Choosing a beverage has become so complicated these days.
Should you reach for the orange juice spiked with calcium or the one with cholesterol-lowering plant sterols? Is it wise to guzzle amino acids along with your sports drink? Bottles of Vitaminwater claim to help you focus or fend off stress. Even soda is trying to sneak into the good-for-you category, with products such as fortified 7Up Plus.
If you haven't noticed the enhanced drinks in the supermarket aisles already, you'll see a lot more of them in years to come, according to John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, which covers the nonalcoholic beverages industry.
People are demanding more than just refreshment and great taste. They want their drinks to do it all - to help them prevent disease, protect their bones or give them a boost of energy, without too many calories.
"People drink a lot of beverages," Sicher said. "Beverages are a natural delivery system. ... Down the road, we're going to see an avalanche of beverages with functional ingredients."
As for whether they're actually good for you or worth the extra money, nutritionists are highly skeptical. A lot of what you should be drinking depends on who you are - whether you get enough calcium in your diet already, whether you're trying to lose weight or how much you exercise. Too much calcium, for example, can interfere with zinc and iron absorption or cause constipation and kidney stones, said Elisabetta Politi, nutrition manager at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C.
"I hate to think that if people are drinking this, they think they don't need to drink milk or water," she said.
Sicher said it all started with the granddaddy of functional beverages, Gatorade. Now Gatorade is even tougher than it used to be, with twice the sodium and three times the potassium in its new "Endurance Formula," compared to Gatorade Thirst Quencher. Minute Maid Premium Heart Wise contains 1 gram of plant sterols per 8-ounce serving and was clinically proven to reduce cholesterol in a University of California-Davis Medical Center study, according to The Coca-Cola Co.
7Up Plus provides 10 percent of the recommended daily levels of calcium and vitamin C in each 10-calorie, 8-ounce serving, although Sicher said it's too early to tell how popular the drink is.
Christine Moorman, the T. Austin Finch senior professor of business administration at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, said that the functional food craze is here to stay. Big companies such as Kraft and PepsiCo are getting in on the act. Consumers want low-cost ways to improve their health or at least ways to indulge without feeling quite so guilty. Their expectations are changing, as well as their notions of what healthy foods are.
"Consumers are increasingly focused on health," she said. "When you drink a beverage that has additional nutrients, you're not changing the way you are drinking. The costs of change are low."
At the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, Politi pored over the labels on a sampling of functional beverages with Marion Pierce, a dietitian clinician, and Kellie O'Connell, a dietetic intern.
Several of the ingredients in the Rockstar Energy Drink sent them scurrying to their reference books to read up on exotic ingredients such as milk thistle and guarana. Vitaminwater's slogan, "vitamins + water = all you need," made them laugh.
Read the label
Their overall advice? Don't be fooled by claims that ingredients such as echinacea will ward off colds. You have to take it at a fairly high dose for a short amount of time for it to be effective, Politi said. As for the energy-boosting abilities of some of the power drinks, beware of becoming addicted to the kick you can get from caffeine mixed with a lot of sugar. Don't bother trying to drink extra amino acids: Most Americans get way more protein than we need in a typical diet. And there's no evidence that we lack B vitamins in our diets.
The fruit-based drinks came out on top nutritionally, but they contain a lot of sugar and very little fiber, so you're better off actually eating a piece of fruit. Read the ingredients and be wary if high-fructose corn syrup is high up on the list; the sweetener is thought to be linked to the obesity epidemic. As for sports drinks, most of us don't work out hard or long enough to warrant them.
If you want more energy or a way to cope with stress, go to the gym instead, Politi said.
Or, adds Pierce, just get a good night's rest.