Herbal Drinks: the New Liquid Drugstore?
Walk down any beverage aisle in your local supermarket, and you may think you’ve been transported to a pharmacy. Once plain juices, waters, and sodas are now bursting with exotic additives—ginseng, kava, ginkgo, and others—that promise to pump you up, relax you, or improve your memory. There’s even a new name for these drinks: “functional beverages.”
Today, Americans spend an estimated $5 billion on functional beverages. Do these ingredients really “work” when added to drinks? And if so, what happens when we eclectically mix and match these ingredients?
What’s Being Added?
To avoid entanglement with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has strict guidelines about product health claims, most drink manufacturers carefully refrain from making direct promises about curing diseases. However, product labels list ingredients and often outline general benefits of these ingredients, leaving consumers to draw their own conclusions about the potential health effects of the drink.
Some common herbal ingredients used in functional drinks and their supposed associated benefits, as listed by the manufacturers, include:
|Ginkgo||Enhance memory and mental alertness|
|Gotu Kola||Keeps you alert|
|Echinacea||Stimulates the body’s defenses|
|St. John’s Wort||Enhances mood|
Questions have been raised about the possible risks and/or benefits of adding herbs to beverages. Manufacturers claim there is no risk, since added quantities are minimal. John Bello, founder of SoBe, was quoted in the National Products Industry Insider as saying, “There’s not a lot of science behind a lot of this stuff. But at the levels [of herbs] being used… it’s not a big issue.”
It's true, the levels at which these herbs are typically added to beverages are so low, there's little chance you'll notice any effect—positive or negative. Except, of course, on your wallet. Functional beverages are pricier than plain old bottled water.
While the risk of adverse effects is small with such low levels of herbs, the chance of health benefits is pretty slim as well. Herbs are not essential nutrients. Therefore you can't be deficient in ginseng or echinacea, as you can be deficient in, say, iron or folate. Foods that are fortified with iron or folate can provide health benefits to people who don't consume enough of these nutrients.
In traditional cultures, herbs are prescribed in specific quantities and combinations to treat certain medical conditions. But how effective is a miniscule amount of ginseng that’s been added to diet iced tea? And what are the long-term effects of consuming these products?
Dr. Paul LaChance, executive director of the Nutraceuticals Institute at Rutgers University, agrees that these questions have yet to be answered by scientific research. "The new herbally enhanced beverage products are developed by marketing departments, not scientists," he notes. But in his opinion, consumers are probably at little risk because “the amount of ingredients in these products is quite minimal.”
What to Keep in Mind When Consuming Functional Drinks
The bottom line is that researchers are still not sure what the benefits, risks, or long-term effects (if any) will be from drinking functional beverages. For now, keep these tips in mind:
- Drink in Moderation—though the amount of added ingredients is very small, don’t overdo it. Drinking excessive amounts of these beverages or consuming them regularly over a long period of time may lead to problems.
- Know Your Allergies—if you are allergic to an herb, you may have a reaction regardless of the amount of the herb in the drink.
- Watch the Extra Calories—some of these drinks—particularly sodas and juices—may contain several hundred calories in a bottle. If you enjoy flavored drinks, try the flavored waters, which have fewer calories.
- Avoid Kava—this herb has been taken off the market in Canada, Australia, and Germany because it unexpectedly caused severe liver damage in a number of previously healthy people. Researchers don't know how kava causes this damage nor at what levels. It is possible that even small amounts can cause harm.
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Council for Responsible Nutrition
US Food and Drug Administration
Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
Barnes J, Winter G. "Stressed Out? Bad Knee? Relief Promised in a Juice.” New York Times. May 27, 2001.
“Functional Foods Under Fire.” National Products Industry Insider.
Last reviewed May 2008 by Dianne Scheinberg MS, RD, LDN
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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