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Kombucha, coconut water and green juice: How healthy are trending drinks?

In partnership with Cancer Council Victoria dietitian Alison McAleese

We ask a dietitian to separate fact from fiction

Health drinks_thumbnail
Health drinks_thumbnail

We’ve all tried a health trend at some point in our lives – whether it be a superfood, a popular exercise routine (ab-master pro, anyone?) or a miracle vitamin.

Sometimes they do exactly what they say they’ll do; other times they leave a lot to be desired.

Health drinks have had an insurgence with many supermarkets, service stations and local cafes stocking a range of different options, from smoothies and kombucha to kefir and vitamin waters.

So, we sat down with Alison McAleese, dietitian at Cancer Council Victoria to find out how well each of these trendy drinks deliver on their claims.

What is a health drink?

Alison explains that the term ‘health drink’ refers to a beverage that may include a combination of vitamins, minerals or other beneficial compounds. However, it’s important to note that there are no specific regulations or rules around what qualifies a drink as a ‘health’ drink, so claims need to be taken with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, Alison’s recommendation is to drink water and plain milk, but these drinks are OK as an occasional option (best not to make them a daily go-to)!

Related: The Check Up Nutrition series

What are fermented health drinks?

Fermentation is a process in which microorganisms (like yeast and bacteria) convert carbs (like sugar) into alcohol or acids. A natural process that dates back to the earliest civilizations, fermentation promotes the growth of ‘good bacteria’ known as probiotics, which can have a range of health benefits from boosting immunity to aiding digestion.

Fermented drinks tend to have a slightly tangy, tart taste thanks to the acid and alcohol content, which also acts as a natural preservative.

Concerned about the alcohol present in fermented drinks? The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code regulates this heavily, so the amount of residual alcohol is likely to be minimal in the non-alcoholic fermented health drinks you buy. However, a review of these drinks did find a number of products exceeded the permitted alcohol content so it’s something to be aware of.

Three of the more common fermented drinks available at the moment are:

  • Kombucha: This is made from a base of green or black tea and white sugar that’s been fermented with a SCOBY – a symbiotic culture of vinegar bacteria and yeast - for one or two weeks.

  • Kefir: Kefir comes in two forms, kefir milk and kefir water and both are made with kefir grains; a mixture of yeast and bacteria.

  • Switchel: Switchel is made using apple cider vinegar, water, ginger, and honey or maple syrup, with optional extras such as lemon and other spices.

The important thing to remember when it comes to fermented products is that research shows that in order to reap their rewards, you need to consume them regularly and as part of a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and lean protein.

Realistically speaking, the true strength of fermented drinks is as a substitute for if you’re craving a soft drink or an alcoholic beverage.

So, what should you know before you choose a fermented drink to quench your thirst?

“Realistically speaking, the true strength of fermented drinks is as a lower energy - and significantly lower sugar - substitute for if you’re craving a soft drink or an alcoholic beverage,” says Alison.

As part of the Rethink Sugary Drink Thirsty campaign, Alison and her team recommend checking out the ingredients list on the beverage label.

“Some drinks may contain added sugars or non-nutritive sweeteners (like stevia), which are acidic and can increase risk of tooth decay,” explains Alison.

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Coconut water vs vitamin water vs H2O

When it comes to hydration, which water reigns supreme? We ask Alison to break down the benefits of coconut water and vitamin water.

  • Coconut water: This is essentially the juice from the inside of a coconut. Because it contains electrolytes - potassium, sodium and manganese - it has gained popularity as a post-workout rehydrator. However, the amount of electrolytes vary depending on the maturity of the coconut, and research suggests it may not be much more beneficial than plain drinking water.

“Coconut water is really just a juice cleverly marketed as a water,” Alison says.

“Not to mention electrolyte drinks are only recommended after heavy and sustained physical activity; if you have lost a lot of fluid through heavy sweating, vomiting or diarrhoea, a sports drink or electrolyte replacement drink may be a useful option – otherwise, H2O will do the job.”

  • Vitamin water: Meanwhile, vitamin or ‘smart’ waters are typically made up of water, sugar, selected B vitamins and occasionally caffeine. Although the sugar content in vitamin water is generally much less than that of a traditional soft drink, you’re probably still better off reaching for plain water.

“Flavoured waters are still considered a sugary drink with some containing around five teaspoons of sugar in just one 500mL bottle,” says Alison.

Are green juices the secret to getting healthy?

With ingredients typically including spinach, apple, cucumber, celery, kale and lemon juice, green juice sounds like it should be a powerhouse of nutrients, right?

  • Green juice: Blending up fruit and veggies will provide you a good hit of essential vitamins and minerals. Spinach, kale and lettuce, for example, are high in vitamins A, C and K, with kale also boasting manganese, calcium, copper, potassium and magnesium.

When it comes to green juice, you run the risk of consuming far too much sugar.

While at first glance, it looks like a slam-dunk as a health drink, Alison says fibre – essential to good digestion (and far more valuable to good gut health than the occasional fermented drink) is completely absent from some green juices. You also run the risk of consuming far too much sugar if your juice is heavy on fruit. Not to mention, if you’re eating a balanced diet, all the vitamins you need should already be included in your normal meals.

“While green juices do provide an added extra vitamin boost, eating the food as a whole is always better. If you do like to down the occasional green juice, make sure you limit portions, include plenty of veggies rather than fruit and it’s better to make your own at home so you can control what’s in it,” says Alison.

The verdict on trendy health drinks

There’s one thing that’s for sure when it comes to quenching your thirst – nothing beats a glass of plain water.

“When choosing a healthy and refreshing drink, we recommend water as the best option for your health. It rehydrates you without any added sugars or sweeteners and is also the best option for your teeth – even low sugar fizzy drinks are acidic and can damage your teeth,” says Alison.

The Cancer Council Victoria’s Rethink Sugary Drink initiative has partnered with nib foundation as part of the Thirsty campaign. This campaign aims to build awareness around the health risks associated with consuming sugary drinks and reduce the rate of Aussies impacted by disease as a result of obesity.

For more information on healthy eating, tips and exclusive recipes, head to our Nutrition page on The Check Up.

Author image_Alison McAleese

In partnership with Cancer Council Victoria dietitian

Alison McAleese

Alison McAleese is an experienced dietitian specialising in public health and reducing obesity with a keen interest in reducing inequalities related to food nutrition. Over the past 10 years, she has worked in community nutrition education, project development and public health roles in Australia and the UK. Alison is currently manager of the Healthy Lifestyles campaigns at Cancer Council Victoria.