We all need a little pick me up now and again. And if we are trying to lose weight or increase athletic performance, something that promises to give us more energy while also supporting our health goals can sound miraculous. But we live in the age of flashy marketing and quick fixes that end up doing more harm than good in the long run.
So called “health drinks” are a multi-billion dollar industry, supposedly helping people all over the world have more pep in their steps and support to be more fit. But beverage companies have devised a variety of ways to get people to buy products that may not be doing them any good. In fact, many popular sports beverages may actually be causing harm. Here we’ll look at why these “health drinks” are so popular, what they really contain, and how they affect the body.
Why “Health Drinks” Are So Popular
It’s so tempting to believe that salvation lies in a bottle. Beverage companies market to the desires of consumers looking for a quick burst of energy, or to experience the best athletic performance possible. These beverages are packaged and advertised in such a way to make people think that they are necessary for health and vitality. They play on consumers’ desires for alertness, concentration, weight loss, and physical and mental performance. They also often use claims like “all natural” while containing genetically modified ingredients, chemical derivatives, or artificial colors and flavors. Some products are marketed directly to athletes or weekend warriors, while others are designed to entice children and adolescents to “be cool” and drink up.
It is estimated that in the U.S. as many as half of the young adults and adolescents consume energy drinks, one type of “health drink.” The companies that make these drinks often sponsor extreme sports events that are popular with teens to increase their brand loyalty and young client base.
Other companies use pseudo-science to make consumers think they need their products. They fund studies about the relationship between hydration and exercise, employing scientists that publish the results that will be most beneficial to the companies. These studies are then cited to prove to consumers that they have to drink a particular sports drink or other hydration product to get the most out of their exercise.
In most cases there is a mix of truth and untruth in health drink claims. For instance, for marathon runners there is a chance of developing hyponatremia if they drink too much water. Including electrolytes in the water after a run can increase hydration and reduce the likelihood of drinking too much water. But the claim that a particular drink with its load of sugar and artificial colors is better than water with a little salt is biased towards selling products.
What Are “Health Drinks,” Really?
There are a variety of drinks marketed as “health drinks.” Some actually contain a potentially beneficial blend of electrolytes and carbohydrates, with or without chemical additives and sweeteners. Other drinks are primarily flavored water and sugar with a pretty label. There are a few categories: energy drinks, sports drinks, vitamin drinks, probiotic drinks, and drinks derived from fruit, nuts, and grains.
Energy drinks are basically artificially or naturally flavored water with caffeine. Usually they have high amounts of sugar and sodium, plus additives like the amino acid taurine, carnitine, theanine, vitamins, creatine, and guarana, an herbal caffeine concentrate. They are sold to increase short-term energy levels and boost mental clarity for a couple hours. One 16 ounce container can have as much caffeine as four cups of coffee.
Sports drinks are flavored water with carbohydrates, usually in the form of glucose, fructose, sucrose, or other sugar, plus electrolytes, minerals, and sometimes vitamins. They are marketed as a way to replace lost water and electrolytes from exercise, and support muscle recovery.
Vitamin and electrolyte drinks may also be designed to replenish exercisers, though they also are marketed to busy professionals and hipsters. They are a blend of naturally or artificially flavored water and vitamin derivatives, sometimes with minerals and herbal extracts. They are often heavily sweetened.
Coconut and aloe drinks are drawn from plants, which are quite hydrating in their natural environments, and tend to contain potassium and other minerals. As they are often mixed with sugar or heavily pasteurized, many of the beneficial properties are lost by the time the plant makes its way to the consumer.
Kombucha, kefir, and other probiotic drinks are fermented water, tea, or milk. They are designed to regulate the digestive system and restore imbalance by increasing the positive bacteria count, while also providing energy. Probiotic drinks often contain sugar, which feeds harmful bacteria and negates the positive effects of the probiotic consumption, but some of these drinks can be helpful for the digestion if they are low in sugar.
There is a wide variety of these types of beverages that can range from helpful to harmful, with most benign in small doses. Manufacturers can choose to label these drinks as beverages or dietary supplements, with different labeling requirements for each. As a dietary supplement, they can include ingredients that would not be allowed in beverages in most countries.
What These Drinks Do to the Body
Beverage companies want you to believe that their drinks will make all your dreams come true. And while some may offer potential benefits, in most cases the caffeine, sugar, and questionable additives makes the drinks possibly more harmful than beneficial. Some drinks include ingredients and ingredient combinations that have not been examined through long-term studies and their cumulative health implications are unknown.
The biggest concerns with these drinks are the caffeine and sugar content. Many of the energy drinks and some of the other health drinks are primarily caffeine delivery devices. In healthy adults, consuming up to 400mg per day of caffeine is considered safe (about four cups of coffee), with less than 300mg recommended. Acute toxicity and liver overload begins at 1g, and ingesting more than 5g can be deadly. Drinking too much caffeine, especially for several days in a row, can cause irritability, nervousness, headaches, chronic dehydration, heart beat fluctuations, insomnia, and fatigue. Having a dose of more than 300mg can cause a panic or anxiety attack, tremors, heart palpitations, ulcers, and tachycardia. At the highest doses, cerebral edema, stroke, seizures, and paralysis are potential precursors to fatality.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that children should be discouraged from consuming caffeine at all, and adolescents should be limited to less than 2.5mg per kg of bodyweight each day. In children and adolescents, frequent caffeine use can disrupt sleep patterns, worsen psychiatric disorders, raise blood pressure, cause dependence and increase the likelihood of future addictions. Energy and sports drinks are often marketed to adolescents, the very group that would do best to avoid them.
The other major danger of most health drinks is the high sugar content. Some supposed health drinks have as much sugar as soda, if not more. The sugar in these drinks can be hidden under many names – glucose, fructose, sucralose, sucrose, brown rice syrup, fruit juice concentrate, agave nectar, too name a few – but the end result is the same. While a small amount of carbohydrates after a workout can improve recovery, it is best to get those carbs in a complex form that includes fiber, such as a whole piece of fruit. Sugar depresses the metabolism and slows digestion, among many other health-destroying effects. One small study found that consuming energy drinks reduces the body’s ability to burn fat and can contribute to obesity. These drinks may be contributing to the epidemic rise of childhood obesity. Since they are associated with exercise, many parents are not aware that sports drinks can contain as much sugar as soda, sometimes a third or half of a child’s recommended daily sugar intake in a single bottle. This much sugar consumption is directly linked to increased weight gain, obesity, insulin resistance, and the development of type 2 diabetes.
Health drinks are often high in sodium, another ingredient that can add to the flavor and initial boost of brain chemicals that health drinks provide but ultimately is detrimental for health. The average sodium content in energy drinks is triple the amount in most sodas. Sodium interferes with electrolyte balance in the long run, reducing potassium levels and keeping the body from actually absorbing the water it drinks.
Taurine, an amino acid added to many energy drinks, can negatively influence physiological functions such as blood pressure, growth hormone production, and hypothalamus stimulation.
While it is present in some animal-based food products, there is five times as much taurine in some energy drinks as a person would normally get from food, and the potential toxicity of such high concentrations is as yet unknown.
What is known is that energy and other such beverages are determined safe only by the manufacturers, and there are no requirements for warning labels or testing of ingredients, or restrictions for sale to children. In general, health experts (who are not on the payroll of the beverage companies) say that using such drinks occasionally is probably safe, but the cumulative effects, especially drinking more than one serving daily, can be quite harmful to the brain, metabolism, digestion, nervous system, and bones. Rarely are they actually “healthy,” as the manufacturers want us to believe.
The truth is that there is no quick fix for fitness, and some of the best ways to improve performance and lose weight are tried and true aspects of healthy living. Get plentiful, quality sleep, and energy-boosting drinks will not look as tempting. Drink adequate water throughout the day, perhaps with a bit of sea salt, electrolytes, or trace minerals added to increase absorption, and a sports drink will not hold much appeal. If you do want a drink for flavor, adding a freshly squeezed lime or a little fruit juice to a glass of water will usually do the trick. But in our world of smoke and mirrors, where anything can be sold if it is packaged well enough, beware of mistaking sugar water for something that can actually improve your health.