Functional beverages, including energy drinks and vitamin waters, have become extremely popular. They are promoted as offering such health benefits as boosts in mental alertness and energy, improved immunity, and help in maintaining digestive, bone, and heart health.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, functional beverages are drinks that have been enhanced with added ingredients to provide specific health benefits beyond general nutrition. Ingredients commonly used in functional drinks include caffeine, green tea, yerba mate, Vitamin C, acai, and ginkgo biloba. Energy drinks, sports and performance drinks, enhanced teas and fruit drinks, and vitamin waters are among the product segments that are in the functional beverage category. Energy drinks are the largest segment of functional beverages, making up 63% of the market share in 2008.
Functional beverages have become popular because they appeal to consumers seeking specific health benefits and convenience.
“I think the main appeal is the promise of a quick fix,” says Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “As far as beverages with added vitamins, people think they will be healthier if they drink them.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been looking into functional food and beverage claims since 2006. Both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) send occasional warning letters to product manufacturers who make unsubstantiated health claims.
Although functional beverages are marketed as healthiness-on-the-go, dietitians say consumers should be cautious in their consumption of them.
For example, beverages fortified with dietary supplements and herbals might contain too much of a good thing, says Jatun Neal, a dietitian and instructor in the Culinary department of The Art Institute of Atlanta.
“People can get vitamin overload if they are taking mega-vitamins and supplements and drinking vitamin water,” she says.
Water soluble vitamins, except vitamin B12, are directly absorbed in the intestine and pass straight to the blood. They are excreted in the urine on a daily basis
“Fat soluble vitamins, however, (including vitamins A, D, E and K) can be stored in body tissues,” Neal says. “Those can be the ones that are the most risk. Anytime you have a lot of vitamins, your body will go through the process of trying to get rid of them through vomiting, diarrhea, or deposits in other organs.”
The energy drinks that power people up all day are usually loaded with caffeine and sugar which on the downside, might cause insomnia, nervousness, irritability, and even heart palpitations. Meanwhile, “super fruit” drinks containing juice from fruits such as acai and pomegranate might have the antioxidants and nutrients to help fight joint pain, heart disease, and cancer, but they might also have added sugar or corn syrup.
People with heart conditions, high blood pressure, kidney disease, overactive thyroid, or a nervous disorder should talk to their doctor or healthcare provider before drinking energy drinks containing caffeine. These drinks include those containing the supplement guarana, a stimulant with similar characteristics as caffeine. When energy drinks are mixed with medications or nutritional supplements, higher toxicity can occur.
In addition to caffeine content, consumers should look out for functional beverages high in sugars.
“When you look at some of these functional beverages nutritionally, they are comparable to soda,” Moore says.
The American Heart Association warned of excessive sugar consumption in the 2009 edition of its journal Circulation, saying that it could lead to hypertension, high blood cholesterol levels, cardiac disease, and obesity.
In some cases a functional beverage may be appropriate, but in others they might do more harm than good. Taken sparingly and as directed, these drinks can give people a boost needed to get through the day. But, proper rest and a balanced diet are considered the best ways to stay energized and healthy.
“Sleep is essential,” Moore says. “If you want more energy, take a 10-minute walk or some physical activity to energize your mind and body.”
In general, fruit, vegetables, wholegrain foods, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats help fight fatigue.
“Try to eat a balanced meal with lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and adequate water intake,” Neal recommends. “I always tell people they will not absorb supplements like they will with food.”