Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Vitamin Water" and "Energy Drinks"

Here's another exploitative marketing scheme going on, in the middle of university campuses:

A sugary drink, consisting of water with 23 grams (about 5 teaspoons) of sugar per 500 mL, sold in large, colourful bottles of 300 - 500 mL each  -- is being aggressively marketed to young people, with many implied claims about healthfulness.  There are funny, witty, ironic statements printed on the bottles, which I think would appeal to young adults, and consolidate the notion that these are actually healthy. 

A similar drink, which also contains caffeine and a bizarre mixture of added chemicals,  is also being aggressively marketed, with free samples being given out by smiling, athletic young people in decorated sports cars.  Today I noticed the energy drink people occupying one of the university's athletic fields with three large garishly decorated vehicles, hip musical accompaniment blaring out as they handed out samples.  It was a bothersome irony that an athletic field (another health-associated prop) had to be the setting for this.   

It is not a healthy practice to consume sugary drinks.  Aside from the risk of tooth decay, and the exposure to metabolically harmful simple carbohydrates, the habit of consuming these drinks conditions people to expect sweetness while they hydrate themselves.  Ordinary, pure, free drinking water becomes bland and undesirable.  Though the direct health effects of having a glass of sweetened water are not catastrophic, there are a variety of indirect harmful effects:

-because you are quenching your thirst, and hunger, with a solution containing glucose or fructose, you will have a smaller appetite, and less money,  to obtain or consume a healthy meal.

-because of the advertising involved, you will become conditioned to believe that you are engaging in a healthy behaviour.

-you will be financially supporting one of the largest junk food manufacturers in the world; the magnitude of harm done to the world's population (directly and indirectly) by such companies would be staggering to calculate.

-by purchasing these products, you are contributing to the phenomenon of  retailers stocking their shelves with "vitamin water" instead of with healthier choices.  In one of my favourite local cafes, my favourite healthy, locally-made fruit juice is gone, replaced by rows of multi-coloured "vitamin water."  The reason was economic -- the bright colours and the sugar make for a rapidly-selling product.

The presence of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, etc. in these products is, in my opinion, irrelevant.  It is pure marketing.  If you need extra vitamins in your day, you can take a daily supplement, or have a piece of fresh fruit.   The other ingredients are largely placebo as well, just like the colouring.

The case is made by some that there is less sugar in these drinks, compared to other familiar soft drinks.  The difference is actually not very substantial, it reminds me of cigarette companies manufacturing "light" cigarettes, to try to sell people on the idea that this is "healthier."  

I consider this type of marketing to have little ethical difference from a hypothetical example of cigarette companies hiring athletic, charming young people to hand out free samples from a flashy new car.

What bothers me most about this issue is the use of healthy-sounding nutrition talk ("vitamins," etc.) to persuade people to buy an unhealthy product.

I do not support a puritanical view of food & eating though.  I think there are many sweet, wonderful, decadent foods to be savoured (in moderation of course!)   Generally, dessert vendors do not market their tastiest pastries by emphasizing their vitamin content!  In any case, such foods can be enjoyed more richly, in smaller, healthier portions, if one is less conditioned to expect sweetness frequently through the day, such as in drinking water.  

Here are a few references to some pertinent review articles:

One exception, in which a case could be made to supplement drinks with vitamins, could be in the management of chronic, severe alcoholism.  There is a syndrome called "Wernicke-Korsakoff encephalopathy", in which severely malnourished alcoholics develop irreversible, catastrophic brain damage due to metabolism of carbohydrates without adequate vitamin B1.  Adding vitamin B1 (thiamine) to hard liquor, could conceivably prevent some cases of irreversible brain damage in malnourished alcoholics who keep drinking.  I'm not sure if thiamine would be chemically stable in an ethanol solution though--if anyone knows the answer to this one, please let me know.   Anyway, I don't believe this consideration is relevant to health management on university campuses (!)

Conclusion:  if you're thirsty, drink water!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm going to ask one of the pharmacists I work with about putting Vitamin B in alcohol. I can't image it would work but, scientists can synthesize anything these days.