Economy

Vitaminwater's Empty Calories Are at the Heart of What's Wrong with the Beverage Industry

Vitaminwater tells its customers to "hydrate responsibly." That means not drinking 125-calorie sugar rushes like ... Vitaminwater.

Many millions of Americans continue to seek all sorts of ways to become healthier and control their weight, but let's get real; it's not working. The health trend continues, yet our obesity rates remain on the rise.

In this past year, the obesity rates among adults rose in 23 states, according to a new report from the Trust for American's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; the state of Colorado is the only state with an obesity rate below 20 percent at 18.9. In 1991, there was only one state with an obesity rate above 20 percent.

Based upon the upward trend, you would expect sales to have risen at fast-food joints. Maybe, but that is not the data that has me raising an eyebrow.

Consider this paradox: As we have become "larger" as a nation, our sales at health food a stores have skyrocketed. Between 2001 and 2008, sales of natural food and drink products at specialty stores in the United States rose from an estimated $11.9 billion to $19.6 billion.

What is it that we are not doing right?

As a former dancer and gymnast, I'm hyper aware of the need to push aside the sugar and junk and try to find the products that will keep me on the healthy straight and narrow. And I'm obviously not alone.

I've stood in lines at Whole Foods that seemed longer than lines I remember standing in for Space Mountain at Disneyland, as a kid. I've seen firsthand, by peeking into my fellow shoppers' baskets, that we certainly are making valiant efforts to improve our diets.

Not so long ago, I was standing in one of those long lines that backed up to the beverage aisle and discovered that maybe we health seekers are looking in all the wrong places, especially by trusting chains like Whole Foods and local health-food markets with our health interests.

I picked up a bottle of Vitaminwater to check out what the drink's hype was about.

For sports fans, it was hard to miss the ubiquitous marketing effort on behalf of Vitaminwater. It was all over the TV during the NCAA and NBA championships this year. There was the Kobe Bryant vs. Lebron James great debate in the Vitaminwater match-up, followed by the very popular Dwight Howard's Dwight vs. Dwight Vitaminwater commercial on network TV as well as YouTube and Facebook, exemplifying "where the 'man of steel' definitely gets his vitamins!"

I was vaguely familiar with Vitaminwater throughout the years, but now I was getting sucked in by the vibrant, sleek-looking, hipsteresque bottles with the nutrition information somewhat resembling a pharmaceutical label with bold-faced text.

I began to read the contents and had quite an eye-opening moment. Vitaminwater had "natural" ingredients like "processed crystalline fructose," "natural" caffeine and a lot of other things I didn't understand like deionized and/or reverse-osmosis water.

And as I did the math, I realized there were 125 calories in one of those sexy bottles, along with 32.5 grams of sugar …"natural" of course. Hmm ... that's almost what a can of Coca-Cola has.

That's when it dawned on me -- could Vitaminwater be a part of the obesity problem? Not Vitaminwater alone, but this false fantasy we're buying into, that we are doing something healthy for ourselves by drinking the stuff and consuming other "natural" products. Are Whole Foods and health food stores part of the problem by pushing sugar and caffeine on us in healthier packaging?

As I did with my previous "socially conscious" shopping epiphany in my article about who owns and markets Burt's Bees, Kashi, Toms of Maine, Naked Juice, etc., etc., I quickly went home and started to do my homework. What I found out shocked me.

First, Vitaminwater, Smartwater, Fruitwater and Vitamin Energy are all owned by Coca-Cola,  which purchased Glaceau, the maker of Vitaminwater, in 2007 for $4.1 billion dollars (that's quite a growing market for sugar water) in order to "upgrade its portfolio of noncarbonated beverages."

Sales of Coke and Bottled Water in Decline

As it turns out, the need for Coke to "upgrade" its portfolio of noncarbonated beverages was motivated in part because of two things that were happening in the market place. First, there has been a drop-off in sales of carbonated drinks like Coke and Pepsi as people aimed to get healthier. According to a Beverage Digest report that came out in March, U.S. carbonated soft drink volume fell for the fourth straight year in 2008. Coca-Cola's soft drink volume declined 3.1 percent.

And furthermore, sales of bottled water -- for Coke it is Dasani, the second-largest bottled water sold in the U.S. (PepsiCo has Aquafina, which has the largest market share) -- were also dropping. A key reason: The national campaign by groups like Food and Water Watch and Corporate Accountability International to get people to switch from bottled water, which is an environmental hazard, to tap water, which is often healthier, was working.

The massive advertising effort to scare people into thinking that their tap water wasn't healthy has been effective, fabricating the need for bottled water. The result is a huge toll on the environment. Americans use more than 50 billion disposable plastic water bottles a year.

The fact that a substantial part of the bottled-water market is shipped from thousands of miles away also creates a huge carbon footprint (think Fuji, and Pellegrino from Italy). San Francisco, Phoenix, Chicago and New York state decided to forbid their governments from spending public money to purchase bottled water. So, instead of continued growth, the bottled-water market started going south.

Vitaminwater to the Rescue

But Coca-Cola wasn't about to leave all those customers to drink tap water -- no profit there. With tens of millions of dollars invested in celebratory marketing, including the rapper 50 Cent, and with a message consumers wanted to hear -- they were going to get healthier drinking the stuff -- Coca-Cola launched a very savvy marketing effort to create a mass audience for Vitaminwater.

A key goal was to move two groups -- ex-Coca-Cola addicts and reformed bottled-water drinkers -- over to the hyped Vitaminwater. But the reality is they were packaging empty calories and caffeine into a slick new bottle that gives the illusion of health.

I know, I know -- you are probably thinking, "But what about the vitamins they add to the drink? Isn't that healthy for me?" Surprise, surprise ... that's a crock, too, which I'll touch on in a moment.

And it turned out that my little "discoveries" about Vitaminwater, weren't exactly original. I was not alone. Although no one I knew was aware of many of the facts that I had stumbled upon about Vitaminwater (particularly that it is owned by Coke), a major fight against Vitaminwater was already under way. The marketing deception by Coca-Cola for Vitaminwater had not gone unnoticed.

Class-Action Suit Against Vitaminwater

In January 2009 the Coca-Cola Co. was served notice of a class-action lawsuit filed over what the Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) says are deceptive and unsubstantiated claims on its Vitaminwater line of beverages.

"Vitaminwater is more likely to increase a regular consumer's chances of being obese or developing diabetes,"says the CSPI.

The CSPI states that Coke markets Vitaminwater as a healthful alternative to soda by labeling its several flavors with such health buzzwords as "defense", "rescue," "energy" and "endurance." It also says the company makes a wide range of dramatic claims, including that its line of drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, eye disease, promote healthy joints and support optimal immune function.

CSPI Litigation Director Steve Gardner said, "Coke fears, probably correctly, that they'll sell less soda as Americans become increasingly concerned with obesity, diabetes and other conditions linked to diets too high in sugar. Vitaminwater is Coke's attempt to dress up soda in a physician's white coat. Underneath, its still sugar water, albeit sugar water that costs about 10 bucks a gallon."

The CSPI also states that Vitaminwater contains 0 to 1 percent juice, yet the names of the flavors include "Endurance Peach Mango," "Focus Kiwi Strawberry" and "XXX Blueberry Pomegranate Acai," when in fact, these flavors contain none of these juices.

What is Natural Anyway?

So that got me to thinking: If Vitaminwater contains 0 to 1 percent juice, what is it that is so "natural" about the drink?

I wanted to get to the bottom of what it means when something is labeled "natural." We see it all over the food products we purchase, and unfortunately, more often than not, we tend to associate the word "natural" with healthy, assuming that if something is natural, it must be good for us.

A new Vitaminwater product was recently launched named Vitaminwater 10. The "10" represents the caloric content per serving (less than the original Vitaminwater, but still 25 calories per bottle). The word "natural" is presented so many times on this new bottle that the inner hippy in me is almost inspired to stop shaving my armpits: "Naturally sweetened ... supernaturally tasty" is the mantra chanted on Vitaminwater 10.

The definition of "natural food" by Merriam Webster is as follows: Food that has undergone minimal processing and contains no preservatives or artificial additives. Food that is produced by nature; that is, not produced artificially.

Since all food can be said to be produced by nature, the term "natural foods" becomes virtually meaningless. According to the Institute of Food Technologists, despite the term's widespread use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration discourages the food industry from using "natural" on labels because of its ambiguity.

"Natural may unjustifiably imply that a food is of superior quality or safety compared to other similar foods", said the FDA's Ritu Nalubola.

The caffeine content on the label of Vitaminwater is listed as "natural caffeine." Confused, by "natural caffeine," naturally I wanted to understand what exactly that meant.

The caffeine used in most energy drinks comes from guarana, a South American plant that has only recently become known around the world and contains more milligrams per ounce than the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee.

Some Vitaminwater Flavors Could Disqualify You from the NCAA

The idea that Vitaminwater is super healthy took an additional beating this winter when it was pointed out that some Vitaminwater flavors contain "impermissible or banned substances" that could lead to suspensions for some athletes.

Apparently, some of the Vitaminwater varieties are equivalent in caffeine content to the amount of caffeine in the popular energy drink Red Bull, which seems to take pride in providing us legal crack in a can (which I might add is loaded with our "natural caffeine" guarana as well).

A popular sport Web site, DeadSpin.com was alerted by a source that Vitaminwater had six products possibly containing substances that could be problematic for NCAA athletes. If the athletes consumed sufficient quantities some of these flavors -- Power C, Energy, B-Relaxed, Rescue, Vital T and Balance -- there was a chance that a drug test might come up positive, potentially resulting in lost eligibility.

What was particularly shocking about the NCAA revelation was that Coca-Cola is a major marketing partner for the NCAA. The Vitaminwater flavor "Revive" has a sponsorship deal with the NCAA this year to have sideline presence during all 88 NCAA championships.

After the initial revelations, a confusing PR dance took place, essentially so that everyone could cover their butts, and Coke could continue to be the NCAA sponsor, etc.

Nevertheless, the NCAA had to admit that some Vitaminwater varieties can be problematic when drunk by student athletes, with "Energy" and "Rescue" containing "an ingredient or ingredients -- caffeine and guarana seed extract (a caffeine source) -- that are included on the NCAA's drug-testing list of banned substances." The NCAA places a limit on the amount of caffeine that can be found in the urine of a student-athlete.

So Let's Deconstruct the Contents of Vitaminwater

The NCAA confusion really got me thinking. Let's break down the ingredients and see just how "natural" Vitaminwater is. The first three ingredients listed on a bottle of Vitaminwater are: distilled, deionized and/or reverse-osmosis water, crystalline fructose and cane sugar.

So what is distilled, deionized and/or reverse-osmosis water? Turns out it is the same water you'd find in a bottle of Dasani, Coke's bottled water. Coca-Cola was outed in 2004 to admitting that Dasaniwas simply filtered tap water.

More specifically it is tap water that has been filtered through a distillation process, in which natural minerals have been removed, which can create a highly acidic condition in your body, leading to mineral deficiencies.

According to Dr. Zoltan Rona, MsC, a leading proponent of natural, harmless, health-building alternatives to conventional medical care, the more mineral loss, the greater the risk for osteoporosis, hyperthyroidism, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and a long list of degenerative diseases generally associated with premature aging.

Crystalline fructose? This sweetener can be more harmful to our health than that of the sugars and sweeteners, like the high-fructose corn syrup in a can of Coke. Why? Because where high-fructose corn syrup is a blend of 45 percent sucrose and 55 percent fructose, crystalline fructose is 98-100 percent fructose.

According to researchers, when fructose stands alone, your body does not know how to metabolize the molecule so it sends it straight to your liver. Dr. Andrew Weil explains:

The body doesn't handle large amounts of fructose well. You can maintain life with intravenous glucose, but not with intravenous fructose; severe derangement of liver function results. There's also evidence that a high intake of fructose elevates levels of circulating fats (serum triglycerides), increasing the risk of heart disease.

But what about the vitamins in Vitaminwater? Here's the skinny on vitamins: According to Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, most Americans are not vitamin-deficient.

In fact, vitamin E is the only surveyed vitamin Americans may generally need more of to meet the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). But vitamin E is only found in one-third of Vitaminwater drinks.

Nestle goes on to say that if you want to drink your additional Vitamin E, your body may not even absorb it given that it is a fat-soluble vitamin; thus it can only enter the bloodstream to carry out its function if it is dissolved in dietary fat, like that in a meal. That goes for all fat-soluble vitamins, which include vitamins A, D and K.

Water-soluble vitamins B and C easily enter the bloodstream with water, yet immediately flush right out of the system if not needed.

Another factor to be aware of is the difference between the total amount of calories and sugar per serving versus what's actually in a bottle of Vitaminwater.

There are 2 1/2 servings in a bottle of Vitaminwater, so instead of 50 calories and 13 grams of sugar (per serving), the bottle, as I mentioned above, provides you with 125 calories and 32.5 grams of sugar -- quite a load.

To put this into perspective -- a can of Coke contains 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar, so a bottle of Vitaminwater (20 ounces) is almost as toxic as a 12-ounce can of Coke, and watching people drinking Vitaminwater when they are really thirsty suggests that frequently they down the whole bottle -- after all, many think it's only water, which of course is not quite true.

Target Audience

So who is the target audience for Vitaminwater? Coca-Cola claims its target is men and women who are looking for healthier alternatives to high-calorie soft drinks. That's sweet in theory, but clearly now the main target is Generation Y and younger, as the ad campaigns are aiming at teenagers.

With Vitaminwater's stylish vibe and the use of celebrity endorsers like rap artist 50 Cent or American Idol's Carrie Underwood and intense marketing efforts on Facebook and MySpace, the demographic is getting younger.

The newest flavor out on the market is called "Sync" which offers a free MP3 download that can be found under the bottle cap and revealed on myspace.com.

I'd be willing to bet the songs revealed under that cap are probably not music to the ears of men and women who are looking for healthier alternatives to high-calorie soft drinks.

The lighthearted, humorous mumbo-jumbo on the side of each Vitaminwater bottle makes the drink relatable for tweens.

Here's the hype from XXX Blueberry Pomegranate Acai: "C'mon, get your mind out of the gutter. We only named this drink XXX because it has the power of triple antioxidants to help keep you healthy and fight free radicals. So in case you are wondering, this does not cost $1.99/minute or contain explicit adult content or anything considered 'uncensored'. It has not gone wild!!! during spring break, nor will clips of it be passed around the Internet like a certain hotel heiress. And it has never been seen live or nude, but is definitely au naturale."

The attempted message here obviously is that Vitaminwater is not just a beverage, but an experience; not just a product, but a lifestyle. When walking down the street carrying a bottle of Vitaminwater, the drink becomes a symbol of what the kids are about, just as much as the pair of sneakers they are wearing or the kind of music they are listening to.

What Does it All Mean?

Of course Vitaminwater isn't the sole culprit here. As on many beverage fronts, the market competition is fierce. Coke's super-rival, Pepsi, has Sobe and its own hyped version of sugar water (Lifewater), with many of the same marketing and ingredient issues, including plenty of empty calories. Sobe has also just come out with a version of the lower-calorie alternative called "0 Calorie Sobe Lifewater" that has no calories, no sugar and yet (again) is "naturally sweetened."

Gatorade also has a sugar-water product called Propel Fitness Water ... but Gatorade is also owned by Pepsi, so more opportunities in the market.

Head over to Whole Foods, and you'll discover that the company is now pushing Vitaminwater off its shelves, replacing it with its own brand of sugar water, Nutrient Enhanced Water 365, and the ingredients are virtually the same as Vitaminwater.

Make no mistake. The "sugar water masquerading as healthy drink" market is booming. From 2004 through 2006, sales for enhanced waters and sports drinks grew 73 percent, to $1.2 billion in sales.

And with the caffeinated versions like "Energy" and "Rescue," it seems that Vitaminwater is encroaching on the market toes of Red Bull, Monster and other "high-energy" drinks, while simultaneously trying to secure its base in the health market as it lowers the calories with Vitaminwater 10, while Sobe weighs in with 0 Calorie Lifewater.

Now, it is true that Vitaminwater and its ilk will not likely be the downfall of Western civilization. There may be times when buying a bottle makes sense -- while on a car trip, for example, and a shot of caffeine will be a help in keeping you awake. Or the sugar taste may help you down lots of water to keep you hydrated temporarily.

But the bottom line is that these drinks, relatively speaking, are not healthy, where a bottle of tap water is far better for you. The sugar-water boom tries to seduce people into thinking they can cheat -- have a healthy drink that tastes sweet and gives them energy.

But there is no free lunch, and there is a price to pay. Vitaminwater has the tag line "Hydrate Responsibly." Well, let's take it at its word. Let's help everyone know that drinking tons of hyped sugar water is not good for the environment -- there are all those plastic bottles again -- nor is it good for your body, especially the 125 calories and the sugar rush in a typical bottle of Vitaminwater.

In fact, the sugar and caffeine, just like in Coke and Pepsi, can be addictive. I 'm sure you know people who seem to always have a bottle of Vitaminwater in their hands.

So take the opportunity and ask them -- did you know that's owned by Coca Cola? That there is a huge problem with billions of plastic bottles ruining the environment? And hey, be aware: You're getting a lot of empty sugar calories by drinking it.

The bottom line: If we are spending so much money attempting to continue to improve our health, the most logical way to "hydrate responsibly" would be to save yourself some bucks and "old school" it back to the tap.

Andrea Whitfill is a freelance writer residing in Brooklyn, N.Y.