Herbal Drinks: the New Liquid Drugstore?
Walk down any beverage aisle in your local supermarket, and you may think you have been transported to a pharmacy. Once plain juices, waters, and sodas are now bursting with exotic additives—ginseng, ginkgo, and others—that promise to pump you up, relax you, or improve your memory. There is even a name for these drinks: “functional beverages.” Do these ingredients really “work” when added to drinks?
What Is 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:
Questions have been raised about the possible risks and benefits of adding herbs to beverages. Herbs are not essential nutrients. Therefore, you cannot be deficient in ginseng or echinacea, as you can be deficient in, say, iron. Foods that are fortified with iron can provide health benefits to people who do not consume enough of these nutrients.
In some cultures, herbs are prescribed in specific quantities and combinations to treat certain medical conditions. But, how effective is a miniscule amount of ginseng that has been added to diet iced tea? And what are the long-term effects of consuming these products?
Dr. Paul LaChance, former executive director of the Nutraceuticals Institute at Rutgers University, feels that these questions have yet to be answered by scientific research. "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:
Keep in mind, too, that these functional beverages can be expensive. You may choose to go for a cheaper choice, like plain water.
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.
Jacobson M, Silverglade B, Heller I. Functional foods: health boon or quackery? West J Med. 2000;172(1):8-9.
Kava. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary/. Updated August 1, 2011. Accessed May 16, 2012.
Questions and answers about energy drinks and health. Food Insight website. Available at: http://www.foodins.... Published May 31, 2011. Accessed May 16, 2012.
Last reviewed May 2012 by Brian Randall, MD