August/September 2021 Issue
By Lori Zanteson
Vol. 23, No. 7, P. 22
Getting antioxidants from beverages is popular, but is this trend driven by fact or fiction?
Functional beverages have boomed into a multibillion-dollar global market that seems to be unstoppable. No matter where you look—convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants, and even vending machines—the selection of beverages is so vast, it’s almost dizzying. In this sea of energy drinks, fortified juices, and sports drinks, “antioxidant” beverages are among the trendiest. Beverages trumpeting their antioxidant content, such as antioxidant-infused water, ready-to-drink tea and coffee, and cold-pressed juices from fruits and vegetables high in antioxidant compounds have increased in popularity.
According to a report by Research and Markets, increased health awareness is driving consumer beverage choices. People are moving away from unhealthful options, such as sugary sodas, and opting for more healthful beverages, causing the antioxidant beverage category to grow at a rate of nearly 9% between 2020 and 2025. But are antioxidant beverages delivering the health boost they promise? Or are they yet another example of a product enjoying the benefits of a marketing-induced health halo?
Currently, the FDA doesn’t have a regulatory category or legal definition for functional beverages. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines them as both whole and fortified foods that may benefit health when consumed as part of a healthful diet.
According to the 2019 book Nutrients in Beverages, functional beverages are defined as containing nontraditional ingredients, including herbs, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, or raw fruits or vegetables, and are marketed as having potential health benefits. Examples include sports and performance drinks, energy drinks, and fortified juices.
Within the functional food sector, the functional beverage segment is the fastest growing compared with food and supplements. According to a market analysis report from Technavio Plus, the global antioxidant beverage market is projected to reach $300 billion by 2022, and North America is the largest market.
Driving the Trend
“People are very interested in functional beverages right now,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut. “Perhaps this is because of an increased focus on health that occurred during the pandemic.” Adequate hydration has been a driver in the popularity of antioxidant drinks, but the pandemic also has played a role. People are looking to boost not only their overall health but also their immune health, specifically to help decrease their chances of contracting COVID-19. Awareness of the health benefits of antioxidants has increased alongside this preoccupation with protecting one’s health. Because of this newfound focus, “many of the antioxidant beverages out there have been around for a long time but are getting new attention,” Gorin says. For example, ready-to-drink coffee and tea front-of-package labels are now promoting that they contain antioxidants—which, of course, they always have. Similarly, any drink containing vitamin C is technically an antioxidant beverage, but many companies are calling this out.
Brands are playing into this sweet spot, providing consumers with educational information on antioxidants, such as what they are and what they do. According to Markets and Research, Bai Brands has the most popular antioxidant beverages on the market. The company dedicates part of its website to explaining how antioxidants fight “bad boy” free radicals and how drinking their antioxidant-infused products can help “put a smack down on some free radicals.”
Schooled as consumers may be, the term “antioxidants” can be misleading. It’s easy for consumers to think of antioxidants as a substance, or an ingredient, but they’re a chemical property. That means they can act differently in certain situations. And not only is one antioxidant distinct from another, it also can act differently in a different group of nutrients, plant chemicals, and other antioxidants. For example, vitamin C in beet juice won’t necessarily have the same activity or have the same health effects as vitamin C in an infused water.
It also may seem to consumers that antioxidants are rare or somehow novel or more special than other substances. People may not know there are upwards of thousands of different substances in whole plants that can act as antioxidants and that some are commonly called antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. Dietitians may want to tell clients they don’t need to consume “antioxidant” beverages to get the desired compounds that may help fend off oxidative stress in the body—these are readily available in whole plant foods. “I recommend a food-first approach to getting your antioxidants,” Gorin says. “If you eat a balanced diet consisting of plenty of fruits, veggies, lean proteins, healthful fats, and whole grains, you likely will be taking in enough antioxidants on a daily basis to benefit your health.”
Are Drinks Viable Sources of Antioxidants?
Still, so-called antioxidant beverages may help boost the intake of compounds with antioxidant activity. According to Gorin, “When it comes to beverages, be aware that most of the antioxidant drinks out there contain added calories. This is fine if they’re made from whole foods, such as 100% juice, but make sure you’re accounting for those calories in your daily total.” Gorin recommends 100% juices made from fruits that are packed with antioxidants, such as 100% pomegranate juice. “This is a juice I recommend to clients. It’s a simple way to take in antioxidants.”
Gorin says it’s important to check the label for added sugars or sugar alcohols, neither of which she recommends in a beverage someone consumes frequently. Added sugars should be limited to less than 10% of total daily calories, and sugar alcohols can cause digestive upset. “Some of these beverages are sweetened with nonnutritive sweeteners such as stevia, and sweeteners can taste sweeter than table sugar, which can get your taste buds used to super sweet tastes,” Gorin adds. “I don’t like this, which is why I recommend getting your sweets fix from whole foods and/or a small amount of added sugars.”
What follows is a sample of the leading categories of antioxidant beverages, the names of certain products touting the antioxidant compounds they contain, and their purported health benefits.
Green tea is one of the most popular categories of antioxidant beverages, as there’s a large assortment on the market. Like all teas, with the exception of herbal teas, green tea is brewed from the dried leaves of the Camellia sinensis bush. Green tea is one of the least processed teas, which means it packs a high level of compounds with antioxidant activity. Especially rich in epigallocatechin gallate, a plant compound that has been widely studied for its antioxidant effects, green tea also contains other compounds and polyphenols with antioxidant activity, including epicatechin, catechin, and gallic acid. Green tea has been associated with several health benefits, including helping to protect against some cancers, type 2 diabetes, and CVD.
Convenient as a bottle of grab-and-go iced green tea is, it’s important for clients to read the label to make sure it’s been brewed with tea leaves and not made from powder or concentrate, and that it contains no added sugars or other unwanted ingredients. Most bottled green teas are sweetened, so if clients want a little sweetness, suggest they look for those low in sugar. Some of the popular green tea beverages include the following:
• Pure Leaf Unsweetened Green Tea is brewed with real, fresh tea leaves and bottled without added sugars or color. It has no calories, but adds ascorbic acid to protect flavor and calls out 100% DV vitamin C and a “home-brewed” taste on the label.
• Honest “Just” Green Tea contains no added sugars, is made from USDA certified organic tea leaves and filtered water, and is “steeped in hot water like how you would at home,” according to the company’s website.
• Harney & Sons Organic Supreme Green Unsweetened Iced Tea is a brewed infusion of organic and Fair Trade certified green tea leaves and water and contains ascorbic acid, citric acid, and sodium citrate.
Matcha Green Tea
This tea is made from ground green tea leaves, which means the whole leaves are consumed, not steeped in water. The result is a brew that’s even higher in antioxidant activity than steeped teas. The powder, which dissolves easily when whisked into hot or cold water or milk (matcha lattes are especially popular), can be mixed at home, or clients can purchase premade matcha green tea in cans or bottles. Most offerings contain added ingredients, but there are pure versions with no added sugars or artificial ingredients. One-half teaspoon of matcha powder contains 5 kcal. Three popular products include the following:
• Moontower Matcha Unsweetened Ceremonial Grade has no sugar and no calories—just water, ceremonial grade matcha, and lactic acid. There are several other flavors from this brand, such as peach and mint, which are sweetened with monk fruit extract.
• Tenzo Organic Matcha is sold as matcha green tea powder to mix at home. One-half teaspoon of powder is mixed into about 6 oz of water or milk of choice. This option makes it easy to avoid added sugars and to otherwise personalize.
• ITO EN’s Matcha LOVE Japanese Matcha + Green Tea is bottled organic green tea mixed with matcha. It’s unsweetened, contains 5 kcal per 15.9-fl oz bottle, and is fortified with vitamin C.
So highly consumed, coffee may be one of the main sources of compounds with antioxidant activity for many people, as much if not more than fruits and vegetables, according to a study published in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of Nutritional Science. Coffee is higher in these compounds than green tea. In fact, upwards of 1,000 compounds with antioxidant activity have been identified in unprocessed coffee beans, and even more develop during roasting. They include caffeine, which is linked to many health benefits, such as helping to prevent Parkinson’s disease; chlorogenic acid, which has been associated with the prevention of CVD; caffeic acid, which may play a role in managing type 2 diabetes; and quercetin, which has been linked to reducing the risk of certain cancers. Some of the more popular coffees include the following:
• Purity Organic Coffee is sold as single-serve pods and sachets and as whole bean coffee “roasted for maximum health benefits.” Purity claims its product contain two to four times the antioxidant compounds of other leading coffee brands.
• High Brew Coffee Nitro Cold Brew Black is sugar-free and dairy-free, and the nitro mechanism creates a creamy texture without the need to add creamer.
• Stumptown Coffee Roasters Original Cold Brew Coffee contains no sugar but has a slight hint of sweetness due to the way it’s brewed.
The robust red color of beets suggests these tubers’ rich supply of compounds with antioxidant activity—notably betalains, which have been shown to provide anti-inflammatory and detoxification support—are linked to lower risk of some cancers and lessening the growth of tumor cells. Some beet juice beverage favorites include the following:
• Juice Performer Beet Juice with Passion Fruit Juice is 100% juice with no added sugars and is lacto-fermented. One can (8.4 oz) has 120 kcal, 3 g protein, 24 g carbohydrate, and 15% DV each of potassium and magnesium.
• Beetology Beet + Veggie contains 100% organic cold-pressed beet juice and the juice of green apple, carrot, kale, and celery. One bottle (8.45 oz) has 90 kcal and 16% DV of dietary fiber.
• Lakewood Organic Pure Beet is pure beet juice with organic lemon juice, which allows bottling without preservatives. An 8-oz serving is 100 kcal and provides 7% DV of dietary fiber and 10% DV or higher of iron, potassium, vitamin C, folate, magnesium, and manganese.
Very high in compounds with antioxidant activity, pomegranate juice is one of the most potent beverage sources. This juice is being studied for its potential in influencing many health effects, including helping to reduce inflammation and blood pressure and lower cancer risk.
• POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice is whole-pressed, which means the whole fruit—rind, pith, and arils—are pressed so the compounds with antioxidant activity from each part are extracted. This juice contains no added sugars and an 8-oz serving contains 10% DV of potassium, as much as an average banana.
• Lakewood Organic Pure Pomegranate is fresh pressed, which means it’s not from concentrate; it’s in its most natural form. There are no added ingredients. An 8-oz serving has 160 kcal, 10% DV of potassium, and 15% DV of folate.
• Bai Antioxidant Water is purified water infused with potassium bicarbonate, electrolytes, and the antioxidant selenium, which is associated with a healthy immune system and cognitive function. It’s free of calories and flavored by the electrolytes.
• Positive Beverage Sparkling gets its antioxidant boost from vitamin C. This calorie-free carbonated water is marketed as a “healthy electrolyte beverage” with no artificial colors, sweeteners, or preservatives. It does contain the sweeteners stevia and erythritol, a sugar alcohol.
— Lori Zanteson is a food, nutrition, and health writer based in Southern California.