Walk down any beverage aisle in your local supermarket, and you may think you have been transported to a pharmacy. Once plain juices, waters, and sodas are now bursting with exotic additives—ginseng, ginkgo, and others—that promise to pump you up, relax you, or improve your memory. There is even a new name for these drinks: “functional beverages.” Do these ingredients really “work” when added to drinks?

What Is Being Added?

To avoid entanglement with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has strict guidelines about product health claims, most drink manufacturers carefully refrain from making direct promises about curing diseases. However, product labels list ingredients and often outline general benefits of these ingredients, leaving consumers to draw their own conclusions about the potential health effects of the drink.

Some common herbal ingredients used in functional drinks and their supposed associated benefits, as listed by the manufacturers, include:

HerbsHealth-Related Claims
GinsengEnhances energy
GinkgoEnhance memory and mental alertness
GuaranaEnhances energy
Gotu KolaKeeps you alert
EchinaceaStimulates the body’s defenses
St. John’s WortEnhances mood
KavaPromotes relaxation

Safety Issues

Questions have been raised about the possible risks and benefits of adding herbs to beverages. Herbs are not essential nutrients. Therefore, you cannot be deficient in ginseng or echinacea, as you can be deficient in, say, iron. Foods that are fortified with iron can provide health benefits to people who do not consume enough of these nutrients.

In some cultures, herbs are prescribed in specific quantities and combinations to treat certain medical conditions. But, how effective is a miniscule amount of ginseng that has been added to diet iced tea? And what are the long-term effects of consuming these products?

Dr. Paul LaChance, executive director of the Nutraceuticals Institute at Rutgers University, feels that these questions have yet to be answered by scientific research. "Herbally-enhanced beverage products are developed by marketing departments, not scientists," he notes. But in his opinion, consumers are probably at little risk because “the amount of ingredients in these products is quite minimal.”

What to Keep in Mind When Consuming Functional Drinks

The bottom line is that researchers are still not sure what the benefits, risks, or long-term effects (if any) will be from drinking functional beverages. For now, keep these tips in mind:

  • Drink in moderation.—Though the amount of added ingredients is very small, do not overdo it. Drinking excessive amounts of these beverages or consuming them regularly over a long period of time may lead to problems.
  • Know your allergies.—If you are allergic to an herb, you may have a reaction regardless of the amount of the herb in the drink.
  • Watch the extra calories.—Some of these drinks, particularly sodas and juices, may contain several hundred calories in a bottle. If you enjoy flavored drinks, try the flavored waters, which have fewer calories.
  • Avoid kava.—This herb has been taken off the market in Canada, Australia, and Germany because it unexpectedly caused severe liver damage in a number of previously healthy people. Researchers do not know how kava causes this damage nor at what levels. It is possible that even small amounts can cause harm.

Keep in mind, too, that these functional beverages can be expensive. You may choose to go for a cheaper choice, like plain water.