Plant Waters – Health or Hype?
For the past few years, alternate, natural sports drinks have gained in popularity as people have realized that many of the conventional sports drinks contain sugar, food dyes, and artificial flavoring. Coconut water was one of the first and most successful of these new, natural sports drinks.
In fact, in 2013, coconut waters collectively topped $400 million in sales. So it’s no wonder that beverage companies are introducing additional plant waters to quench this market’s thirst. And as consumers, we seem to be craving anything that touts health, especially if it’s natural. And apparently we’re willing to pay for it, because these don’t come cheaply—often costing several dollars per serving.
We seem to be craving anything that touts health, especially if it’s natural. We’re willing to pay several dollars per serving.
Following coconut water, some of the newbies to arrive on the shelves include:
- Aloe water
- Almond water
- Artichoke water
- Birch water
- Cactus water
- Maple water
- Olive water
- Watermelon water
- Waters containing combinations of the above.
Each of these plant waters makes special health claims about the ability of their water to do this or that. “Some of the health claims appear to be exaggerated,” explains dietitian Lauren Graf.
Whether you choose to drink them or not really comes down to the benefit you hope to obtain. If you’re simply looking for enjoyment of a natural beverage with health benefits, you may want to try each one until you find one you like. But sports dietitian, Nancy Clark, RD, challenges us to be aware that we can obtain the same benefits or more by eating whole foods.
Another reason many are reaching for the new plant waters has to do with electrolytes and workout recovery. Electrolytes are minerals that are essential to normal and proper function of the body. In short, we would die without them! During workouts and sports competitions, electrolytes can become depleted as they leave the body through sweat.
Depletion of electrolytes can cause cramping, low energy, headaches, irregular heart rhythm, and even more serious symptoms. Some of the more important mineral electrolytes include: sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. We lose more sodium when we sweat than any other mineral.
Replenishing electrolytes is especially important for extreme athletes and those exercising for longer periods of time in the heat. Some of the symptoms of low electrolytes mimic those of dehydration. The problem is that if you try to remedy a low electrolyte issue by drinking normal water, the water may continue to dilute the amount of minerals in the body and worsen the deficiencies.
How Healthy are Plant Waters?
Apparently, many people think that because something is natural it’s therefore good for us and cannot hurt us, but this is very naïve. Many natural supplements are very powerful and can have dangerous side effects just like the droning lists in the prime-time drug commercials.
Take aloe vera juice for instance. Following are some of the warnings about drinking this “health” beverage. Aloe vera juice: 
- Is a laxative that can cause diarrhea and inhibit drug absorption if a person is on medication.
- Can also lower potassium levels in the body, which can play havoc with our electrolytes and promote dehydration.
- Can cause uterine contractions in pregnant women resulting in miscarriage or birth defects.
- Contains latex, which prompts numerous health risks and allergic reactions.
- Is even linked with cancer when consumed over a prolonged period.
While many of the other plant water beverages don’t carry the above dangerous side effects, they may not provide the best solution for which they are promoted. If you’re looking for a way to replace electrolytes following a workout, beware of the following:
- Watermelon water is high in potassium, but low in sodium and magnesium. It also has a very high glycemic index value—not good for those with high blood sugar.
- Prickly pear cactus juice is not particularly high in any of the important minerals for electrolyte replacement. It also contains “natural flavors” a euphemism for very unnatural
- Artichoke water does not contain very high levels of sodium or potassium—two primary electrolytes athletes are looking for in a rehydration beverage.
- Maple water emphasizes that it’s rich in manganese, a mineral that very few people are low in and that we want to avoid getting too much of.
In addition to the above, factor in these issues:
- Plant waters contain natural sugars that add to our already sugar-overloaded diets.
- Plant waters offer a poor replacement for their solid food counterparts.
- Plant waters typically cost $3 per 8 oz. – a high price for not much value.
Eating nutritious whole foods before and after a workout can achieve the same healthy levels of electrolytes. A banana for instance, offers 450 to 600 mg of potassium. 
And peanut butter offers high levels of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium.
Other less expensive and less trendy natural drinks can also help replenish electrolytes. V8 juice provides a good source of vitamins, potassium and sodium.Whole milk offers respectable levels of calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. Natural, unflavored mineral waters can contain good levels of magnesium, calcium, sodium and other trace minerals.
To Drink or Not To Drink
It seems in the end, that your motivations will be the major driver in whether or not you join the plant water trend.
- If you simply enjoy the adventure of trying new, exotic flavors then go for it. Test them all and see which ones you like, but recognize that none of them offer the silver bullet for great health.
- If you work out heavily and want to replenish electrolytes, then “Pick up a spoon and fork,” advises sports dietitian Nancy Clark, RD. Nutrient- and mineral-rich whole foods offer the best solution.
- If you exercise moderately, you’re probably getting all the minerals your body needs by eating a healthy diet of organic whole foods.