Scoot past the drinks section in the supermarket, café or dairy these days and you’ll see a lot more in there than just soft drinks, juice and water.
There’s been an explosion in health-focused drinks in recent years. Overseas industry reports say the “health drinks” market is one of the fastest- growing in the world, as consumers have changed their shopping, cooking, and eating habits in pandemic times. We’re all, it seems, seeking an immunity and wellbeing boost from our beverages.
So, what’s the truth about these new healthy drinks (and what even are they)? Here’s a rundown on a few you might have seen.
Kombucha, kefir, and other fermented drinks
The first “functional” beverage on the block, kombucha is now everywhere. It’s a fermented fizz that owes its popularity to rising interest in the health of our gut bacteria and microbiome; the health of which can affect many aspects of our wellbeing, from weight to our mental state. Fermented food and drinks contain probiotic bacteria, which may have beneficial effects on our gut bacteria. Its cousins are kefir and probiotic sodas.
Although it’s been used as a health drink for centuries, hard evidence for kombucha’s benefit is scant; so far, trials have been confined to animal studies showing kombucha may be effective in lowering the risk of diabetes and cholesterol levels. That doesn’t mean it’s not good for us; it’s just a bit too soon to say. On the plus side, drinking kombucha will at least give us the benefits contained in the green or black tea with which it’s made, which include antioxidant polyphenols. And it’s a great alternative to sweet alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
Keep an eye on the sugar levels in kombucha – they can vary a surprising amount – and go for lower-sugar versions.
We love the idea of squeezing tons of veges and fruit into an easy-to-consume serving. And getting a couple of extra servings of veg via a smoothie may certainly give you a boost of vitamins and fibre (something we don’t get from juice). But there’s something to be said for chewing our food. Chewing is the first stage of digestion; it releases saliva and sends signals to the brain to prepare our stomachs for food. Texture is also a very important part of our enjoyment of food; if we’re not chewing, we’re bypassing that sensation. When we chew, we take more time and eat more mindfully, and we tend to feel more satisfied, because our brain gets the signals that we’re filling up. There’s also speculation that consuming even fibre-rich fruits and veges all smooshed up in a smoothie may not offer us the same gut-health benefits we get from eating the same fruit and veges in their whole form.
If you’re making or buying smoothies, keep an eye on the sugar levels, especially in juice-based drinks. And look for smoothies with higher protein levels for greater satiety.
“Smart” drinks and tonics
There are a few drinks around that claim to offer benefits for our brains, mood, energy levels, sleep and even libido! You’ll see the word “nootropics” on some labels. This refers to substances ranging from drugs to supplements that enhance cognitive function. (The most common nootropic you’re probably already consuming regularly is good old caffeine.) Not all nootropic substances have strong evidence of benefits, but some do: L-theanine, CDP-choline and creatine monohydrate are some to look for. Experts say improving our brain function probably isn’t simply a matter of drinking a supplemented drink. But if the rest of our lifestyle habits are great – sleep, stress, diet and exercise are all going well – then we might get a boost from a smart drink. Most have vitamins and antioxidants from fruit and vegetables, which offer their own health benefits.
If you suffer from IBS or other tummy issues, keep an eye out for erythritol, a sweetener sometimes used to keep sugar levels down. It may irritate a sensitive gut.
Fancy waters and sodas
There are tons of interesting waters in beverage fridges. Coconut water kicked off the trend about 10 years ago; it’s now waned in favour of even more exotic tipples. The next frontier coming your way soon is a range of waters made from birch (yes, the tree), watermelon and maple. Health benefits are arguable, but you’ll get hydration with a burst of flavour at the very least.
Another positive trend is the growing number of new-generation flavoured sparkling drinks flavoured with fruit, which are big on flavour and low in sugar. This can only be a good thing when it comes to breaking a sweet drink habit. There are even sparkling drinks with added extras such as probiotics and prebiotic fibre for gut health. As more of us are choosing to drink less alcohol, having interesting, non-sugary options to choose from is a welcome and healthy change.