Vitaminwater was on sale at my local grocery store this week, 10 20-ounce bottles for $10, which made me wonder whether anybody really needs that much of the stuff.
The major player in the "vitamin-enhanced water" market, Glaceau Vitaminwater sold 142 million cases in the United States in 2009, according to John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, which tracks beverage sales by the case, not the dollar.
Introduced in 1996, Vitaminwater, owned by Coca-Cola, has built a strong identity in the bottled beverage world. Part of its allure is its hip-looking packaging and its engaging product names, such as Revive, Focus and Connect.
Vitaminwater tastes okay, if you like fruity flavor without the fruit. There is almost no actual fruit, even in the "Fruit Punch" variety, and what little there is mostly provides color.
But it's the added vitamins and electrolytes that define Vitaminwater (and its competitors, including SoBe Life Water and Propel).
Do the drinks deliver?
Nancy Rodriguez, a professor of nutrition and a sports nutritionist at the University of Connecticut, says that drinking bottled water can help you track how much water you drink. Your body needs one milliliter -- that's a thousandth of a liter -- of water for every calorie you consume, Rodriguez explains, so a daily diet of 1,800 to 2,000 calories requires about 1.8 to two liters of H2O. That's close to the commonly recommended six to eight eight-ounce glasses.
But tap water works just fine, Rodriguez says. Unless, of course, you live in the District, where lead may linger in some residents' water. (People who are concerned about this can have their water tested by D.C. Water.)
As for electrolytes, only people "dedicated" to exercising need to replenish them, she says, and then it's necessary only if they work out vigorously for more than an hour.
"Vitaminwater," she concludes, "is a marketing ploy."
Tap water has the added benefits of being all but free, and free of calories. Critics have bashed Vitaminwater for being a calorie trap. While a single eight-ounce serving has just 50 calories, a bottle contains 2.5 servings, so you could easily drink 125 calories -- just 15 ounces shy of the calories in a can of Coca-Cola -- at once.
But, as with many other brands, Sicher says low- and no-calorie versions are gaining popularity. While sales of regular Vitaminwater dropped 28 percent last year, he says, sales of the zero-calorie, unflavored Smartwater variety jumped 33 percent. A 10-calorie version of flavored Vitaminwater introduced last year sold "very well," Sicher says. It has been replaced this year by a zero-calorie version, which "also appears to be off to a good start."
Dietitian Lona Sandon, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says enhanced waters are basically "liquid vitamins, with a little added sugar or stevia." Vitaminwater focuses on B vitamins and Vitamin C, which, Sandon notes, are water-soluble and not stored in the body, which means you need to replenish them every day. But, Sandon says, "Once you go beyond what you need, you urinate it out. You're peeing that money away."
A multivitamin is a better option when trying to supplement your diet, she says, because Vitaminwater doesn't provide a full complement of nutrients as does One-a-Day or Centrum.
Better yet, Sandon suggests, food should be the source for vitamins and minerals.
"The truth is that the research on supplementing with vitamins does not prove or show that people who take them are healthier than anyone else," she explains. Indeed, the proposed Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2010 explicitly say most people don't need vitamin supplements.
"I would hate for someone to choose to use Vitaminwater in lieu of eating fruits and vegetables," Sandon says. While enhanced water isn't likely to do harm, it also cannot provide the complex, quality nutrition that produce does.
"Whole fruit, whole vegetables contain phytonutrients and fiber that work together" in ways that scientists don't yet fully understand, she says. "You don't find the same benefit in a bottle."