Plant Waters: Why You Should Take the Health Claims
with a Grain of Salt


As soda sales decline, newfangled waters have been taking their place on supermarket shelves-among them, a crop of so-called “plant waters,” made from extracts of fruits, vegetables, grains, grasses, and various other plant parts such as leaves and even rinds; a few are tapped from trees. With fewer calories (generally 20 to 70 per serving) than sugary beverages, or no calories at all, their distinctive tastes range from mildly sweet and refreshing to medicinal. Some are pitched like sports drinks. One thing they all have in common: a lack of scientific credibility to back the many health claims made for them. In fact, they likely contain no effective dose of anything, except water. Here’s a brief look at nine types taking root, including the more familiar coconut water.

Artichoke water. Artichokes are a source of vitamin C, iron, potassium, magnesium, and other nutrients, plus fiber. The leaves especially are rich in polyphenols, notably cynarin, which has been studied for its potential benefits for the liver. But how much of these compounds find their way into artichoke water is unknown (our guess is very little). The company Botanic-which makes a sugar-free, zero-calorie artichoke water-simply notes on its website that “Artichokes are really good for you!” and that they have “excellent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.”

Bamboo water. Made with concentrated bamboo leaf extract, this beverage is touted by the company that makes it for having “the powerful benefits of bamboo” (without explaining what they might be). Moreover, the first two ingredients are water and sugar. Because bamboo is considered a sustainable crop that has many non-food uses, the company claims that the product is “kinder to the environment”-but this is rather disingenuous, since no bottled water is eco-friendly (because of the packaging, processing, and transportation involved).

Banana water. The website for this product notes that bananas are “full of vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes” and that its banana water is an excellent source of vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium (as much as in two bananas), with no added sugar or colors and just 70 calories per 12-ounce bottle. What the company doesn’t tell you up front is that at least some of these nutrients are added to the beverage and that at least some of the flavor comes from added “banana flavor.”

Barley water. Barley beverages have been used as traditional medicine all over the world for thousands of years to treat everything from diarrhea and stomachaches to dehydration. They are typically made by cooking barley in water. The water may then be strained (or not) and sugar and lemon added. According to testimonials on one brand’s website, barley water is “tasty” and “refreshing,” but claims made that it improves skin complexion and “promotes vitality” (whatever that means) are unproven.

Birch tree water. Birch water has traditionally been consumed in Scandinavia and the Baltics as an “elixir” in the spring, the only time of year when the tree’s sap is collected. This thin, clear liquid, which flows from the roots to the branches, contains minerals like potassium, enzymes, amino acids, sugars, and other compounds that the tree (not necessarily humans) needs. Described as a little sweet and crisp, it is promoted by several companies for rehydration, similar to coconut water-but there is no basis for the claims that it is “ideal” for people who are “stressed” or have “tired livers,” “lowered immunity and defenses,” or other ills.

Cactus water. This beverage is made from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus (also called nopal), which is pured with water and then filtered and sometimes flavored and sweetened with sugar. It’s promoted for its supposed anti-aging and skin-revitalizing effects, which one company, Caliwater, attributes to “rare and potent” betalains (types of antioxidants) in the plant. It’s also said to “cleanse” and “detox” the body (though your body doesn’t need to be cleansed or detoxed-it has the liver to do that), reduce eye puffiness, improve athletic performance, and even help ease hangovers. Preliminary research shows some potential benefits from the cactus itself and some of its constituents (such as taurine), but the beverages remain untested.

Coconut water. This thin liquid from inside young green coconuts has a mild sweet/salty flavor and is virtually fat-free and low in calories; some products contain added sugar. Coconut water has been touted as a “natural” sports drink because of its electrolytes, especially its high potassium level. But it has less sodium than standard sports drinks, so it may not be as good a fluid replacer. Keep in mind that you don’t need any special sports drink unless you work out intensely for more than an hour, and even then plain old water is usually fine. As for all the other claims-that coconut water can control diabetes, fight viruses, speed metabolism, treat kidney stones, and so on-don’t believe them.

Maple water. This is maple sap from the tree (which, when concentrated, becomes maple syrup). The beverage is slightly thicker than water and mildly sweet. Several companies sell maple water, touting their products as “naturally hydrating” and full of health-promoting compounds. For instance, one brand, SEVA, claims to have “46+ bioactive nutrients essential to health,” but there’s no evidence it boosts immunity, prevents degenerative diseases, or aids in digestion, as the company’s website says.

Olive water. The olive is integral to the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. But can you get the same benefits from olive water? One company wants you to think so. It claims that a bottle of its “Mediterranean inspired” olive water- made from the “waste” left behind when olives are pressed for its oil-delivers the same amount of phytochemicals (plant compounds) and “rejuvenating power” as liter of olive oil, but with only 20 calories and no fat. Even if true (there’s no science to back any of that), much of the health benefits of olive oil come from its healthy fats, likely in synergy with other constituents. Does olive water taste like olives? “Absolutely not,” the company is quick to state. Rather, it comes in apricot/coconut and ginger/lime flavors.

Watermelon water. The company Wtr Mln Wtr presses watermelon flesh (and rind) to make a beverage that supplies vitamin C (60 percent of the Daily Value per 8 ounces, at least some from added lemon) and potassium (16 percent), along with some lycopene (a carotenoid with antioxidant properties) and citrulline, which was found in a study to reduce post-exercise soreness when consumed before the workout. With 60 calories and 12 grams of natural sugar (none added) per 8 ounces, it’s better than a higher-calorie soda and can be refreshing after a workout (though it has no sodium so it is not an adequate sports drink for intense workouts where you may need to replace sodium lost in sweat). Another watermelon drink, Hint Watermelon Water, contains just a “splash” of watermelon (actually, just watermelon “flavor”) and thus no nutrients-but no sugar or calories either.

Bottom line: Drink these waters if you like them and don’t mind their cost (about $3 to $5 a bottle), not because you think they have “detoxing” effects or other magical properties. They won’t prevent cancer or heart disease, ease arthritis, smooth wrinkles, get rid of cellulite, or make your hair silkier. Keep in mind also that though these beverages have fewer calories than sodas and many other sugary drinks, the sweeteners used in some of them (like agave and fruit concentrates) are still sugars that provide “empty” calories. The best way to get an abundance of nutrients and other healthy compounds (including fiber) that these waters generally lack is to eat the plants themselves. And the best way to stay hydrated is still with plain tap water, which doesn’t come encased in wasteful single-use packaging and is virtually free.