Everything plant-based is popular these days. The interest in plant-based “meat” is growing by leaps and bounds, but a relative newcomer on the scene are plant waters. Ever heard of them? Peruse the grocery aisle of any natural supermarket you’ll see a growing selection of water made from, believe it or not, plants. The one you’re probably most familiar with is coconut water, but coconut water now shares the aisle with banana water, cactus water, bamboo water, maple water, artichoke water, and more. No doubt, these waters are trendy – but are they as healthy as they’re portrayed?
No doubt about it. Most of us could stand to drink more water. In fact, studies show that if you’re mildly dehydrated you can experience headache, fatigue, lack of motivation, irritability, and even brain fog. Plus, if you exercise regularly, you’re at higher risk of dehydration if you don’t hydrate properly before, during, and after your sweat session. Although water is a perfectly acceptable way to hydrate, some people guzzle bottled water or a sports drink – and, now, plant waters have arrived on the scene.
What Are Plant Waters?
Plant waters are made from plant parts, including stems and leaves of plants. Manufacturers “squeeze” water from plants, modify, and then bottle it. In the case of maple water, they tap the water from a tree. No doubt, these alternative waters are thirst quenches, but makers have taken things a step further and endowed plant waters with healing properties or marketed them as nothing short of liquid superfood. Are these waters any better for you than plain water?
One of the most popular plant-based waters is coconut water. This water derived from the coconut fruit is high in potassium and contains moderate quantities of sodium and chloride, three key electrolytes you lose when you sweat. With its electrolyte profile, not surprisingly, studies have looked at whether coconut water might be an effective substitute for commercial sports drinks.
Based on research, coconut water performs as well as sports drinks for rehydration. What it lacks are the additives you find in sports drinks, like synthetic flavors/colorings, artificial sweeteners, or fillers like maltodextrin – and that’s a good thing. This makes it a more appealing option for long periods of exercise, greater than 90 minutes, although it falls a little short on sodium. You can remedy this by adding a pinch of salt to coconut water. For shorter periods of exercise, plain water is a sufficient hydration beverage as electrolyte loss won’t be a huge issue.
Other Plant Waters
Coconut water is what got it all started – but joining the line-up are other plant-based waters, including cactus water. To make this beverage, manufacturers puree fruit from the prickly pear cactus, add water, and then filter it to create an easily drinkable liquid that has a slightly sweet, fruity taste. Manufacturers point out that cactus water is a good source of antioxidants.
It’s true that cactus water contains antioxidants called betalains as well as the amino acid taurine. However, makers of this water make more elaborate claims – that cactus water has anti-aging benefits and improves sports performance. In support of the former is a study published in the American Journal of Clinic Nutrition that it improves antioxidant status in humans – but it’s a leap of faith to say cactus water slows aging or that the cactus water has enough antioxidants per serving to have health benefits. That’s what you eat fruits and vegetables for!
Watermelon water is also growing in popularity. To make it, manufacturers cut watermelon into parts, including the rind, and extract the water. The result is a beverage that contains a fair amount of vitamin C and modest quantities of potassium. In addition, watermelon is a good source of lycopene and a compound called citrulline. The citrulline content of water is intriguing. One study found that citrulline improved heart rate recovery after exercise and reduced post-workout muscle soreness. The question has also been raised as to whether citrulline could improve exercise performance. Studies looking at this issue, so far, have been disappointing.
Maple water is another plant water you hear about and as the name suggests, it comes from the sap of the maple tree. Like cactus water, makers of maple water tout its antioxidant benefits. The water does contain a variety of phenolic compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Maple water also contains various amino acids, minerals, and natural sugar, although slightly less sugar than coconut water. Again, the question is whether you get enough of the beneficial components, like minerals, from drinking maple water to have a meaningful benefit.
Watermelon, coconut, and maple water aren’t your only options – you can also drink water from the bamboo plant. Bamboo water is made by crushing bamboo and birch tree water comes from tapping the sap from the birch tree. Makers of this plant water claim that it has anti-aging benefits and helps the body detoxify, although there’s no evidence to support these claims. On the plus side, birch water does contain amino acids, potassium, and natural sugars.
Plant water options continue to grow. On store shelves, you can find banana water, barley water, artichoke water, and even olive water. These drinks contain varying quantities of minerals, amino acids, natural sugars, and antioxidants, none has an ingredient list that gives it “super beverage” status as the makers would have you believe.
Some Plant Water Contains Added Sugar
Not all plant waters are totally natural. For example, at least one company that makes banana water enhances their it with banana flavoring and also adds additional nutrients. Some plant water has added sugar as well. For the most part, plant waters contain less sugar and other unhealthy stuff than sports drinks and, in the case of coconut water, it’s an acceptable sports drink for long periods of exercise. But don’t buy into overinflated claims that manufacturers that market these drinks claim. If you’re looking for antioxidants and minerals, a big plate of fruits and vegetables will do the trick.
Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition20129: DOI: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-
Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Aug;80(2):391-5
J Agric Food Chem. 2013 Aug 7;61(31):7522-8. doi: 10.1021/jf400964r. Epub 2013 Jul 29.
J Sports Sci. 2015;33(14):1459-66. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2014.990495. Epub 2014 Dec 17.
Journal of Functional Foods. Volume 5, Issue 4, October 2013, Pages 1582–1590.