Health in a Bottle?

Feb 10, 2011 | Susan Brissette | Heads or Tails
Health in a Bottle?

image by: Mike Mozart

In the past decade there has been an explosion of 'health' drinks as opposed to 'energy' drinks. But, is it possible to find health in a bottle?

Remember the movie Soylent Green, the 1970s sci fi film that depicted people eating mostly soylent green, small green wafers of high energy nutrition? Well, things aren't quite that bad yet but the newest wave of consumables has that slightly eery quality as well.

There has been an explosion of "health drinks" introduced over the past several years, building more stories onto the dynasty created by the one of the original good-for-you-drinks, the sports beverage. Health drinks have expanded their roles past the simple goal of rehydration to lending an assist in providing an energy boost, inducing relaxation, fighting cancer, boosting the immune system and more. So, let's see what's out there.

Relaxation Drinks

Otherwise known as unwinders or downers, relaxation drinks promote their ability to take the edge off stress and anxiety, and even help you sleep, according to the companies that sell them. Just a few years ago there were only two companies manufacturing relaxation drinks.  Nearly 100 new relaxation beverages have appeared in the past three years, according to market-research firm Datamonitor. 1 

Sporting names like iChill, Slow Cow and Vacation in a Bottle, these beverages typically contain plant extracts and sometimes natural human hormones that are designed to make you less tense without impairing your function as much as alcohol. Some drinks have sugar, but others use low-calorie sweeteners. 2  

The primary human hormone used in many of these drinks is melatonin, an ingredient which has been shown to aid sleep in healthy people and help fight insomnia; it’s available over the counter. The problem is that some of these drinks contain a very high dose of melatonin, enough to create concerns. In fact, the FDA issued a Jan. 13, 2010 warning letter to Innovative Beverage stating that melatonin, an ingredient in Drank, is not an approved food additive. 3  

Two other common ingredients are kava root and L-theanine. Kava root has received (an unusual) grade of "A" for treatment of anxiety from Natural Standard Research Collaboration, a Cambridge, Mass., scientist-owned group that evaluates natural therapies. But, Kava root should be used cautiously, particularly in people at risk for liver problems.  L-theanine, one of the predominant amino acids found in green tea has been historically used as a relaxing agent and clinical studies seem to have substantiated its relaxant properties. 4,5

Customer satisfaction with these drinks seems to be pretty strong, based on comments in blogs and chat rooms; they seem to give people a sense of relaxation. In fact, the beverage “Mini Chill” has acquired scientific proof that it works effectively and without negative side effects. Clinical trials conducted on 60 healthy adults, found that 51 of them experienced increased relaxation and improved mental focus. 6  

Okay, are relaxation drinks are a good thing? We’d say yes…in a qualified way. Here are the issues we see. There is always the concern with unregulated products that you are not actually getting the amount of active ingredient that the container suggests so you really don’t know for sure what you are drinking. 

The bigger issue, however, is that once again, these drinks are being promoted to teens. In fact, one of these beverages called Mary Jane, leaves the strong impression that it can be considered an alternative to smoking marijuana. There is concern that teens (and adults) will use the drinks to cover symptoms of stress and anxiety rather than treating the underlying causes. Plus, there’s the issue of teens especially relying on these beverages to regulate their lives rather than getting the right amount of sleep and working on leading a balance life.

Sports Drinks

On the other hand, sports drinks have been part of the athletic landscape for decades. Seen as the optimal way to rehydrate, sports drinks have become a necessity on the field and on the court. And their manufacturers spend plenty of money to be sure it stays that way. Pepsi-owned Gatorade, which has an 80.2 percent market share, contributed 15 percent of Pepsi's profit growth in the 2006 fiscal year. 7

Essentially sports drinks contain electrolytes, carbohydrates and water. Newer additions even include vitamins, minerals and other supplements such as coconut water. There are three categories of sports drinks; isotonic drinks add carbohydrates and are designed for the average athlete, hypotonic drinks are meant for low-perspiration athletes and hypertonic drinks add a big carbohydrate boost for endurance athletes.

Of interest, there’s an up and coming addition to the sports drink market, coconut water. Taken from the young, green coconut, it offers many of the same isotonic benefits as formulated sports drinks but in an all-natural form. No additions are necessary, not even sweetener. The drink offers calcium, magnesium, and potassium to the sports enthusiast without the need for fortification. Coconut water is also described as being “hypo-allergenic” which means that it causes few or no allergic reactions. The big drawback is the price, which can be over $2 for an 11 ounce bottle.

The question is, are sports drinks necessary? Since our body loses fluid during exercise it seems to make sense to rehydrate and replace electrolytes with sports drinks. However, the body manages the content of perspiration to ensure that only small amounts of electrolytes are lost. The kidneys also conserve fluids and electrolytes by cutting back on urine production during exercise. Research suggests that you need to engage in at least one hour of strenuous exercise such as running before electrolytes need to be replenished.  So, for many athletes and for most people who drink sports drinks, the benefit is unnecessary

In reality, the best choice for hydration is water. It hydrates better than any other liquid, both before and during exercise. Experts say you need to drink 4-6 ounces or 150cc of water for every 15-20 minutes of exercise. The problem is, many people stop drinking water before they get fully hydrated.

The advantage of sports drinks is that they are flavored and their sweet/tart taste is not as thirst quenching so people tend to drink more, creating better rehydration. And sports drinks are often a better choice than fruit juices, which aren’t good thirst quenchers either. Plus, the fruit sugars slow down water absorption so rehydration is not as rapid. And, they are also better than soda which is often high in calories, has no nutritive value and the acid content is hard on the teeth.

But, here’s the rub. Sports drinks typically have a good deal of sugar and sodium in them.  While not as caloric as soda and fruit juice, experts at the University of California at Berkeley's Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health have said that students who drink one 20-ounce sports drink every day for a year may gain about 13 pounds. 8

Products such as Gatorade contain 12-14% of the recommended daily allowance for sodium. People are already consuming more sodium than recommended; sports drinks just add to the excess sodium burden. The added problem is this: sedentary teens and children are drinking sports drinks right along with their hard exercising counterparts when it is clear that non-exercisers have no need for the additional electrolytes, carbohydrates and sodium.

Antioxidant Drinks

Lastly, there is antioxidant drinks (supplement/superfood drinks). Considerable laboratory evidence indicates that antioxidants may slow or possibly prevent the development of cancer potentially caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals. As a result, there are dozens of natural antioxidant drink variations with two of the most popular being acai berry and pomegranate. Acai berries, reddish purple fruit grown in South American rain forests and pomegranates, the fruit of a shrub that originated in the Middle East but now grows in California and Arizona, are both known to contain high levels of antioxidants.

Research on pomegranate juice has shown that they may help reduce the formation of fatty deposits on artery walls and in a variety of reported studies suppresses inflammatory cell signaling proteins in colon, lung and prostate cancer. 9,10

There has been far less research on the acai berry. However, a Texas A&M study proved that the acai is absorbed into the body, which suggests that its antioxidant properties are available for use in fighting disease. There are concerns, however, that the method of processing the acai berry may profoundly affect its ability to deliver antioxidants. Apparently, pasteurizing, a typical juice production method, destroys a large amount of the berry’s disease-fighting properties, but freeze drying avoids this problem. 11  

It’s worth mentioning Noni juice. Noni, a shrub which originated from Southeast Asia but later spread in some parts of Pacific Islands, West Indies, and India, has been used by native people as a preventative and treatment for a number of problems. Noni contains high amount of vitamin C, vitamin B3, potassium, and iron. Micronutrients such as calcium, sodium, and vitamin A are also present but in moderate amount.

However, like acai berries, much of the nutrient value of the noni fruit is lost when pasteurized. Noni juice is sold with a variety of claims about health benefits from cancer prevention to easing migraines and treating ulcers. However, there is no reliable clinical evidence that noni juice is effective in preventing or treating cancer or any other disease in humans. The FDA has warned noni juice manufacturers about making unsubstantiated claims. 12,13

So, is it possible to find health in a bottle?

Relaxation drinks seem to do what they say they do...effective and generally not harmful. On the minus side, you may want to stay away from drinks with high levels of melatonin. And don't forget to monitor your teens’ use. However, if you routinely need a drink of any kind to relax, it might be better to deal with rather than cover up the stressors in your life.

Sports drinks are okay when they are used replace fluids and electrolytes after heavy exercise. When used by the casual athlete or the wannabe, they add unnecessary calories and sodium. Many people prefer the taste to water so they are apt to drink more and rehydrate faster. And sports drinks are a better alternative than soda or fruit juice. On the minus side, water is better, cheaper and doesn’t add unnecessary carbohydrates or sodium to the already over processed diet of most people. Vitamin waters are probably OK, if you can afford them. But, if you can’t or would rather spend your money more sensibly, drink water and take a vitamin pill, or better yet eat healthy.

Antioxidant drinks seem like the real deal but watch out for how they are manufactured and handled. On the plus side, properly processed juices drinks made with anti-oxidant fruits such as pomegranate and acai berry may help you fight disease. On the minus side, processing can make a big difference in the amount of disease-fighting product you are receiving and these drinks tend to be expensive. In the case of pomegranates, you might do better to simply eat the fruit.

Noni juice is unpleasant (the noni fruit is nicknamed vomit fruit), processing is unregulated, it’s expensive and currently there appears to be no published evidence of benefit.

The Bottom Line

For most of us it makes sense to stay well hydrated with good old-fashioned water, spend the extra money on high quality foods to get the best health bang for the buck and finally, if you just can’t get away from the stress, try a relaxation drink. If you can find one! 

Published February 10, 2011, updated July 18, 2012


  1. Ten Trends to hit supermarket shelves in 2010, Datamonitor, 13 January 2010
  2. Leung W, Need to Take a Chill Pill?, The Globe and Mail, Feb. 10, 2010
  3. Johannes L, Drinks Intended to Calm You, Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2010
  4. Lu K, The acute effects of L-theanine in comparison with alprazolam on anticipatory anxiety in humans, Hum Psychopharmacol. 2004 Oct;19(7):457-65
  5. Weeks B, Formulations of dietary supplements and herbal extracts for relaxation and anxiolytic action: Relarian, Med Sci Monit 2009; 15(11): RA 256 - 262
  6. Mini Chill Relaxation Drink The First Of Its Kind To Publish Clinical Trials Backing Effectiveness, PRLOG Feb 13, 2010
  7. Should Drinks Like Gatorade Sport the 'Junk Food' Label? Washington Post, Sep 25, 2009
  8. Sports Drinks Fact Sheet, University of California at Berkeley's Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health
  9. Lovgren S, Pomegranate Juice Fights Heart Disease, Study Says, National Geographic News, March 22, 2005
  10. UW Study Shows Pomegranate Juice Helps Fight Lung Cancer, University of Wisconsin, April 4, 2008
  11. Brazilian Acai Berry Antioxidants Absorbed by Human Body, Research Shows, Science Daily, Oct. 17, 2008
  12. Noni Plant, American Cancer Society, November 2008
  13. Noni Juice, FDA Enforcement Agency, 2006

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