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IMAGE 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 benefits or 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:

Herbs Health-Related Claims
Ginseng Enhances energy
Ginkgo Enhance memory and mental alertness
Guarana Enhances energy
Echinacea Stimulates the body’s defenses
St. John’s Wort Enhances mood
Kava Promotes relaxation

Safety Issues

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 that miniscule amount of ginseng that has been added to diet iced tea? And what are the long-term effects of consuming these products?

There are still many questions that need to be answered through scientific research. There have not been as many studies focused on herbal remedies as much as traditional medications. Some studies have been able to point out side effects, but in many cases, the overall effectiveness of herbals is inconclusive.

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:

  • Drink in moderation—Though the amount of added ingredients is very small, do not overdo it. Drinking excessive amounts of these beverages or consuming them regularly over a long period of time may lead to problems.
  • Know your allergies—If you are allergic to an herb, you may have a reaction regardless of the amount of the herb in the drink.
  • Watch the extra calories—Some of these drinks, particularly sodas and juices, may contain several hundred calories in a bottle. If you enjoy flavored drinks, try the flavored waters, which have fewer calories.
  • Be cautious about what you are consuming—Learn about safety issues that may be associated with herbs. For example, kava has been banned in some countries (not in the US) because of case reports of liver damage and St. John's Wort has been found to interact with many prescription medications.

Keep in mind, too, that these functional beverages can be expensive. You may choose to go for a cheaper choice, like plain water.

  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

    http://nccam.nih.gov

  • US Food and Drug Administration

    http://www.fda.gov

  • Health Canada Food and Nutrition

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Public Health Agency of Canada

    http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca

  • Barnes J, Winter G. Stressed out? Bad knee? Relief promised in a juice. New York Times. May 27, 2001.

  • Herbs at a glance. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/herbsataglance.htm. Updated January 20, 2014. Accessed February 4, 2014.

  • Jacobson M, Silverglade B, Heller I. Functional foods: health boon or quackery? West J Med. 2000;172(1):8-9.

  • Questions and answers about energy drinks and health. Food Insight website. Available at: http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=Questions%5Fand%5FAnswers%5FAbout%5FEnergy%5FDrinks%5Fand%5FHealth%5F. Published May 31, 2011. Accessed February 4, 2014.