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Functional Water: All fun, no function?

Diet, Health

Functional Water: All fun, no function?

The Dirt

We live in a world where marketing often gets in the way of our sense of good science, especially when it comes to our food, and well, now our water! Don’t let claims, labels, and celebrity endorsements blind you from facts. Let’s get to the bottom of what functional waters can really achieve, and what they really can’t.


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Functional waters are defined as enhanced waters that provide benefits outside of just sheer hydration. A sector that sprung onto the market in June 2016 when All Market Inc. launched Vita Coco, water in a box that touted the benefits of added electrolytes. From there, major players joined the scene—from PepsiCo to Coca-Cola to Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Nestle, and more.

The global market share for water has grown from $10 billion in 2017 and is projected to be upwards of $18 billion by 2025. With nearly half of all Americans drinking less than four cups of water on a daily basis, it seems this sector could be promising for a dehydrated America.

But what can functional water really provide beyond hydration?

These beverage companies are hoping to revolutionize the hydrating experience, making claims like: ensuring better sleep quality, body-detoxing properties, pH balance, and more. But, what’s the real scoop here? I know Gal Gadot wants me to drink Smart Water, Dwayne Johnson wants me to refresh with Voss, Gwyneth Paltrow suggests hydrating with Flow, and Jaden Smith tells me to opt for Just Water. And while I know that my favorite celebs would nevvvverrr lie to me, there may be some smoke and mirrors at play.

Let’s see what the real deal is, where science meets celebrity, and how to base our spending on fact, not fame.

Types of Functional Waters

One size does not fit all.

Functional waters come in many forms, from alkaline to hydrogen-rich, electrolyte-enhanced to superfood infused…each one touting its unique health benefits.

Can these really all be true?

Alkaline Water:

CLAIM: Alkaline water brands claim to help regulate our body’s pH levels. By drinking alkaline water, you can lower your bodies pH, strengthen your immune system, clean your colon, prevent aging, detoxify your system, lose weight, and prevent cancer.

ANSWER: FALSE.

EXPLANATION: Much like our research of the Alkaline diet, the theory that too much acidity in the body is harmful and creates a need to increase our pH level, is itself false. Furthermore, the claim that water can alter a human’s internal pH levels is also untrue.

The reality is that our bodies do a darn good job of maintaining our very tight pH levels. There are many metabolic ways our body rids itself of acids to keep our pH between 7.35 and 7.45. Our lungs control our body’s pH by releasing carbon dioxide each time we breathe out. Our body also rids itself of acid by secreting it through our skin and urine. Furthermore, our stomach acids neutralize the alkaline water we ingest.

POTENTIAL UPSIDE: A 2012 animal study found that alkaline water with a pH of 8.8 neutralized pepsin, a stomach enzyme involved in breaking down food proteins and producing stomach acid. This suggests that alkaline water might help soothe acid reflux—though the issue has not been studied in people yet.

TAKEAWAY: If alkaline water is going to get you to drink more water, go for it! Just don’t think that the money you are spending is going to alter your body’s acidity levels. But if you suffer from acid reflux, give it a try!

Hydrogen-Rich Water:

Hydrogen-rich water is regular water boosted with extra hydrogen molecules. Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless, non-toxic gas that binds to other elements like nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen and can form a variety of compounds like water.

CLAIM: Adding hydrogen molecules in water can provide extra antioxidants to protect our body against damage caused by free radicals. It can also decrease inflammation, boost athletic performance, and even slow down how our body ages.

ANSWER: Not to the extent of these claims.

EXPLANATION: Water molecules consist of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. The assertion of benefits from infusing water with additional hydrogen molecules lacks any scientific backing – and in fact may have been disproved by a recent four-week study in which 26 healthy people were asked to drink 20 ounces of hydrogen-rich glasses of water each day. When compared to results from a placebo group, the study found no indication of decreased oxidative stress or inflammation.

It is also important to note that there is currently no industry-wide standard for the amount of hydrogen that can be added to water. Should I worry about too much hydrogen? While a few studies have shown that too much hydrogen could lead to a build-up of hydrogen ions, which could cause muscle fatigue, these results are rare.

TAKEAWAY: If you enjoy drinking it, go for it! Just don’t think that the money you are spending is going to decrease inflammation and rid our body of free radicals.

Electrolyte Water:

Electrolyte Water is enhanced with electrolytes. But did you know that tap water and most other waters also contain trace amounts of electrolytes? Electrolytes themselves are minerals that help to conduct electricity when dissolved in water.

We have all heard of giving Pedialyte to kids who have the flu and need to add back electrolytes to get their energy level up. Well, here is what is happening: when electrolytes are distributed through fluid in our body, their electrical energy helps to control fluid balance, regulate blood pressure, and contract muscles like the heart.

CLAIM: Electrolyte waters can help to replenish electrolytes lost during physical activity, and help to increase energy.

ANSWER: YES in some cases.

EXPLANATION: Electrolyte water is most beneficial for those who are physically active, or those who have lost electrolytes due to sickness. During physical activity, the body loses sweat that contains sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Electrolyte enhanced waters can provide a replenishment of those minerals lost through sweat. But unless you are an athlete or under the weather, why pay more? And be careful of sports drinks with electrolytes, like Gatorade, that contain a whopping 30-grams of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle. In addition to the added calories, these sugar-rich drinks can actually make symptoms worse.

TAKEAWAY: If you find that electrolyte-rich water helps you recover faster, try it out! Just don’t think that the money you are spending is going to have much of an effect unless you are an athlete or have been sick and need to replenish lost electrolytes.

Infused Water:

Water added flavors such as fruits, vegetables, or herbs tend to taste great and is a perfect alternative to sodas and other sugary drinks. But what is this gorgeous glass of lemon and cucumber water providing you outside of an Instagram-able moment, and a good smelling, better tasting vessel to get your daily water intake? Well, truth is, not much.

CLAIM: Clear Skin! Weight Loss! Detoxing!

ANSWER: No, no, and no.

EXPLANATION: We have seen claims saying that up to 20 percent of nutrients from added fruits will leech into the water and provide some of the benefits from eating the whole food. Even if that were true, why not just pop the strawberry or cucumber in your mouth and get 100 percent of the nutrients?

But I suppose that is neither here nor there. Take lemon water as an example. Infusing water with lemon raises the amount of Vitamin C and antioxidants – but only produces a very, very small change in its nutritional content.

If that is your goal, simply eat the whole food….but maybe not a lemon.

POTENTIAL UPSIDE: If you are drinking delicious, homemade infused water, you’re staying hydrated without adding sugar. And that right there is a benefit in itself. I have recently been cutting up lemon and rosemary sprigs and putting them in a pitcher of water at the front of my fridge. This serves not only as a reminder to keep hydrated but an easy tasty option to sip my water all day long.

TAKEAWAY: If infused water is going to get you to drink more water, go for it! Just don’t think that the pretty pitcher of pineapple counts as a serving of fruits. It doesn’t. Just eat the darn fruit, and drink a glass of pretty water because it tastes good, looks good, and smells good, not because it is better for you.

Just Plain, Old Tap Water:

The healthiest and most affordable choice. While it may not be the tastiest option, it is, simply put, all we really need. Our bodies are made up of 60 percent water and each and every drop of water helps us digest, eliminate waste, deliver oxygen to our system, lubricate our joints, regulate our temperature, and help our nutrients flow. Basically, every single one of the billions of cells in your body needs water to function. Drinking more water can also help you stay fuller longer, which can decrease the desire to consume unnecessary calories.

According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, men should drink about 15.5 cups each day or 3.7 liters, while women should strive for 11.5 cups each day or 2.7 liters.  If you are thirsty – you are a bit dehydrated. Check your urine to see if the color is yellow or dark yellow – then reach for the bottle or glass.

The Bottom Line

These functional waters won’t hurt anything but your wallet. Know the true upsides to each hydrating option. Athletes might opt for electrolyte-enhanced, while flavor-loving consumers might prefer an infused glass. Others might struggle with acid reflux and give alkaline a try. At the end of the day, staying hydrated is all that really matters.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line