Designer Waters: Are They Worth It?
By Jennifer Koslo, MS, RD, CSSD, ACE-CPT
Full-time faculty, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences

You have probably seen “designer” water. It comes in a variety of colors and flavors, and the bottles make some wonderful claims.

These so-called designer waters are hitting supermarket shelves in record numbers. While shopping, you have probably wondered if water truly has the ability to defend and energize or protect and uplift.

One water even promises to keep you happy. Who would not want to receive benefits such as happiness, energy, and protection from their water? But can you really receive those benefits simply by choosing the right beverage?

Knowing what to look for and how to evaluate these products will hopefully reduce your shopping time, your spending, and maybe even your waistline.

 

Characteristics

Designer waters generally consist of a filtered water base and/or demineralized water that has been enhanced with vitamins, minerals, herbs, sugar, artificial colors, and artificial flavors.

While some designer waters may cross over into the energy drink category because of a few of their ingredients, you can generally distinguish between the two because designer waters are noncarbonated.

It is a little less simple to distinguish between the different types of designer waters. I compared a half dozen designer water brands to gauge what made each unique.

Servings

According to the United States Department of Agriculture,1 the governmental body that develops our food guidance systems and nutrition recommendations, one serving of water is 8 fluid ounces.

All of the brands I purchased were 20 fluid ounces, or 2.5 servings. However, it is easy to overlook the “2.5 servings per container” fine print and think that the entire bottle equals one serving.

Calories

The calories per serving in the brands I surveyed ranged from 0 to 50. Therefore, total calories per bottle ranged from 0 to 125.

From my nonscientific survey, I would say that the most advertised and visible waters are in the 25- to 50-calorie-per-serving range.

Cost

Several of the varieties I purchased happened to be on sale. The prices ranged from $1.00 to $1.59. A few waters had a slightly higher cost.

 

Ingredients

Additional research on designer water ingredients offered information about the most common ingredients and insight on why they may have been added.

 The ingredients used most frequently were:

  • Herbs: I found a number of herbs in these products, some of which are harmless and others that should be used with caution (The riskier herbs fall into the stimulant category below.)

One herb, chamomile, is a relaxant but may affect those with allergies, and another, ginkgo biloba, relaxes blood vessels and is used for increasing cognitive function.

Ginseng, another common additive, is used for physical endurance and to combat fatigue.2 The recommended intake varies for these herbs, so be aware how you react to them. Also, remember to do the math with the quantities listed, if you drink the entire bottle.

  • Stimulants: Guarana and gotu kola are both herbal stimulants.2 I also found that many of the “energizing” drinks contained caffeine. There is no recommended safe intake level, and I would advise avoiding drinks with guarana.

 I did not see any green tea extract in the waters I examined, but you may come across it. Green tea has a very small amount of caffeine, but is a great source of phytochemicals and offers numerous other benefits.

  • Vitamins: Designer waters contain a number of vitamins, including vitamin C, niacin (B3), vitamin B6, vitamin B12, pantothenic acid (B5), vitamin E, and vitamin A. Water-soluble vitamins (the B complex vitamins and vitamin C) are generally harmless in quantities higher than the recommended daily allowance (RDA).

 B vitamins assist in the release of energy from protein, carbohydrates, and fats, as well as in energy metabolism. But fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A and vitamin E, can produce toxicities when taken in excess, so be sure to look at the percent daily value for a 2,000 calorie diet.

  • Minerals: Some water drinks included calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and chromium. Calcium, potassium, and magnesium are important for blood pressure regulation. Zinc is involved in immune function, and chromium is involved in blood sugar regulation.3

 A person can overdo it on zinc, so use caution if you are consuming waters that contain significant quantities of this mineral.

  • Super fruits: Many waters are enhanced with “superfruit” extracts such as acai, blueberry, pomegranate, and goji. There is no set intake level for these nutrients and the quantity most likely will be too low to produce any significant health benefits.

 Superfruit extracts are sources of phytochemicals and antioxidants, which you can also receive by eating your five to nine (yes, nine) servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

  • Sugar/carbohydrates: The amount of added sugars and total carbohydrates can vary depending on if you purchase a zero calorie beverage or one with added sugars. The carbohydrates will be “zero” on waters sweetened with artificial sweeteners; however, beverages with added sugars may contain approximately 10 to 20 grams of carbohydrates per serving.

 These drinks do not have any fat or protein. Protein-enhanced drinks fall into another beverage category.

  • Types of sweeteners: Zero-calorie beverages are sweetened with either aspartame or sucralose. Aspartame, which contains phenylalanine, should be avoided by people with PKU (phenylketonuria), a genetic disorder characterized by an individual’s inability to metabolize phenylalanine.

 Sucralose appears to be the safest sweetener, although independent tests are still in progress. The waters with high calories were generally sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

  • Sodium: The recommended daily allowance of sodium for adults is 2400 mg, and the sodium content of the waters I surveyed ranged from 25 to 35 mg per 8 ounce serving. As sodium levels go, this is very low, but again, remember to do the math if you drink the whole bottle.
  • Artificial/natural colors: Some of the waters contained artificial colors such as Red 40 and Yellow 5, which are on the FDA’s list of safe colors.4 Others used fruit and vegetable extracts for color.
  • Artificial flavors: All of the waters I looked at had a listing of natural flavors.
  • Other: The waters surveyed contained preservatives, such as potassium sorbate, potassium benzoate, and EDTA, which are used to protect flavor and retain freshness. All three are on the FDA list of safe food additives.4
  • Amino Acids: I found taurine in several of the drinks, most notably in the carbonated energy ones. Taurine is an amino acid and, more specifically, an inhibitory neurotransmitter with some wide-ranging effects that have not been fully researched. It is best to avoid drinks with taurine until further research has been completed.

Health Claims

What about the drinks that claim to refresh and revive, defend and protect, and improve energy, endurance, balance, and focus? Claims that foods are “low fat” or “may reduce the risk of heart disease” must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration before they can be used by manufacturers on food labels.5

However, structure function claims—which include statements such as “increases energy” or “improves memory”—are not regulated by the FDA. These are the statements that you often will see on designer waters, and they are made without proof or scientific evidence.

The FDA requires that a disclaimer be added to the label that says “these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not designed to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” if structure function claims are used on dietary supplements.

Yet the FDA does not require the disclaimer to be used on conventional foods5—something to keep in mind when evaluating your choices.

Summary

Designer waters can definitely fit into a balanced and varied diet. These waters are an especially good choice for folks trying to kick the soda habit or those who say, “I do not like the taste of water.”

If you choose to drink them, here are some general recommendations: If you just want a beverage that helps you meet your daily water intake, choose waters in the low- to zero-calorie range.

If you are on the go frequently in the heat, choosing a water with a few calories may help fuel your active lifestyle. For athletes or aerobic exercisers who run, cycle, or walk briskly for fewer than 90 minutes, these waters can quench thirst. However, if your workout lasts longer than 90 minutes, your muscles will need the nutrients a fluid replacement drink provides.

Regarding the added vitamins, herbs, minerals, and superfruits, check the label and read the ingredient list carefully. Keep in mind that green tea, gotu kola, caffeine, and guarana are stimulants.

Most people can benefit from the additional vitamins and minerals special water products can offer—as long as the waters are consumed in moderation.

But if you are banking on any claims that water will make you happy, focused, revived, or balanced, I would not get my hopes up.


References

1. United States Department of Agriculture. (March, 1999). Retrieved from Food portions and servings: How do they differ?

2. Skidmore-Roth, L. (2006). Mosby’s handbook of herbs & natural supplements (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.

3. Murray, M. T. (1996). Encyclopedia of nutritional supplements: The essential guide for improving your health naturally. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

4. Whitney, E. & Rolfes, S. R. (2008). Understanding Nutrition (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

5. United States Food and Drug Administration. (2004). Retrieved from Structure Function Claims.


Jennifer Koslo, MS, RD, CSSD, CPT

Jennifer Koslo is a full-time faculty member with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences and teaches courses such as Vitamins, Herbs, and Nutritional Supplements and Contemporary Diet and Nutrition.  Ms. Koslo is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and one of the few Certified Specialists in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) in the country.  In addition to teaching online, Ms. Koslo teaches wellness and weight loss classes in the local community, and is a sports nutrition consultant on a private consultation basis.

Ms. Koslo received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from Juniata College, and earned a dual Master of Science in Human Nutrition and Exercise Science from Colorado State University. She received a Registered Dietitian certification from the American Dietetic Association and Colorado State University, and is currently working on her doctorate degree in education with an emphasis in instructional design for online learning.

In addition to serving in the US Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa, for 2-1/2 years, Ms. Koslo also worked as a cardiac rehabilitation dietitian and at the Arizona Department of Health Services as the chronic disease nutritionist.  She is also an American Council on Exercise Certified Personal Trainer. 

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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