Vitamin-enhanced drinks have achieved success by persuading consumers that they are more nutritious and that they can hydrate them faster than water. However, in recent years nutrition experts have become increasingly sceptical of these claims, noting that the benefits of booster beverages can be outweighed by their disadvantages.

Consulting dietician Andrea Miller MHSc, RD said that vitamin drinks might be popular as a result of health-related slogans, but these shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value. “When terminology such as ‘vitamins’ or ‘antioxidants’ or ‘immunity’ are put on packaged food items, there’s this impression that those items are healthier and will provide additional benefits. But just because those terms are there doesn’t mean that those foods are healthy or nutritious,” she said.

Vitamin overload: meeting requirements

Vitamin drinks are promoted on the basis that they provide consumers with additional nutrients. While this is largely true, the effect of this marketing can sideline the positive impact of a healthy diet, as Miller explains: “Vitamin drinks do provide as little as 5% or 6% or as high as 150% (GDA) of those nutrients, depending on which nutrient we are talking about. But most people, if they are eating a reasonably healthy, well-balanced diet with a wide variety of food, will get enough of those nutrients through their food intake, so they don’t need vitamin-enhanced water to meet their requirements.”

In fact, the consumption of vitamin-enhanced drinks can even have negative effects for someone already getting their nutrients through other means. “Fat-soluble vitamins in our liver can be stored in amounts that become dangerous,” she says. “So if an individual is consuming multiple vitamin-enhanced waters during the day plus taking other vitamin supplements, this could actually become a problem. High doses of vitamin A, for example, can cause liver damage.”

There are also issues with the claim that vitamin-enhanced drinks hydrate consumers faster than water. Sports drinks such as Gatorade can help athletes re-energise and recover electrolytes during long periods of exercise, when digestion is minimal and eating bulky food is a less attractive prospect. However, for anyone working out for shorter periods (i.e. under an hour), the high sugar content of sports drinks can make them worse for rehydration than water. “Water is absorbed fairly quickly, and some people find that if they are drinking a sports drink that’s high in sugar, it may actually cause some stomach or abdominal upset because, if they drink it quickly, sugar in the gut can actually draw water into the gut and cause gastrointestinal distress” Miller explains.

False advertising: making responsible claims

The overarching claim that vitamin drinks are ‘nutritious’ is made with some serious caveats attached. A bottle of Vitaminwater contains 33g of sugar, which is more than can be found in a 12oz can of Coke, for example. It’s for this reason that numerous nutrition websites have begun advocating homemade vitamin drink recipes, which provide nutrients without lumping in sugar and artificial sweeteners. “I suggest using something like orange juice with a little bit of sodium and water added to it, or diluting a sports beverage so that the concentration of sugar is lower,” says Miller.

Some companies, such as Coca-Cola, have seemingly acknowledged the high sugar content of their vitamin-enhanced drinks by introducing zero-calorie versions. However, Miller agrees with other commentators that companies should be more responsible about how vitamin drinks are marketed, in order to reduce the vast number of people buying vitamin-enhanced drinks unnecessarily. “Declaring that a vitamin water product does contain added sugar and being more upfront about that is hugely important so people don’t have to be a detective to understand food labels,” she says. “I also think we should be really careful not to market these beverages to children. They shouldn’t be placed in advertising that is most likely to target kids, like in sports arenas or in children’s television programmes.”

She continues: “For the average person who’s just trying to maintain an active healthy lifestyle, water is fine, alongside a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains and sources of proteins, because you can meet nutrient requirements with whole foods.”