Have you seen all of those “fancy” beverages lining store shelves? Functional beverages are drinks that provide health benefits beyond basic hydration. They contain added ingredients claimed to provide nutritional value or specific health effects.
The functional beverage market has grown rapidly in recent years. This has been fueled by consumer interest in convenient and healthy products that offer additional health benefits. But do these drinks really deliver meaningful health benefits? Let’s take a closer look.
What Makes a Beverage “Functional”
Beverages are functional if they contain added ingredients intended to provide health benefits. Common additions include:
- Vitamins and minerals: Added to boost intake of important nutrients.
- Herbs and botanicals: Believed to have medicinal or health-promoting properties.
- Probiotics and prebiotics: Live microorganisms and fibers that support gut health.
- Protein and amino acids: Help build muscle and satisfy hunger.
- Added fiber: Improves digestion and heart health.
- Antioxidants: Compounds that combat cell damage from free radicals
- Anti-inflammatory agents: Ingredients purported to reduce inflammation.
- Bioactive compounds: Substances from foods that may have specific health effects.
Examples of popular functional beverage categories include sports and protein drinks, ready-to-drink teas, enhanced waters, juice blends, smoothies, and probiotic drinks. The ingredients added set them apart from standard beverages.
Do Functional Beverages Actually Provide Health Benefits?
The evidence behind functional beverage claims is mixed. Most independent experts agree that added nutrients and ingredients can provide benefits. However, the health advantages are often overstated. Companies can promote promised benefits without strong scientific evidence to back them up. This makes it hard for consumers to know if these drinks really provide the advantages they tout.
There’s also little oversight on ingredient quality, production methods, or testing procedures. For most consumers, whole foods remain the best way to obtain needed vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds. However, functional beverages may help fill nutritional gaps and contribute to better health.
Potential benefits linked to common functional beverage ingredients include:
- Improved hydration and electrolyte absorption from drinks with added minerals
- Increased vitamin and mineral intake essential for health
- Protein and amino acids help build muscle when combined with exercise.
- Probiotics and prebiotics to support digestive and immune function.
- Fiber and antioxidants for improved heart health and reduced disease risk
- Anti-inflammatory effects that may ease joint pain and help manage chronic inflammation.
- Herbs and botanicals with medicinal properties in some cases
But the extent of these benefits can vary greatly. Vitamins and minerals added at significant percentages of the Daily Value are more likely to have an effect. Probiotic strains clinically shown to survive the digestive tract and confer specific benefits are more credible.
Herbal supplements provide plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These plant-based components may reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and offer antioxidant protection. However, the quantity of protein or herbs needed for real impacts may be impractical in a beverage.
Plus, we need more research to determine the ideal strains, dosages, and formulations to provide specific health benefits. And there’s another downside. Functional beverages contain added sugars, artificial sweeteners, or fruit juices to improve palatability. This undercuts potential wellness benefits and contradicts the “healthy” messaging in marketing. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake, as high-sugar diets are linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Even with promising ingredients like probiotics or vitamins, the negatives of these popular beverages may outweigh the upsides. This is the case if you drink functional beverages as a substitute for whole foods like fruits, veggies, and fiber-rich grains. Plus, to get benefits, you’d need to drink these beverages consistently, rather than just occasionally.
Have a Healthy Dose of Skepticism
When it comes to functional beverage benefits, be skeptical. Independent testing often finds nutrient levels lower than claimed on labels. And health claims around ingredients like herbs and collagen are often not backed by strong clinical evidence.
However, functional beverages may still have a role in a healthy lifestyle. Just be sure to view marketing claims critically. Functional beverages should complement, not replace, a diet focused on whole, minimally processed foods and beverages.
Moderation is also wise – don’t overconsume a single functional ingredient or rely on these products as elixirs of health. Within reason, functional drinks can be part of a balanced approach to better nutrition and wellbeing.
Chose Whole Foods Instead
Eating whole, minimally processed foods is the best way to get all the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other beneficial compounds your body needs. For example, an orange contains not just vitamin C but also antioxidants, flavonoids, and fiber that work together to promote health.
A formulated beverage can’t match the complexity of real food, with its thousands of interacting nutrients and phytochemicals. Even one with added protein, vitamins or probiotics misses the natural synergy you get from biting into an apple or enjoying a serving of yogurt.
Rather than seeking out functional drinks, it’s smarter to build your diet around whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and quality protein. Not only will this cover more of your nutritional needs, but the act of chewing whole foods slows digestion and absorption, leading to better blood sugar control.
The fiber in real food also promotes good gut health and microbiome diversity. For most people, water is the ideal beverage, with low-fat dairy, coffee and tea also providing benefits. But we can get fluid from eating fruits and veggies too. Wholesome minimally processed meals and snacks are the easiest way to get what your body truly thrives on.
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- “Functional Beverages: The Emerging Side of Functional Foods.” 20 Oct. 2014, https://ift.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1541-4337.12109.
- “Consumers Demand Functional Beverages – The Food Institute.” 01 May. 2023, https://foodinstitute.com/focus/consumers-demand-functional-beverages/.