What to drink used to be a simple enough question. Milk or water? Coffee or tea? These days, the options seem endless. And yet you might not have stopped to consider them all or compare their pros and cons, especially since beverages are scattered all over the supermarket. You’ll find fresh beverages in the dairy case, canned and bottled beverages and those in antiseptic boxes on shelves, and frozen juice concentrates in the freezer. Then there are the rows and rows of sugary soft drinks that you are best off avoiding altogether. Here’s the lowdown on what beverages to buy and what to skip.
Beverages and your health
Beverages, by definition, add fluids to your diet, so they contribute to your hydration needs. All drinks count in this regard, not just water; the exception is alcohol, which can have a diuretic effect (meaning it causes the body to eliminate more water than you take in). Beverages that contain caffeine—sodas, tea and especially coffee—can have a very mild diuretic effect, but they still count toward your fluid intake.
They provide vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Citrus juices are a particularly good source of vitamin C, as well as potassium, important for maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. Grapefruit juice has the same citrus benefits as orange juice (though be careful of interactions with some prescription medications). Cranberry juice may help prevent urinary tract infections, some research has shown, while purple grape juice, like red wine, may help protect the heart due to resveratrol from the grape skins. Other juices—like apple and white grape juice—have less to offer, and when used as “filler juice” they just add sugar calories and not much else. Apple cider is a better choice than apple juice because it is less filtered, so it contains more apple flesh and its skin, and this translates into more phytochemicals.
A big problem with juices is that they often have as many calories as sodas, and it’s easy to drink a lot of juice without getting satiated. The bottom line is not to go overboard with any juice—limit yourself to no more than one cup a day. It’s much better to eat whole fruits, which have more fiber and are more filling.
Soda and other soft drinks are one of the biggest sources of sugar in the American diet. A typical 12-ounce can of soda has about 140 to 150 calories, all from sugar (about 10 teaspoons’ worth). Since, like juice, sodas don’t tend to fill you up, you’re not likely to compensate for their calories by cut ting back elsewhere in your diet. Keeping all else the same but adding just one can of soda a day to your current calorie intake would, at least theoretically, result in a weight gain of about 10 to 15 pounds in a year.
Are diet sodas the solution? They don’t add calories and don’t affect your blood sugar. It’s been suggested that they can make you gain weight by increasing your appetite, but the research has not supported this. On the other hand, they may not help you lose weight, either, since you may compensate by getting the calories somewhere else. Though the use of non-caloric sweeteners—aspartame, acesulfame K and sucralose, for example—is still hotly debated by some people, manufacturers have submitted mountains of safety data to the government. Simply put, if you’re going to drink a soda, diet soda has the edge because it doesn’t come with all those calories.
Tea (Camellia sinensis) is lauded for its powerful antioxidants, particularly flavonoids called catechins. Research has linked both black and green tea to a reduced risk of several cancers, though the evidence is inconsistent. Tea drinkers also suffer fewer heart attacks and strokes than non-tea drinkers according to some research. How? Experts suggest that tea reduces the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and improves the functioning of blood vessels. Some research shows that tea may protect bones and perhaps teeth too, as tea is a source of fluoride and magnesium.
Is green better than black? Green tea contains much more of the catechins known as EGCG than black tea, which is the more oxidized form of the tea leaves. However, scientists now know that black tea contains higher concentrations of other flavonoids, such as theaflavins. Both green and black teas are thus healthful, as are white and oolong teas. They all come from the same plant, but vary in how long they are exposed to the air or processed to oxidize them. Herbal teas, however, are not from the tea plant, so are not really “teas” but rather herbal infusions of flowers or herbs, which may have their own health benefits.
Though some of the research is contradictory, coffee may have heart health benefits and even some anti-cancer effects, thanks to its antioxidants and other phytochemicals. The latest research even associates a high coffee intake with a reduced risk of the aggressive form of prostate cancer, as well as of Parkinson’s disease, gallstones and diabetes. Coffee prepared in certain ways, however, may raise your cholesterol if you drink a lot of it. Diterpene compounds in coffee beans—notably cafestol—are responsible for the cholesterol-raising effect. The longer the coffee grounds come in contact with the brewing water, and the hotter the water, the more diterpenes are released. Research has shown that Scandinavian-style boiled coffee has the most diterpenes, followed by Turkish/Greek coffee, French-press (cafetière or plunger-pot) coffee and then espresso. American-style “drip” coffee has virtually none because the paper filters trap the compounds. Percolated and instant coffees have negligible amounts. Decaffeinating coffee does not reduce diterpenes.
Understanding beverage products
Here are a few specific things to watch out for (and in most cases, to pass by) on your trip down the beverage aisle:
- Beverages labeled as “juice drinks.” The amount of actual juice in them varies, but they usually don’t contain much. (The percent juice must be listed on the label.) Moreover, they are not good choices because they have sugar added, often nearly as much as what you find in sodas. Plus, you’re paying a lot for diluted juice.
- Low-acid drinks, such as low-acid orange juice and low-acid coffees. They are promoted to be gentler on your stomach, but there is no evidence that they really are. In fact, the acid in your stomach that helps digest your food is far stronger than the acid in any beverage or food.
- Coffee drinks. Beware of fancy versions of coffees, like mixes for lattes, that have sugar and fat added. Some popular bottled and canned iced coffee drinks have 200 calories, 32 grams of sugar and more than 3 grams of fat in a single serving.
- Bottled iced teas. They may not contain as much of the flavonoids as hot brewed tea, though you are likely still getting some of tea’s benefits. On the other hand, the amounts can vary a lot, and there is no way to really know what you are getting when you drink a bottled iced tea. More problematic, most contain a lot of sugar and calories—often as much as in soda. Look for unsweetened varieties.
- Enhanced waters. You don’t need vitamins or minerals in your water, especially if you have a healthful diet. You don’t need herbs, either. These beverages often cost more and have little or no nutritional advantage.
- Sports drinks, which contain electrolytes, can give you a boost if you’re exercising vigorously for more than an hour, but not if you are sitting at your desk, taking a stroll or watching television. Though lower in calories than sodas and other sweetened drinks, they contain sodium—which you definitely don’t need unless you are sweating profusely during an extended workout.
- Energy drinks contain or claim to contain a variety of so-called “energy boosters,” such as tyrosine, phenylalanine and taurine. Some boast of antioxidants, “green-tea based energy” and megadoses of B vitamins, as well as ginseng and other herbs. Some drinks are sugary, some peppery, some sugar-free. But the only ingredient in these drinks guaranteed to make you feel energetic or “wired” is the hefty dose of caffeine (or caffeine-containing ingredients such as guarana or yerba maté). One serving may supply two or three times as much caffeine as a cup of brewed coffee, which can give you the jitters, upset your stomach and bring on agitation and insomnia. A few are simply herbal cocktails, with the same claims but no caffeine. The claim that vitamins or herbal cocktails are “energizing” is false. Vitamins and herbs do not give you energy.
Beverages: good-to-know facts
Coconut water, which has taken over several shelves in many supermarkets, is the thin liquid inside young coconuts—not to be confused with creamier coconut milk, which is made by grating and squeezing the white flesh of older coconuts (the water is absorbed into the flesh as the coconut ripens). This naturally low-calorie beverage provides lots of potassium (about 550 milligrams per 8 ounces, more than a banana), along with other electrolytes. Several brands are fortified with extra nutrients like vitamin C, but some also have added sugars and/or fruit puree, which increase the calories. Coconut water is better for you than sodas and other sugary beverages and are good for rehydration after a workout. But don’t buy the hype that it has special healing properties.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for beverages
- Choose 100 percent juices, not “juice drinks” or juices with mostly “filler” apple or white grape juices. For example, if a container of juice says it’s guava, mango or apricot, be sure that particular juice is the predominant one in the ingredient list.
- Buy calcium- and vitamin D-fortified juices if you want to get more of these essential bone nutrients. They can provide as much calcium (350 milligrams) and vitamin D (100 IU) as a cup of milk.
- Skip sugary sodas—and even so-called “natural” sodas, which contain sweeteners that may sound more healthful (such as evaporated cane juice) but are basically equivalent to white sugar. Many “natural” sodas have just as much sugar and as many calories as regular sodas.
- If you want a fizzy drink, pick up flavored seltzer, which is calorie-free. For a truly healthful soda, you can combine seltzer (plain or flavored) with 100 percent juice. The more seltzer you use, the fewer calories your soda will have.
- Stock up on black, oolong, green or white teas, as you prefer. Herbal teas are other good (non-caloric) options. If caffeine bothers your stomache or if you want to drink tea later in the day and in the evening, look for caffeine-free teas. Most herbal teas are naturally caffeine-free.
- If you like bottled iced teas, look for unsweetened varieties. Or stock up on tea bags to make your own iced tea at home; the simplest way is to fill a big pitcher or jar with cool water, add tea bags, cover and refrigerate. Some companies sell machines (similar to coffee machines) that make iced tea instantly.
- Consider coconut water, if you want a lower-calorie beverage and like the way it tastes. Compare labels for calories and sugar.
- Water is the ideal beverage—but bypass bottled water (unless you have a problem with your home drinking water). Tap water costs little, if any thing, and is better for environment; plus, you don’t have to lug home heavy bottles.