With immune-boosting and digestion-helping benefits, agua fresca is the ultra-hydrating beverage you’re going to want to make all year long.  
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Agua Fresca
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Craving a delicious way to quench your thirst? Try agua fresca, a traditional Mexican beverage. It's light, sweet, and often made with fresh fruit, making it a tasty alternative to plain ol' H2O. It's also easy to DIY with your fave fruits, whether that's juicy mango or tart pineapple. What's more, when made with fruits, agua fresca offers nutritional benefits galore. Read to learn about the drink, plus how to make it at home.

What Is Agua Fresca?

Agua fresca is a sweetened, water-based beverage made of fruit, cereal, grains, seeds, and/or flowers, according to Oscar Hernandez, chef and culinary director of Tacombi, a Mexican food and beverage brand with taquerias across the East Coast. Meaning "fresh water" in Spanish, agua fresca is often used as a collective term for these drinks, though the name of each individual variety depends on its exact ingredients (e.g. "agua de piña" is made with pineapple), says Hernandez. And while all varieties of agua fresca deserve their fair share of attention, this article will focus primarily on fruit-based versions, which are commonly created with lime, orange, watermelon, cantaloupe, and pineapple in Mexico, notes Hernandez. (Related: What Is Tepache, and Is It Really As Healthy As Kombucha?)

Agua Fresca Nutrition

The nutritional content of agua fresca varies greatly depending on the ingredients and how it's crafted (think: homemade vs. pre-packaged). But generally, when it's made with fruit, the beverage offers similar nutrients found in a said ingredient. One such example is vitamin C, an antioxidant and essential nutrient that's particularly abundant in fruits, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

Fruits (and therefore, agua fresca) also offer other nutrients such as folate and potassium, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). And when the beverage is not strained and the pulp (aka the solid parts of the fruit) remain, agua fresca offers a notable amount of fiber, says registered dietitian Krista Linares, R.D.N., who has Mexican and Cuban ancestry. Finally, thanks to its high water content, agua fresca can contribute to your daily fluid intake and help support hydration.

Here are the nutrition facts for an 8-ounce serving of a branded version of fruit-based agua fresca made with mango puree, passionfruit juice concentrate, lemon juice, and sugar, according to the USDA:

  • 60 calories
  • 0 grams fat
  • 15 grams carbohydrates
  • 1 gram protein
  • 11 grams sugar

Health Benefits of Agua Fresca

Prevents Chronic Conditions

If you're looking to up your intake of antioxidants, sip on fruit-based agua fresca. Fruits — such as cantaloupe, orange, and pineapple, all of which are often used in agua fresca — are teeming antioxidants, substances that "are needed by your body to repair cellular damage caused by free radicals," says Figueroa. This is a BFD because free radicals are harmful molecules that, in excess, contribute to oxidative stress — a situation that increases the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and cancer. However, by including foods that are rich in antioxidants (see: fruits in agua fresca), you can reap these disease-busting health benefits, says Figueroa. (BTW, how many servings of fruits — and veggies — do you actually need per day?)

Supports Immune Function

ICYMI above, fruits — and, thus, fruit-based agua fresca (especially those made with strawberries, watermelon, and papaya, says Linares) — are full of vitamin C. This is noteworthy for a few reasons: For starters, vitamin C is an antioxidant, meaning it also helps staves off chronic disease by protecting cells from oxidative stress. It also "plays an important role in the function of [the] immune system, including stimulating the production of white blood cells," says Linares. White blood cells protect the body by destroying harmful microorganisms (e.g. bacteria) that could potentially cause illness, according to the NCBI.

Promotes Healthy Digestion

Although fruit-based agua fresca is commonly strained to remove the pulp (which allows for that silky-smooth texture that so many love), it's not unheard of to skip — and, in doing so, keep the fiber from the fruit, says Linares. The exact ratio of soluble vs. insoluble fiber will depend on the fruit(s) used, but both types of fiber are key for healthy digestion. Soluble fiber creates a gel-like substance in the gastrointestinal tract, which firms up stool, potentially curbing diarrhea. Meanwhile, insoluble fiber makes stool bulkier and promotes healthy movement of the GI muscles, thereby reducing constipation or irregular bowel movements, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Supports Hydration

Your body needs water to perform myriad essential functions, from regulating body temperature to lubricating joints. Translation: it's crucial to stay hydrated — and sipping on agua fresca can help you do just that, says Linares. This is due to the drink's combo of water and fruits, the latter of which also contain heaping amounts of H2O. However, if hydration is your main goal, try not to overthink your fruit choices when making agua fresca. "When incorporated into an agua fresca there aren't any fruits that are more hydrating than others, assuming the quantity consumed is roughly equal," she explains. But take note: For some folks, a high intake of sugar (which is found in agua fresca) can actually increase thirst, says Linares. Sound familiar? You can prevent this effect by adjusting the ingredients of your agua fresca — i.e. using less sugar and/or more water — to reduce the amount of sugar per serving.

Also, although agua fresca can contribute to your daily fluid intake and help keep you hydrated, it shouldn't necessarily replace plain water, explains Figueroa. Instead, agua frescas can be a great way to zest up your usual water intake while adding diversity to your diet, she says. (Related: How Much Water Do You Actually Need to Drink Per Day?)

Factors to Consider Before Trying Agua Fresca

Agua fresca is a sweetened drink due to its naturally occurring and added sugars. So, if you're managing prediabetes or diabetes, Linares suggests monitoring your blood sugar levels after drinking agua fresca to ensure they're within safe limits. Your doc or dietitian may also recommend strategies such as using less sugar (or more water) in homemade agua fresca to reduce the amount of sugar per serving. Similarly, they might suggest leaving in the fiber-rich pulp — or, in some cases, pairing the drink with high-fiber meals, says Linares. Why? Well, fiber can help slow blood sugar absorption, ultimately keeping your blood sugar levels within safe limits.

If you're allergic to any fruits, avoid agua fresca made with said ingredients. This is especially important if you're trying a new fruit in the form of agua fresca. Possible symptoms of a food allergy include shortness of breath, coughing, trouble swallowing, and wheezing, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

How to Make Agua Fresca

While it can often be found as a bottled drink or powdered mix at the market, agua fresca is fairly easy to DIY — and doing so can allow you to tailor the taste to your liking. Making an agua fresca recipe at home can also ensure you'll end up with a more nutrient-dense drink. Not only can you, say, cut back the amount of added sugars but you can also trust they'll be plenty of vitamin C unlike in the mixes available for purchase, which often don't contain real fruit juice, according to Linares.

Now, if you're wondering how to make agua fresca, a few tips to keep in mind: For the best flavor, use fruit that's fully ripe and in season, says Johnny Hernandez, chef and owner of La Fruteria, a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. Also, taste your fruit before tossing everything in the blender, suggests Oscar. Since fruit can vary in sweetness, a quick taste test will help you determine how much sweetener you need to add, if any at all. What's more, "agua frescas prepared with more naturally sweet-tasting fruits like mango or pineapple may not [need sweetener]," notes Figueroa. Speaking of sweetener, white sugar is the traditional choice when it comes to agua fresca but you can also use honey, agave nectar, stevia, monk fruit sugar, or piloncillo, a type of unrefined sugar used in Mexican cooking, says Oscar. (Related: Meet Allulose, the New Low-Calorie Sweetener That's Sweeping the Market)

To make the drink at home, try this orange and papaya agua fresca recipe by Johnny:

Orange and Papaya Agua Fresca Recipe

Makes: 28 servings (about 8 ounces each)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

  • 80 ounces filtered water
  • 8 cups ripe papaya, peeled and cubed
  • 2 quarts orange juice, freshly squeezed
  • Sweetener of choice, to taste
  • Ice

Directions

  1. In a blender, combine the papaya and water. Blend until the mixture is smooth.
  2. Add the orange juice and blend.
  3. Optional: Over a pitcher, strain the mixture through a fine sieve to remove pulp.
  4. Taste and add sweetener of choice.
  5. Pour the mixture over ice and serve to liking, whether that's as is or in glasses with rims garnished with chile powder.

Recipe Notes

  • You can halve or double the ingredients for a smaller or larger batch of agua fresca.
  • To make agua fresca with just papaya, replace the orange juice with water.
  • You can also replace the papaya with the same amount of another fruit, like strawberries or mangoes.
  • Feel free to use a combination of fruits for a different flavor profile.
  • Agua fresca is best enjoyed fresh, but you can store leftovers in the refrigerator in a covered pitcher.

Recipe Courtesy of Chef Johnny Hernandez of La Fruteria