Faking Your Way to Good Health

Coca-Cola acquired a new venture this year: VitaminWater. Vitamins + water = all you need, its label declares, suggesting it's a magic bullet for better health. With its playful descriptions and cheeky avoidance of capital letters on its labels, VitaminWater has set the bar for hip beverages -- partially because it's touted as a healthful alternative to regular water and partially because it matches your new iPod shuffle. Furthermore, we are told, the consumer is not just purchasing a beverage, but also a state of being: Do I need some lutein to help me "focus" today? Or maybe I need some glucosamine to help me "balance." The trendy drink is an especially appealing alternative during those hectic days when you didn't have time to eat properly, because drinking VitaminWater is just like eating food -- minus the hassle of chewing.

Coca-Cola bought Glacéau, the maker of VitaminWater for $4.1 billion -- the largest amount the company has ever paid for an acquisition. It has since peddled VitaminWater into the mainstream, expanding its placement in grocery stores and vending machines. The purchase was Coca-Cola's attempt to remain competitive in the cold beverage industry, especially during a time when soda sales are looking to decline for the fourth consecutive year.

Even diet soda can't salvage plummeting profits because, more and more, research is showing that diet soda is no healthier than its calorie-filled counterpart. A study published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association studied soda drinkers over a period of four years and examined their risk of gaining a metabolic syndrome -- a condition defined by a large waistline, high blood pressure, and an off-kilter glucose and insulin metabolism. Ramachandran Vasan, the lead author of the study said, "We were struck by the fact that it didn't matter whether it was a diet or regular soda ... In those who drink one or more soft drinks daily, there was an association of an increased risk of developing the metabolic syndrome."

Sales of vitamin-enhanced drinks have, in contrast, tripled from 2001 to 2006. Following the trend, more traditional drinks are also receiving an upgrade: Diet Coke Plus will have vitamins and minerals; Dasani (owned by Coca-Cola) will have some fiber; Jones Soda will have energy drinks complete with amino acids.

The obsession with individual vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients seems to be a decidedly American phenomenon -- borne out of an odd union between nutritional science and the processed food industry. What happens is that the former cites certain nutrients as being especially healthful, and the latter then incorporates these discoveries into its products.

In the article "Unhappy meals," published on Jan. 28 in the New York Times Magazine, food philosopher Michael Pollan described the faulty assumption underlying "nutritionism" as the belief that "the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient." He continues:

"Researchers have long believed ... that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce -- compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. -- are the X factor ... Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they're found in, as we've done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don't work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops."

Pollan's broader thesis was not to say that vitamins are insignificant, but rather that the vitamins in food work in far more complex ways than we might imagine -- that the orange may be healthful for more reasons than just having vitamin C. But what inevitably happens when purchasing processed food is a sort of nutritional synecdoche where a certain amount of a vitamin stands in for a food item -- e.g., as much vitamin A as in four spears of asparagus.

Plugging the nutrition-infused drinks, a Washington Post article states that a bottle of VitaminWater's Formula 50 has "as much folic acid as 2 1/2 cups of cooked broccoli." Who needs broccoli anymore? The future of eating has arrived. And it comes in bottle form.

But, for Dr. Sharon Akabas, coordinator of the M.S. Program in Nutrition for Health Professionals at Columbia University, the idea that vitamin-fortified anything has beneficial properties is a bit besides the point. Akabas broke it down in this way: "Why are you choosing the VitaminWater? If you need the vitamins, then you are potentially not eating an adequate diet. And if you're eating an adequate diet, then there is no need for VitaminWater."

So if VitaminWater could never replace a balanced meal, then what are we getting out of it? A bottle of Formula 50 has 32.5 grams of sugar and 125 calories, which doesn't actually make it so different from a regular can of Coca-Cola, which has 39 grams of sugar and 140 calories. As for a side-by-side comparison with tap water, while it might not have vitamin C, tap water also doesn't have any sugar.

Beyond the added glucose, VitaminWater's negative effects may not be physiological as much as psychological. Dr. Akabas describes how fortified drinks could create what she calls the "off the hook phenomenon -- that is, the feeling that one has a false sense of insurance." I can have my cake and drink my VitaminWater too!

In this way, VitaminWater might not be so different than diet soda was from regular soda. Ordering a Diet Coke (or perhaps now, a Diet Coke Plus), with a Quarter Pounder and fries doesn't ease anything other than guilt. Nutrient-laced drinks could potentially go even further in preventing people from adopting healthier eating habits and lifestyle changes by virtue of their ability to "replace" food. More to the point, one requirement for a healthy diet has remained constant: eat more fruits and vegetables. And no amount of vitaminfibersugarwater is going to change that.

But perhaps nothing else better illustrates the food industry's remarkable elasticity to subsume its critics than FruitWater -- a "diet" version of VitaminWater that's lower-calorie and lighter on the sugar. FruitWater's label says:

"Wait, we have a theory ... about diet drinks. Yes, there are no calories but the artificial sweeteners may trick our bodies into craving more sweets. Know someone who says they're addicted to diet ... (you fill in the blank)?

"With that said, we the makers created this naturally and lightly sweetened alternative. It'll help you wean off the sauce.

Now you can just get addicted to something else.


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