Q: Are there any health benefits to the new wave of water alternatives?
A: Thanks to the booming popularity of coconut water, many new twists on plain old H20 have arrived at grocery stores, positioning themselves as alternatives to traditional sports drinks and claiming additional health benefits. Each of these new waters contains a unique nutritional and flavor profile, so let's look at a few of them.
As the name suggests, this liquid is the watery substance collected from maple trees as one of the first steps in making maple syrup. Touted as a lower-sugar alternative to coconut water, maple water contains less than 5 grams (g) per eight ounces, but it also contains fewer electrolytes like potassium (although you might not need electrolytes when you exercise). One of the most interesting components of maple water is abscisic acid (ABA), a compound used by plants to aid in their adaptations to stress. In humans, it helps shuttle sugar out of the blood stream and can also stimulate immune function.
Similar to maple water, this drink comes from tapping a birch tree and is purported to be the next coconut water. But unlike maple water, which stays pure after being extracted from the tree, birch water is often flavored with ginger, lime, raspberry, or other flavors. Although it's branded as being full of electrolytes and antioxidants, the characteristics and efficacy behind these nutritional buzzwords are rarely quantified. One beneficial ingredient in birch water is xylitol, one of the better-digested sugar alcohols that helps prevent tooth decay. Some companies market birch water as “living water,” but don’t worry—it is actually pasteurized so you aren’t actually ingesting any live bacteria.
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High in potassium and beta-carotene, watermelon water (think cold-pressed watermelon juice) packs the most concentrated nutrition of any of the waters here. Since the agua content of watermelon is so high, no additional H2O is added in the process. Watermelon rinds are also rich in citrulline, a precursor to the amino acid, arginine, which aids in blood vessel health.
Unlike the other waters taken straight from a tree or fruit, cactus water requires a little more processing. It is made from prickly pear concentrate, water, natural flavors (a term that actually doesn't mean anything), and prickly pear extract. However, cactus water may be the most useful drink if you plan to hit up happy hour: Research shows that if taken before drinking alcohol, prickly pear extract can reduce symptoms of a hangover like day-after nausea and dry mouth. This effect is thought to be due to a type of antioxidant found in prickly pear extract called betalains. Unfortunately the extract doesn’t seem to abolish those dreaded hangover headaches.
In the end, while these plant waters may be more natural than Gatorade, it’s important to remember that electrolytes are electrolytes and sugar is sugar. Drinking maple water rather than Gatorade isn’t necessarily healthier; it's just different. Drink what you prefer, and if you pick one of the above beverages, you will reap these additional nutritional components that may have health benefits.