Touting a halo of healthiness, supercharged waters with benefits—essential vitamins and minerals to keep our energy soaring and mood buoyant—sound like the perfect, quick nutritional fix. But the story behind them is a lot more complicated. In the U.S., one maker of these drinkable supplements is being sued for misleading health claims, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called the drinks “vitamins plus water plus sugar plus hype.” So what are we really drinking? We asked the nutrition experts for their take.
THE SUGAR: If you’re scouring the label for sugar content, you’re out of luck—at least
if the product was bottled in Canada. Here, water fortified with vitamins is classified by
Health Canada as a natural-health product (NHP)—just like your daily multivitamin—and not a food product. And NHPs aren’t required by law to list nutritional information on their label. “Many of these drinks have anywhere from 20 to 33 grams of sugar,” says Tristaca Caldwell, a Nova Scotia–based registered dietitian and professor of nutrition and dietetics at Acadia University. That’s enough sugar to rival some cans of straight-up soda.
THE VITAMINS: Vitamin-enriched drinks sound beneficial, but we don’t know how well those nutrients are being absorbed into our bodies, points out Calgary-based registered dietitian Andrea Holwegner. Often our bodies require other compounds to be present before they’ll suck anything up. Take vitamin D and calcium for instance—without the first, we barely take in any of the second, which explains why milk contains vitamin D. Some fortified waters, for instance, claim to crank up your energy level with high doses of B vitamins. Sure, those vitamins are involved with metabolic reactions, so topping them up could possibly revive your energy, but only if you’re deficient in B vitamins, says Caldwell. And since they’re found in grain-rich foods, such as cereal, bread and rice, we aren’t typically left lacking. Any excess B is just flushed out of your body.
THE WATER: “If you’re doing high-intensity exercise, afterwards you do need an extra source of carbohydrates or sugar to help you recover from the workout,” says Holwegner. But a sports drink such as Gatorade or Powerade would serve you better than a vitamin-enhanced water if your workout lasts longer than an hour: “Sports drinks have a blend of carbohydrates in the ideal amounts so we absorb them quickly,” says Caldwell. She points out that some fortified waters contain excess carbs, which can actually hinder hydration. “In that case, we also don’t absorb the fluids that are with the carbohydrates.” Another post-workout option that’s all the rage is coconut water, which has earned a rep for being “nature’s sports drink,” thanks to its levels of carbs, electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium) and vitamin C.
THE BOTTOM LINE: If you just like the taste of vitamin-enriched waters, treat them like pop—an indulgence best enjoyed sparingly. But if you’re after the health benefits, you’re better off downing a glass of water along with a multivitamin. If water’s too blah for you—one major reason women reach for sugar-loaded drinks—go half-and-half with juice. Or try adding fresh strawberries, blueberries or cucumbers. You’ll liven up the flavour—and who knows what extra vitamins will find their way into your water?
“The Truth About Vitamin Enriched Water” has been edited for Flare.com; the complete story, “Bottle Service”, appears in the December issue of FLARE magazine.