UC Berkeley Study Assails Misleading Health Claims About “Alternative” Beverages

Berkeley, CA—While sales of sodas are slipping, the huge category of alternative sugary beverages, which includes energy, sports, tea and fruit drinks, is growing rapidly, bolstered by false and misleading health claims, according to a study just released by the University of California, Berkeley.


Researchers at the Atkins Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley 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. Their 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 Dr. Patricia Crawford. “Rather than promote health as claimed in advertising, these drinks are putting our children’s health at risk.”


Crawford’s study takes the first comprehensive, scientific look at 21 popular sugary drinks touted by manufacturers as “health and strength enhancing” to understand their potential impact on the young people who primarily consume them. Across the board, the significant sugar and calories they deliver are very troublesome, and the study draws special attention to the additives that are typically marketed as health and performance-enhancing: caffeine, non-caloric sweeteners, sodium, vitamins and minerals, and other supplements such as guarana, ginseng, taurine, gingko biloba and ginger extract. 


Of these five, Crawford cautions, 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. Also of concern is the synergistic effect of these ingredients, in addition to the harmful amount of sugar they contain. Caffeine, for instance, when blended with guarana increases the physiological effects of the caffeine in the beverage.


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, increasing stress, nervousness, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, tremors, hallucinations, and seizures, while reducing academic performance. In fact, over-consumption of these products has led to caffeine intoxication in teens, and contributed to elevated blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia, and even death.


“Under the guise of offering the public more choices, beverage manufacturers are using a ‘health halo’ to attract increasingly health-conscious consumers of all ages back to sugary drinks,” says Dr. Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), which commissioned the study. “Their health marketing claims are the 21st-century equivalent of selling snake oil.”


In many cases, beverage manufacturers add ingredients that are popularly considered healthful, such as vitamins and minerals. However, they fail to inform consumers that these vitamins are best supplied through the average diet. As a result, the study says people may be consuming vitamins and minerals at higher levels than necessary, while also adding significant amounts of liquid sugar to their diet.


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 100-percent fruit or vegetable juice in small quantities. Crawford concludes: “The marketing of fortified beverages as beneficial or health-enhancing is premature at best and deceptive at worst. 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.”


For detailed information on the various beverages, their ingredients, health claims and scientific evidence, download the full report at www.publichealthadvocacy.org/healthhalo.html


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