Is Vitamin Water Safe and Effective?

There are a number of vitamin-enhanced waters on the market. Are they healthy? Are they worth it? and most importantly are they effective? I will focus on Coca-Cola’s Glaceau Vitamin Water, as it is one of the most popular, heavily marketed and most consumed vitamin-enhanced waters in the global market.

Misconceptions about the ‘healthfulness’ of Vitamin enhanced Water

A lot of consumers, including parents feeding their children are confused as to whether vitamin-enhanced waters are as good as they claim. The biggest confusion arises from the claims about being ‘real’ and ‘natural’ [1].  Many people see these terms, as well as other health claims on these labels and think vitamin-enhanced waters are both healthy and effective.

The aim of this article is to show you that no, vitamin-enhanced waters are not healthy alternatives to water – and for that matter some are calorically equivalent to soft drinks/sodas.

Sugar Content

The first (and possibly last) argument proving commercial vitamin waters are unhealthy stems from their sugar content. Many of the full calorie versions of the products contain between 31 and 33 grams of sugar (from cane sugar) per bottle [2].

In 2009, Coca-Cola, the manufacturer of one of the most popular vitamin-enhanced waters was sued by the ‘Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The lawsuit claiming deceptive and unsubstantiated claims were made. The final judgement settled against the manufacturer and major changes resulted (including changes to labelling, marketing and ingredient use) [16]. One of the defenses the manufacturer made, was “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitamin water was a healthy beverage” [3]. That says it all – vitamin water wasn’t considered to be healthy even by its own manufacturer.

Yes, not all users are concerned about the sugar content. Plus, these products now come in zero-calorie versions. Keep reading…

Vitamin Content

Looking at the back of the bottles, Vitamin Water typically provides decent forms of vitamins (they have to use forms stable in water) and the dosages are fair. The forms of vitamins they use in these products are typical of many commercially available (oral) multi-vitamins – albeit at a much lower dose. Sure, some of the professional nutraceutical brands provide better, more bioavailable forms, but those companies hold themselves to a much higher standard. Each bottle usually has one or two vitamins reaching 100 percent of the daily recommended intakes, but they aren’t equally high in all vitamins and minerals (as you may see in a multi-vitamin). They don’t claim to be the only source of vitamins you need. The dosages are generally low enough that I would say it would be difficult to reach vitamin toxicity by drinking a bottle and taking a multi-vitamin.

The biggest disappointment is the source of these vitamins. You read ‘natural’ and see mentions of juice on the front of the label. However, looking at the back of the label you’ll find the juice featured on the front is actually used as a colouring agent and the flavour is obtained by “natural flavour” additives [4]. So although you may assume your vitamin C from an ‘orange’ vitamin Water is coming from orange juice, its actually coming from supplemental form.

Note on fat soluble vitamins: some of these products have fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), which require fat to absorb. In fact research has shown taking a fat soluble vitamin on an empty stomach is absorbed at a rate 55% less than taking it with a fatty meal [5]. So drinking vitamin-enhanced water on an empty stomach would result in less fat soluble vitamins being absorbed than the label would indicate.

Antioxidants Claims

Some people will argue vitamin-enriched water serves as a good anti-oxidant. In fact, some of the products say so on the label. Well research looking into polyphenol content in Vitamin Water found it wasn’t all it’s made out to be. Polyphenols are a food chemical that contain anti-oxidant properties. The study compared vitamin water to fruit juice and berry juice and found the vitamin water had less than 1/8 the polyphenol content as the juices. Furthermore, comparing the antioxidant content to calorie content (for full calorie products), it was found that juice delivers twice as much anti-oxidant power than the vitamin water [6] per calorie.

Electrolytes

Not all vitamin-enhanced waters are marketed as electrolyte drinks; however one particular product is. Looking at the nutritional panel – it’s hard to understand how this is considered an electrolyte drink. Calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, phosphate and chloride are considered the major electrolytes within our bodies. The Vitamin Water product only lists magnesium (15% daily value or 37.5 mg) and sodium (0 mg) on the label. Potassium is listed as an ingredient but is not mentioned in the nutritional information.

One of nature’s best electrolytes is coconut water. It’s low in calories and naturally high in sodium and potassium (more than four bananas). Here’s a quick ounce for ounce comparison between Vitamin Water (Restore – electrolyte), Coconut Water and Gatorade [4], [7].

Vitamin Water:  Cal:  6.5065,   Sugar: 1.60 g   Potassium ? mg   Sodium 0

Coconut Water: Cal: 5.45,   Sugar: 1.30 g   Potassium 61 mg   Sodium 5.45

Gatorade:            Cal: 6.25    Sugar: 1.75 g   Potassium 3.75 mg   Sodium 13.75

Zero Calorie Vitamin-Enhanced Water

Perhaps due to the lawsuit of 2009, or due to changing public demands, zero calorie vitamin waters started coming out. So now the question is: are Zero-Calorie vitamin waters good, effective and healthy?

Ingredients in Zero-Calorie Vitamin-Enhanced Water

 

Water: the first ingredient in these products is municipal water filtered through reverse osmosis [6]. Although not harmful in and of itself, reverse osmosis doesn’t protect you from all of the contaminants you would hope. It reduces levels of “lead, mercury, calcium, iron and asbestos…but will not remove some pesticides, solves and volatile organic chemicals (like chlorine, radon, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, 2,4-D and atrazine” [8], [9]. If you’re spending money on bottled water, it’s more worthwhile to buy something free of contaminants altogether.

Phosphorus: I should note phosphorus is not added intentionally, nor should it be. Elevated phosphorus content in food is associated with many negative effects such as mortality and chronic disease [10]. When it’s found in commercial food products, it is generally a consequence of phosphorus containing additives. A 2015 study looked at 46 top-selling commercial beverages and found that a lot of them had high phosphorus content. Glaceau Vitamin Water by Coca-Cola was amongst the highest for phosphorus content (well above the recommended intakes) amongst all of the products measured [10].

 Zero Calorie Sweeteners: Stevia, erythritol and sometimes fructose [6] are used to sweeten the zero calorie beverages. What are these and are they good?

Stevia: Stevia has been shown in numerous studies to be safe for consumption. It elicited no signs of cytotoxicity nor did it have and acute or chronic effects on blood sugar [11].

 Erythritol: is truly a zero-calorie sweetener: it’s almost completely absorbed but not digested. [12]. Furthermore it’s considered one of the safer sugar alcohols used in the industry. It’s well tolerated (meaning humans can handle large amounts of it without gastrointestinal distress and no signs of toxicity [13].

*It should be noted, for the sake of completeness, that a lot of researchers and health professionals are overtly against the use of ‘natural’ or calorie free sweeteners (including stevia and erythritol)

 Fructose: fructose is implicated in many chronic diseases. It’s said to be a major player in the onset of diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome [14]. It’s believed that it’s fructose and not glucose that is the cause of adiposity and decreased insulin sensitivity [15].

My thoughts on Vitamin-enhanced water

If you’re thirsty and there’s no plain water around, drink vitamin water. If you’re watching sugar intake go for the zero-calorie one. Beware of the sweeteners and long list of additives. Either way, don’t expect Vitamin Water to serve as a multi-vitamin supplement, electrolyte or antioxidant. It is by no means a cost effective way to get any of the claims the label makes.

Works Cited

About the Author

picture of me, johann de chickera, naturopathic doctor

I'm Johann de Chickera, a Naturopathic Doctor, practicing in Ontario, Canada. My clinical practice relies on keeping up with the most up-to-date research and continued education. This blog serves as a way to provide others with a compilation of everything I've learned along the way. Please click here if you're local and want to see me in practice.