Functional beverages are a fast-growing sector in the food and drink market. They are simple to store, convenient and usually come in vibrant or packaging. Although sometimes packaged in a way to show off as a “natural” or health product. Each bottle contains a range of valuable compounds and nutrients. These are often presented in the form of herbal, dairy, non-dairy, fruit-based or fermented drinks. Some functional beverages claim to provide general health benefits. And others are designed to address specific concerns such as ageing, tiredness or stress.
What Are the Main Differences Between Energy Drinks and Functional Beverages?
It’s easy to think of energy drinks as part of the same family as functional beverages. Both are colourful, widely available and advertise wellness benefits. Nevertheless, despite an overlap, in many ways, these two types of drink are highly distinct from each other.
A key difference is the way in which these drinks are designed to work on the human body. A product marketed as an energy drink offers a mostly safe and apparently healthy way to feel energised. Although some research does suggest they should be consumed in moderation (1).
Some are made with naturally stimulating ingredients such as caffeine, guarana or ginseng, taurine and vitamin B’s. All of these can be harmful if too much is consumed. And most contain high amounts of sugar or sugar substitutes. Energy drinks are targeted at anyone who needs a boost, rather than segments of the population with certain concerns regarding their health or diet.
Some energy drinks also promise to improve concentration, up your endurance levels and help with weight loss. Even if those claims are true, it would not make up for a lack of healthy nutrients.
Functional beverages are different because the focus is on long-term wellness. As well as the basic nutritional value each drink contains, they can have advantages. These include various bodily functions and can even replace the occasional meal. Although, this is only recommended if absolutely needed.
Essentially, functional drinks tend to be aimed at people wanting to live a healthier lifestyle or avoid health problems. Whilst energy drinks aim to live up to their name and provide a more instant solution.
Are Functional Drinks a Fad or a Healthier Alternative?
Fashions come and go in the world of food and drink in the same way as in any other industry. Thus it can be difficult to distinguish between authentically useful health drinks and those which simply taste good. Nutraceutical drinks are trending right now and most companies are unlikely to compromise their sales figures by using low-quality ingredients. Even so, identifying the best option on a packed supermarket shelf can be a challenge.
Breaking down your goals might help you to choose which type of functional drink is right for you. For example, drinks that contain lots of vegetables and fruit, such as smoothies, contribute to your five a day. But note, that no matter how many you drink, these will only count as one of your five a day according to the UK guidelines (2).
Functional drinks can be a practical solution if you don’t have time to cook or tend to skip meals occasionally. Depending on the type, they may also be a good snack to help your curb any unhealthy sugar cravings. If the ingredients include a high volume of dietary fibre they can help improve bowel health, lower cholesterol, as well as keep you feeling full and therefore aiding weight loss. Look for a variety of fruits and veg, and the fibre content on the ingredients list. You should be trying to achieve up to 30 grams of fibre per day (3).
Do they Provide the Daily Recommended Dose of Vitamins and Minerals?
A vitamin or mineral deficiency can have a significant impact on your day to day health and appearance. But many functional drinks try to take care of your entire daily requirements in one bottle. This is not necessarily a good thing! If one drink contains all or most of your daily recommended intake for your vitamins and minerals, that means other foods you eat that also contain these nutrients will push your daily intake over the edge. This is unnecessary, and depending on the nutrient, this can be harmful for your health (4). In addition, if you have this drink and meet your daily intake, you may choose not to have more fruit and veg in the day, and not meet the minimum five a day rule.
Not all functional drinks are created equal, so it’s important to be aware of the ingredients they contain. As a general rule, it’s best to avoid drinks that are sweetened with sugar and go for those which contain bioactive compounds. Some functional drinks such as smoothies will provide more vitamins, minerals and fibre in comparison to other functional drinks such as Kombucha or Kefir. These tend to have only small amounts of nutrients, but are a potential source of probiotics.
Functional drinks alone won’t make you healthy. But they can be a healthy addition to a healthy diet if chosen correctly. They are certainly a better alternative to high-sugar carbonated drinks.
Are these Functional Health Drinks Processed?
Processed foods are classified as those which are changed from their natural state (5). We tend to frown on the term, but even cleaning, washing and pasteurising can be considered processing. So it’s not always a bad thing. The inclusion of vitamins, additional compounds and even a second fruit or vegetable also means a consumable is processed. It therefore follows that most packaged foods, including health drinks, are processed.
If you are trying to avoid processed foods in your diet, it’s worth remembering that there are degrees of processing. Functional drinks could be considered ‘minimally processed’. The raw ingredients have been altered from their natural state so they can be preserved and packaged, but their nutritional content is largely intact.
It is generally recommended to consume food in a more solid-state than the liquid form. That way you are not trying to take over the function of the gut.
Are Functional Drinks Expensive?
In comparison to drinks such as colas and water, functional drinks are an expensive option. This is because of the cost of the ingredients used during production and the amount needed to create even a small batch. If you’ve ever sautéed spinach or blitzed berries in a blender, you’ll have experienced the same problem. Manufacturers often buy in bulk to get around this issue. But even so the combined costs of storage, production and bottling quickly mount up. You can expect smoothies and the like to be affordable, but they will never be as cheap as standard bottled drinks.
Which Brands to Try
There are plenty of upcoming manufacturers as well as established brands offering functional beverages with a range of health benefits. Here are a few popular options:
‘Natural Goodness’ From Little Miracles
When you want a tasty way to quench your thirst and prefer organic ingredients, the Little Miracles range of fruity ice teas are ideal. Instead of using sugar, they put in a little agave as a sweetener. They also add antioxidants as well as flavoursome fruits like peaches, oranges and pomegranate. To infuse each bottle with a natural pick-me-up and digestive benefits, aged ginseng, spicy ginger, baobab and lemongrass are used. There are no artificial ingredients in Little Miracles products and they work with Fairtrade to source their raw ingredients. With flavour combinations that include White Tea & Cherry, Black Tea & Peach, Rooibos & Elderberry, there’s plenty of choice.
‘Nutritionally Complete Drinks’ From Huel
If you are trying to avoid animal products but you need the occasional meal replacement, Huel is a good option. It contains a nutritionally balanced blend of carbohydrates, fibre, protein, essential fats, vitamins and minerals. Huel is aimed at people who want to eat healthily but don’t have the time to prepare a balanced meal (6). These vegan drinks are available to order online in multiples of twelve. They come in vanilla, chocolate and berry flavours.
Kefir from The Collective
Kefir is a fermented health drink made from milk and live kefir grains. These drinks have a pleasantly tart taste and a creaminess that’s reminiscent of natural yoghurt. Kefir is prized for its high gut-friendly bacteria content. This can aid digestion and reinforce your body’s natural defences against infection. The Collective have various flavours of kefir including the mild Natural and the zingier Mango ’n’ Turmeric (7). All flavours also contain protein, calcium and vitamins B2 and B12.
The Final Word
Functional drinks are a popular drinks trend that people are consuming in order to improve their health. While not all functional drinks may be healthy, majority tend to include an array of healthy nutrients. Ensure to look at the ingredients list before buying, and consume as part of a healthy diet, not a replacement where possible.