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There's no doubt that drinking lots of water is good for us. The many benefits of staying properly hydrated include glowing skin, enhanced mental function, a healthy immune system and the ability to recover faster after a good workout. While tap water is the simplest and cheapest way to hydrate, even die-hard water drinkers will admit that plain water can sometimes get a little, well, plain ... and boring.
Enter fruity, flavorful and oh-so-fun enhanced waters. Plenty of companies are jumping on the fact that Americans want less sugary beverages and are flooding the market with specialty waters. In 2017, the enhanced water market grew to $3.7 billion in sales, according to Beverage Marketing Corporation’s DrinkTell Database. And it's continuing to climb.
But what's really in them and are they still as healthy as plain H2O? TODAY Food took a deeper dive into the flavored-water pool.
Unsweetened, flavor-infused water
If you’re looking for hydration but want a little flavor in your water to spice things up, you could just add a few slices of lemon to your water. That was the concept behind Hint water when it was conceived by founder Kara Goldin in 2005. Consumers loved the idea and the company has seen double digit growth each year over the past 13 years.
Infused waters, like Hint, Just Water Infused and Dasani Flavors, start with plain spring or purified water, which is then enhanced with natural fruit flavorings. In the case of Just Water (co-founded by Jaden Smith), they use organic fruit essences. With Hint, the flavors are derived from non-GMO plants. No sweeteners are added to these beverages and they don’t contain calories, making them a good-for-you option if you're seeking a little extra something.
Many infused waters contain citric acid in their natural flavorings to provide a sour, fruit-forward flavor profile. But citric acid, though natural, creates an acidic environment in your mouth, which can lead to tooth erosion. You can avoid this by not holding the flavored water in your mouth too long and don't even think about brushing your teeth with this — plain water is definitely your best bet there!
Unsweetened, flavor-infused sparkling water
These popular products, which are flavored with natural flavors (Hint Fizz, Bubly and LaCroix) or fruit juice, as is the case with Spindrift, are combined with carbonated water. These drinks add a pop of flavor and fizz that is refreshing and subtle, without any sweetness.
Spindrift uses various fresh fruit and vegetable juices to add flavor to their fizzy drinks. The amount of fruit juice in Spindrift can range from 5 to 10 percent of the drink, depending on the flavor. The juice adds between one to 15 calories per can. Other than the cucumber flavor, the company says it does not include citric acid in its drinks.
As is the case with still waters that are infused with fruit flavors, the sparkling varieties can also include citric acid. Carbonated water also contains carbonic acid, which makes the beverage even more acidic, and therefore potentially more damaging to the enamel on your teeth. Enjoy these drinks with meals, which stimulates the flow of saliva, helping to remove the acids from your teeth.
Sweetened, infused water
These waters don't just boast hints of fruit, they're also sweet and have very few (or zero) calories. Bai, which was snapped up by Snapple's parent company in 2016 for $1.7 billion, calls itself an “antioxidant infusion.” And the company also has Justin Timberlake, inventor of the viral "braspberry," as its "Chief Flavor Officer."
Along with filtered water and a proprietary, calorie-free sweetener blend of stevia and erythritol, Bai contains fruit juice concentrate, natural flavors, coffee fruit extract, white tea extract, citric acid and sodium citrate — a far cry from the plain stuff coming out of the tap. The coffee fruit provides both caffeine and antioxidants but can be an unwelcome surprise if you're trying to hydrate before bed. An 18-ounce bottle of Bai Antioxidant Infusion contains 10 calories of infused water.
Back to those sweeteners in Bai. The front of the label advertises “No artificial sweeteners.” Stevia is naturally derived from the stevia leaf, but what about that erythritol? It does occur naturally in certain foods, including mushrooms, cherries, asparagus and sweet potatoes, but how is it made in large quantities?
It’s made when a fungi called Moniliella pollinis ferments on corn or wheat. Until the FDA comes up with a definition, the use of the term “natural” on labels is up to the discretion of a brand, so the type of sweetener used in Bai may be a naturally-derived substance — but it's not naturally occurring.
One of the first brands to make a big splash in this category, Vitamin Water Zero, is still a big player in the space. It contains reverse osmosis water, citric acid, vegetable juice for color, stevia as a sweetener, gum acacia (an emulsifier), plus electrolytes, B vitamins, vitamin C and beta carotene. It contains another ingredient called gum rosin, which is derived from the stump of the longleaf pine and is used as a stabilizer. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has questioned its safety as a food additive.
Many individuals, especially those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), are sensitive to sugar alcohols, including erythritol. If you have too much of it, you may develop gas or other gastrointestinal issues. If you’re prone to these types of GI complaints, go easy on drinks sweetened with any type of sugar alcohols.
According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a non-profit science communication organization, “Long-term benefits have not been established for sugar alcohols and further research is needed to document their health effects.” If you’re looking for a drink that also has electrolytes or added vitamins, these beverages can be a good choice once in a while. But for everyday hydration, plain water is still your best choice.
Sweetened, flavor-infused sparkling water
Sparkling Ice is a carbonated water that launched long before the flavored water craze took hold. It came out in 1992 and was originally sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. It was later sweetened with Nutrasweet and then updated in 1998 to include Splenda (sucralose). It also contains fruit juice concentrates (but not enough to add calories), green tea extract (but not enough to add caffeine), preservatives, vitamin A, D and several B vitamins.
Bai Bubbles contains the same sweeteners as its still counterpart, as well as juice concentrate, coffee fruit and white tea extract. A serving provides 20 percent of your daily value needs for vitamin C. An 11.5-ounce can contains 5 calories and 45 milligrams of caffeine.
Hydration is great, but you may not want caffeine, too. Also, concern around artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, has grown recently due to a variety of factors. A recent study from George Washington University found that consuming large amounts of artificial sweeteners may be contributing to the obesity epidemic by promoting the accumulation of body fat.
Drinking the occasional, artificially sweetened beverage is fine for most individuals, but it's not a good idea to consume several in a day.
Most folks are happy to drink coffee to perk up and hydrate later with water, but people who want their beverage to do double duty turn to this category. Caffeinated water may contain caffeine that’s been extracted from green, un-roasted coffee beans, or it may come from a combination of ingredients, such as coffee fruit extract and white tea extract (which is what Bai uses in its beverages), or a combination of organic green coffee beans, ginseng and guarana, which is found in Hi-Ball.
Caffeine content varies from brand to brand. Some have relatively low amounts, like the 30 milligrams found in Bai beverages, which is equivalent to a cup of green tea. You’ll find 60 milligrams in Hint Kick and a whopping 160 milligrams of caffeine in Hi-Ball Sparkling Energy Water, the equivalent of a Grande iced coffee at Starbucks. Other brands in the category include Avitae, Water Joe and Hydrive.
If you read your beverage labels thoroughly and know what you’re getting in terms of caffeine, then these beverages are fine for occasional consumption. However, if you're simply pulling bottles off the store shelf in a hurry without really analyzing them, you could be getting more than you bargained for. Pregnant women, teens, and anyone with a heart condition should be careful with these beverages and limit the amount of caffeine they consume.
There are so many different ways to hydrate these days — it's clear we've come a long way from watered-down water. If you love fruit flavors and want to try something new, these new beverages can make a great addition to your hydration rotation — just take a few extra seconds to read what's in the fine print.
Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, is a nutrition expert, writer, mom of three and best-selling author. Her books include "Feed the Belly," "The CarbLovers Diet" and "Eating in Color." Follow her @FrancesLRothRD and check out her website.
This post was originally published on Sept. 13, 2017.