Some 'Enhanced' Products Might Not Enhance Health
Vitamins, superfoods, and more are touted to sell products. The evidence may be disheartening
Supermarket shelves have grown heavy with beverages, cereals, ice cream, and other products packed with supposedly healthful ingredients. As health-conscious consumers have cut back on sugar-laden soft drinks, for example, vitamin-enhanced beverages such as Glaceau's VitaminWater have filled a growing market for alternatives. Other products, too, appeal to the consumer's inner health nut by promoting added ingredients—antioxidants, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and more.
Promising everything from increased stamina and energy to better heart health, these so-called nutraceuticals are big business. But health experts caution that the added nutrients may not do magic in the body. And a study published today finds no overall benefit to using several widely touted antioxidants.
Here's the lowdown on some ingredients commonly found in nutraceuticals:
Antioxidants. Superfoods, a nonscientific term for natural foods packed with antioxidants and other nutrients, have experienced an explosive rise as popular additions to packaged products and beverages. Examples include pomegranates, blueberries, açaí berries, and black and green teas. There is still significant debate in the scientific community about whether these generally healthful foods' antioxidant constituents, by themselves, offer health benefits. For example, the antioxidant vitamin E "has been tested in only very few randomized clinical trials," says Douglas Wood, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a spokesperson for the American College of Cardiology. The few rigorous studies, he says, "tell us that relying on substantial doses of those antioxidants in daily intake doesn't modify the course of heart disease." The latest of those trials, published in today's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, suggests that the antioxidant vitamins C and E and beta carotene don't reduce the risk of heart attack or cardiovascular-related death for high-risk women. (However, those taking both vitamin C and vitamin E did appear to have fewer strokes.) David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, adds: "If [consumers] think they're getting something miraculous, that's yet to be decided."
B vitamins. Thiamine, folic acid, niacin, and other B vitamins are essential for proper metabolic and immune function, as well as cardiovascular health. While naturally occurring in nutritious foods, they're also found in many enhanced-water drinks, juices, and even the new soda Diet Coke Plus, which also contains zinc and magnesium. But experts aren't impressed. "Most people don't have a vitamin B deficiency, as they already get plenty from food," says Schardt. "Adding B vitamins is a cheap and easy way to make a beverage seem healthier than it may actually be." For people who might be deficient, taking a multivitamin provides the necessary vitamins at an economical price and at higher levels than those found in most bottled drinks, adds Christine Gerbstadt, an Altoona, Pa.-based physician and dietitian who represents the American Dietetic Association.
Taurine. Touted as a stimulant and power enhancer, this popular drink supplement is a natural amino acid present in almost every protein-containing food. "The amount of taurine in enhanced waters is negligible compared with its natural levels in beef, pork, fish, and chicken...beans and soy, and dairy products," Gerbstadt says. Moreover, says Schardt, scientific evidence that taurine acts as a stimulant is lacking.