Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley released a study that criticizes the marketing and formulation of popular beverages such as energy drinks, sports drinks and flavored waters. The study concludes that these well-distributed beverages contain some natural and artificial ingredients in quantities that haven’t yet been proven safe. It also argues that many of the products don’t provide their marketed benefits.
The study, conducted by Shauna Pirotin, Christina Becker and Patricia B. Crawford of the university’s Atkins Center for Weight and Health, looked at ingredient panels and surveyed existing studies to analyze the marketing, formulaic and health concerns connected to 21 different products across several beverage categories.
The study’s stinging conclusion: “It appears that the marketing of fortified beverages as beneficial or health-enhancing is premature at best, and deceptive at worst.”
Interviewed by KQED last month, a representative of the American Beverage Association, which represents the makers of the drinks examined, dismissed the study as spin, citing its connection to an attempt to tax sugar sweetened beverages in California.
The researchers attacked energy drinks for exposing children to caffeine levels that may exceed recommended levels, citing previous studies like Effects of Caffeine on Human Health.
The study, which noted that energy drinks are second only to CSDs as a caffeine source for many teenagers, includes some previously-aired concerns related to caffeine intake from energy drinks, such as seizure activity, heart arrhythmia, increased blood pressure, attention and behavior problems, sleep disturbances, jitteriness, nervousness and its relationship to alcohol consumption.
Red Bull, one of the brands featured in the study, has defended itself against critical studies and politicians by taking a page out of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) book. On its website, the company notes that one 250 mL can of Red Bull contains 80 milligrams of caffeine, about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee. The company also notes that, in 2009, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that other key ingredients are of no health concern.
The study also took aim at sports drinks, indicating that they are being used for purposes other than rehydration and are being consumed in greater-than-recommended amounts.
“Although sports drink were originally developed as a carbohydrate replacement for athletes, there is a common misconception of their proper use and they are now more commonly marketed and consumed by (often sedentary) youth in general,” the study notes. “Those that consume sports drinks are not engaging in activity that expends the additional calories provided by the drinks and are at risk of becoming overweight.”
While tracking increased regular consumption of sports drinks among 6- to 11-year-olds, the study argued that the beverage type’s key ingredients — electrolytes, sodium and potassium — may only be needed for young athletes who participate in “vigorous activity” for more than an hour in extreme weather conditions (hot, cold, high altitude). Otherwise, the study advises against schools offering sports drinks to students who aren’t participating in athletic events — while citing another survey that showed that high school students who are not physically active for at least 60 minutes per day five days per week are more likely than their active peers to drink sports drinks at least once per day.
The study further criticized fruit drinks, noting that youth consumption of fortified beverages, despite Vitamin-C heavy marketing claims, is often connected to lower intakes of fiber, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and Vitamins A, B6, B12 and D.
“Fruit drinks are deceptively marketed for their ‘fruit content’ even though they may not contain fruit — Kool Aid contains artificial fruit flavors and Tampico Punch contains less than 1 percent fruit juice,” the study notes.
Students are also deceived by products marketed as water, according to the study, which concluded that flavored waters share a similar indirect drawback: their consumption may displace natural sources of vitamins and other nutrients in youth diets.
“Another concern is that flavored waters are gaining popularity over plain water,” the study notes. “Their names make them appear to be ‘water’ with added benefits. However, flavored waters can contribute excess sugar and calories in the diet that can increase risk for overweight and obesity.”
Citing increases in consumption of sweetened teas and coffee, the researchers noted disparities in the contents of calories, sugars and caffeine from tea to tea. One concern researchers brought up again was that while teas have less caffeine than energy drinks, they may have enough to disturb sleep. It also cited concerns about ginseng, which is added to some drinks.
The study states that children should not consume ginseng because of a lack of sufficient evidence to establish safety levels and risks. And that lack of evidence, according to these researchers, seems to be a consistent theme when considering key beverage ingredients and the science behind them.