Flavored Waters Are More Hype Than Health Boost
Sherri Pfefer of Weston, Fla., doesn't miss her Diet Coke habit. The soft drink didn't quench her thirst after regular tennis and gym workouts, and the caffeine and carbonation irritated her stomach. Yet tap and bottled water hold no appeal either. "I think plain water is boring," says the 37-year-old public-relations manager.
She now swears by Gatorade's Propel, one of a half-dozen brands of lightly flavored waters that have been showing up in health food stores and groceries. Flavored varieties are the latest niche in the booming market for bottled water, as marketers pitch health and exercise buffs on the perceived benefits of specialty waters. Last year, sales of bottled water topped 4 billion gallons in the United States, up 59 percent from five years ago. While the new brews are a small segment of the market, they're quickly gaining fans.
Though some have sugar, the new designer waters are still a healthier choice than sugary sports beverages and fruit drinks or caffeinated soft drinks. Additionally, some boast vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals. "They're a better alternative than the alternatives," says Lyle Micheli, director of sports medicine at Boston Children's Hospital. One popular water, Propel--which is available in only a few states until early next year--contains a modest 10 calories and 3 grams of carbohydrates per 8-ounce serving; regular Gatorade contains 50 calories and 14 grams of carbohydrates per 8-ounce serving.
All wet? Even so, many health and fitness experts say flavored waters are more marketing ploy than health bonus. Plain water, fresh from the tap, is all that the average person--even a moderate exerciser--really needs to stay hydrated, they say. "Most of them are just gimmicks," says Don Harnum, who oversees 22 teams at Pennsylvania's Susquehanna University.
Two years ago, Energy Brands Inc. launched its popular flavored-water line, Glaceau. The unsweetened beverages include Vitaminwater and Soywater. Tastier than tap water but not as sweet as most noncarbonated fruit drinks, Glaceau offers flavors like cranberry-mint Fruitwater. And Aqua Vie sells a pear-guava Avalanche. Both smell fruitier and sweeter than they taste. Ultima Replenisher boasts antioxidants. Energy Brands will soon add a ginkgo-biloba-spiked water.
These added flavorings might help people who don't drink enough water get their daily dose of fluid. Drinking enhanced waters helps Pfefer down the six to eight glasses of water nutritionists recommend daily--something that had been a struggle. Some 51 percent of Americans say they don't chug that much H2O, and 13 percent say it's because they don't like the taste, according to a survey conducted earlier this year for the International Bottled Water Association. That's no surprise, since studies have shown people will drink more of a flavored beverage.
Some flavored waters, like Energy Brands' wild cherry Vitaminwater, and Propel (in lemon, orange, and berry flavors), are laced with vitamins and electrolytes. Other waters contain additives but no flavor, such as Essentia, a filtered, purified water with electrolytes, and Oxy-water, which is pumped with extra oxygen. So far, even though Gatorade has entered the market and Coca-Cola owns the Powerade brand of sports drinks, the niche is primarily dominated by independent companies.
But flavor or no flavor, the souped-up waters are unnecessary for most people, say sports nutritionists such as Sports Medicine Brookline's Nancy Clark in Brookline, Mass. The typical exerciser, who works out for about 30 minutes a day, doesn't need vitamin and mineral supplementation assuming enough hydration and a healthy diet. A rule of thumb is to drink 8 additional ounces of fluid for every 15 to 20 minutes of exercise.
Athletes who work out vigorously for an hour or more a day need to replace sugars and electrolytes, but flavored waters don't contain enough to be useful, says Micheli. This is where sports drinks, like Powerade, can be beneficial.
At $1.29 a bottle for the pricier versions, an eight-glass-a-day flavored-water habit can be as wallet draining as an espresso addiction. Some are willing to pay the price. "We cannot keep enough of it in the fridge," says Radu Teodorescu, one of Cindy Crawford's trainers and owner of Radu's Physical Culture in New York City, which sells Glaceau Vitaminwater. Yet there is a bargain alternative: Squeeze some fresh lemon or lime and a dash of salt into a glass of plain old water.
This story appears in the July 10, 2000 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.