Berkeley report checks the health claims of popular sports, vitamin drinks

August 6, 2014

girl with sugary drinksWhile sales of sodas are slipping, the huge category of alternative sugary beverages—that includes energy, sports, tea and fruit drinks—is growing rapidly and is perpetuated by misleading health claims, according to a UC Berkeley study released today.

Researchers at the UC Berkeley Atkins Center for Weight and Health investigated the growing and often confusing list of supplements added to sugary drinks to determine their effects on their most common consumers—children and teens. The findings: In most cases, they provide little or no health benefits. In some cases the added ingredients may actually be dangerous, and in virtually all cases, manufacturers attempt to put a “health halo” over what is an otherwise unhealthy sugary beverage.

“Despite the positive connotation surrounding energy and sports drinks, these products are essentially sodas without the carbonation,” says lead author Patricia Crawford, director of the Center for Weight and Health. “Rather than promote health as claimed in advertising, these drinks are putting our children’s health at risk.”

The study was the first comprehensive, scientific look at the potential health impacts on young people of 21 popular sugary drinks touted by manufacturers as “health and strength enhancing.” The study points to the significant sugar and calories these drinks contain as being very troublesome. It also focused on the additives that are typically marketed as health and performance‐enhancing, including caffeine, non‐caloric sweeteners, sodium, vitamins and minerals, and other supplements such as guarana, ginseng, taurine, gingko biloba and ginger extract.

Of these five extracts, only ginger extract is classified as “likely safe” for children by the National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The health impact of the majority of added ingredients has not been studied in children, and some have known, harmful effects if consumed in high quantities by adults.

The report notes that the synergistic effect of some of the ingredients is also cause for concern. For instance, blending caffeine with guarana increases the physiological effects of the caffeine. Because caffeine is a mainstay of many of these products, marketers promote them as improving energy, concentration, endurance, and performance. The study; however, documents that these beverages may have the opposite effect—causing or increasing stress, nervousness, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, tremors, hallucinations, and seizures, while reducing academic performance. In fact, overconsumption of these products has led to caffeine intoxication in teens, and contributed to elevated blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia, and death.

Recently, a 14‐member, national expert panel convened by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published its Recommendations for Healthier Beverages report recommending that the healthiest beverage choices for children and adolescents are plain water, nonfat or low‐fat milk and 100percent fruit or vegetable juice in small quantities.

"The marketing of fortified beverages as beneficial or health‐enhancing is premature at best and deceptive at worst,” Crawford concludes. "The beverages discussed in this report contain ingredients that have not been shown to provide the benefits that are claimed for them, and many of which have not been proven safe for consumption by youth.”

The report, “Looking Beyond the Marketing Claims of New Beverages,” was commissioned by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. Read the full report, fact sheets and press release.