: A 20-ounce Pomegranate Cherry Sobe Lifewater, $1.10, has 25 grams of sugar and 100 calories.

The takeaway: An occasional vitamin-supplemented water is fine if it helps you get enough fluid, but you’re still much better off getting your vitamins from a balanced diet. 

Purified and flavored waters

Purified Waters
Glaceau smartwater is distilled to remove impurities. Electrolytes are added for flavor.

There’s a booming market in bottled water that’s been through a purification process. One is reverse osmosis, which forces water through a membrane to remove contaminants. Another is distillation, which involves boiling water and then turning the vapor back into liquid water.

Those processes strip away minerals that give water body and taste, so some manufacturers add electrolytes such as sodium to restore flavor. Propel’s Purified Water with Electrolytes, $6 for six 25.4-ounce containers, has 107 milligrams of sodium in an 8-ounce serving, and it does taste a tad salty.

Others brands have artificial sweeteners, but you might not know it unless you read the ingredients list on the back. For example, you might expect Nestlés Pure Life Splash Lemon-Flavored Wa­ter Beverage, which costs $1.70 for six 16-ounce containers, to taste like water with a hint of lemon. But artificial sweeteners give it a candylike lemon flavor.

The takeaway: Next time you’re looking for a refreshing, noncaloric drink, try chilled tap water with a squeeze of lemon.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health. 



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