Are bottled beverages--such as tonic water, green tea, and fruit juice--generally good choices in my Healthiest Way of Eating?

With many beverage manufacturers wanting to cater to consumer desire for health-promoting drinks, some use the label in "creative" ways to promote their product, making their beverage seem healthier than it may be. A good first step to get past a potentially misleading label is to look at the ingredients list on the back or side of the beverages you drink.

For example, tonic water often--but not always--contains high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as its sweetener. This is an ingredient I consider worth avoiding from a nutritional standpoint as well as from the standpoint of environmental sustainability. However, if a person decided to incorporate tonic water into his or her Healthiest Way of Eating despite its HFCS content, how would I decide if the amount of HFCS was too much? As a very general rule, I believe that most people could incorporate a beverage containing 10 grams of sugar or less each day without significant risk. Would a 12-ounce bottle of tonic water pass this test? No, it wouldn't even come close. There are over 30 grams of total sugar (whether they come from HFCS or another source) in most 12-ounce bottles of tonic water.

In order to find out about this information regarding sugar content in your bottled beverage, you need to look at the Nutrition Facts Panel rather than the ingredient list. When you're checking for sugar content, be sure to look at the serving size. Although you would think that one bottle of tonic water would count as one serving, the manufacturer gets to choose what counts as one serving, and you'll find that many beverages contain two, three, or sometimes even more servings per container. The total sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel is always the amount found in one serving, and "one serving" may be very different than "one container's worth."

Bottled green tea products may either be straight tea with some natural sweetener or may contain a refined source of sugar and artificial flavors/colors (obviously the former would be better than the latter, but even if naturally sweetened, this product could still contain a large amount of sugar). You lose control over the nutritionally sensitive tea steeping process when you purchase a bottled tea (versus steeping your own tea at home). You also lose control over other added ingredients. I've seen honey-sweetened green teas that contain over 30 grams of total sugar per 12 ounces--an amount of total sugar very similar to a 12-ounce, sugar-sweetened soft drink.

Is the fruit juice you mentioned 100% pure unsweetened fruit juice, or is it made from a small percentage of juice mixed with water and added sugar? Unsweetened juice still has about 20 grams of sugar (mostly in the form of fructose) per cup, but that's still less than the 28 or more grams found in many sweetened juices. Only if the front of the bottle or can says "100% pure juice" can you be sure that fruit juice is all you are getting.

While I am on the subject of bottled beverages and sugar content, I would like to say more about fruit juices in general. Even if you have a fruit juice that is pure juice, the sugar content may or may not be an issue depending upon your dietary needs/restrictions. As I mentioned earlier, most individuals could incorporate a beverage with 10 grams of sugar or less into their day's diet, but in this case, this amount would require you to limit your unsweetened juice to about six ounces at a time. From my perspective, fruit juices, in general, are overrated as fantastic additions to a Healthiest Way of Eating because of their relatively concentrated amounts of sugar and because they are not whole foods containing all of the pulp, skin, and fiber that would be consumed when enjoying whole fruit. People who have trouble regulating their blood sugar, including individuals diagnosed with diabetes, often have special restrictions placed on fruit juice (as well as dried fruit). But even for individuals with no history of blood sugar problems, fruit juice is still less healthy than whole fruit, even though it might sometimes be more convenient.

Sugar and artificial sweeteners like HFCS are not the only potential pitfalls involved with consumption of bottled beverages. Other considerations here are artificial additives including artificial colorings, flavorings, and synthetic preservatives. There are some great bottled beverage products out there in the marketplace, but there are far more compromised products that will take you too far away from whole, natural foods. While I believe that high-quality bottled beverages can play a role in the Healthiest Way of Eating, I do not believe that they can be relied on in the same way that home steeped teas, or home squeezed fresh juices, or filtered waters can be counted on to provide you with the highest quality nourishment.

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