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Vitamin Water:
Good, bad, or ugly?

Vitamin water (sometimes called "enhanced water") has become widespread in recent years. Within the industry of beverages, it is the fastest growing sector.

After the company called Glaceau (pronounced to rhyme with lasso) created, and successfully marketed its "Vitaminwater", many other companies followed. Today Glaceau is part of Coca Cola; they bought it for some $4.1B in 2007.

When I saw vitamin water for the first time several years ago, my interest was immediately piqued. That time, in a really smart marketing move, colorful bottles of vitamin water were placed strategically near regular water, and not near sport drinks. Positioned near plain bottles of regular water, brightly colored vitamin water stacks drew customers like a magnet.

...Once I tasted it, and read the label, I liked it even better. What a great idea: purified water with vitamins that tastes great! Give me some more!

When I started to read (and write online) about dietary supplements, vitamin water fueled my curiosity again. This time it was more of a "research" interest. There were some questions to which I wanted to find answers for myself.

For example, if vitamin water is enriched with vitamins, should I keep taking my own multivitamins?... Maybe I can just drink 2-3 bottles of this tasty liquid, instead of swallowing those smelly pills. (That was the time when I was taking multivitamin pills, but no more. About this later...)

I decided to have a closer look.

Naturally, as an object of my investigation I have chosen Glaceau Vitaminwater.
This company is an industry pioneer and a market leader. They invented the product and hold a trademark on the name "vitaminwater" (just like this, no space).

Click on the "Search trademarks" on the following webpage (U.S. Patent and Trademark database). Just search for "vitaminwater". You'll see it.

So, I followed a leader, and purchased all types of Glaceau vitamin water which I found in a supermarket. There were eight different kinds available: "revive", "energy", "essential", "defense", "focus", "xxx", "multi-v" and "formula 50".

Side note
As I discovered, "formula 50" is named after a superstar rapper 50 Cent, who, by the way, owned 10% of Glaceau, when Coca Cola acquired it, according to some sources. Ten percent of $4.1B - you can do the math. Most likely even after taxes 50 Cent did well. The "formula 50" drink contains 50% DV of some vitamins - and has a marketing message featuring 50 Cent.
Well, I guess with Napoleon cake and vodka Chopin, 50 Cent is not in a bad company, after all..

I brought home eight colorful bottles, put them on my desk - and the "vitamin water journey" began!
My discoveries sometimes made me smile, sometimes had me raise my brows in confusion... and now and then almost made me angry!

Here is my "research report". :-)

Let's start with...

The Good

Vitamin water
  • Almost every visual aspect of Glaceau vitamin water deserves applause!
    The label design is almost minimalistic, but is clear and practical. I already mentioned vivid colors that catch your eye when you are browsing through shelves in a store. Bottles with drinks of different colors placed together look really aesthetically appealing.

    Colors of icons on the right resemble actual colors of drinks. Click on icons to see larger images.

    To avoid confusion: if a product label appears in the "Good" or "Bad" section, this does not mean that product is "good" or "bad". My goal was not to rate single drinks, but to look at the entire brand.

  • There are no artificial colors and preservatives
    in Glaceau vitamin water - a definite plus!
    They use juices or natural pigments for coloring.
    As for preservatives, I believe that citric acid which is present in all products serves as a preservative, in addition to its flavoring features.

    When I asked customer service about this, the reply was: "we do not use any preservatives in vitaminwater. the citric acid is simply for flavor."

    So be it... Every source I checked for citric acid mentioned it as both preservative and flavoring agent.
  • The variety of flavors is pleasing, too.

    I was able to get eight kinds of vitamin water, but there are a total of fifteen flavors, according to their website. While writing this review, I was drinking the contents of various bottles, and can confirm that Glaceau has hired a really good flavorist.

    I have not yet decided which flavor is the best, but candidates are "xxx" (acai-blueberry-pomegranate), "focus" (kiwi-strawberry) and "energy" (tropical citrus).
  • Do you ever read marketing messages on food packages or bottles of drinks?..
    If you usually do not bother, take a minute and read the messages on Glaceau vitamin water: most of them are hilarious!

    You won't find something like "A tradition of our company is to bring you only the best products, which will... bla-bla-bla...."

    These "messages in (I mean, ON) the bottle" are fresh, contemporary, good humored with a tint of cynicism, but not over the edge - which I liked.
    My favorite is the one on the drink called "essential", which makes fun of orange juice commercials. Its icon is on the right.

  • Very efficient customer service.
    I received a reply to my email within one hour.

Strangely enough, this is all about vitamin water which I can classify as "good".

Which means, here comes...

The Bad

  • Ingredients listed on the labels revealed that vitamin water drinks do not provide all the necessary vitamins.

    Specifically, none of the drinks I purchased had vitamins D, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin) and B7 (biotin). Why would Glaceau "skip" these vitamins, and not include them in its vitamin water? Why would they forego an opportunity to provide a "complete vitamin water"?..

    The clue to the answer can be found in the characteristics of these missing vitamins.

    Vitamin D is a fat-soluble, rather than water-soluble vitamin. It is not a simple task to put in water a substance that does not dissolve there, and to make this water look like an attractive drink.

    There are two other fat-soluble vitamins - A and E, which are included in some of vitamin water drinks.You can identify those drinks without even looking on the label. They are opaque rather than clear liquids.

    One interesting case is the "energy" drink: it is opaque as well, but the label does not show vitamins A or E! The reason the "energy" drink is not transparent is the beta-carotene which is used for color. Beta-carotene is a natural pigment of orange color, found in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, which is an inactive form of vitamin A. It is not soluble in water, hence the haziness of the drink.

    My guess was that the manufacturer just could not add another non water-soluble vitamin (vitamin D) to these drinks without incurring some negative effects. This was my educated guess regarding the absence of vitamin D in vitamin water, a question I included in my email to customer service.

    Regarding missing B vitamins my guess was the same (possible negative impact to the quality), but my reasoning was different. Vitamins of B complex are water-soluble, so they should not cause any visual effects.

    I assumed that because of their bitter taste and strong smell they were not included in vitamin water. Do you know that "vitamin" odor of multivitamin tablets? It comes from B vitamins.

    Were my guesses correct?
    Here is a quote from the email I received from customer service (all lower case, just as the messages on the bottle labels): "for the most part the vitamins we use must provide the benefits that the beverage intends. also, most of the vitamins need to be water soluble."

    What I conclude from this is that I was right in my guesses.
    "The benefits that the beverage intends" are pleasant taste and smell - not a vitamin balance. Vitamin water has no intention of providing you with the daily requirement of vitamins because it was not designed for that. It is just another soft drink.
    So, do not stop taking your multivitamins...

  • Amounts of vitamins included in Glaceau vitamin water vary from 25% DV (most vitamins in most drinks) to 250% DV (vitamin C in "essential" drink).

    Let's imagine you do not care about vitamins B1, B2, B7 and D, and decide to fill yourself with several bottles of vitamin water to get the rest of your vitamins.
    Are there any vitamin water side effects you should be aware of? Oh, yeah!

    Look at the number of calories: 50 calories per serving times 2.5 servings in a bottle means 125 calories per bottle. Compare that with a can of regular Coca Cola (or Sprite) that has 140 calories.

    So, if you are watching your calories, you would be better off not relying on vitamin water to supply your daily vitamins. One bottle with lunch instead of the usual soda might be not a bad idea. But as a replacement for plain water? I don't think so. Too much sugar.

    Speaking of sugar...

  • All vitamin water drinks which I purchased included crystalline fructose. Would you like to know what this is?..

    If you go to the Glaceau website, you can learn that crystalline fructose is "a high quality, natural sweetener that is the same as found in fruits and vegetables".

    Did you notice the "same as" part?
    It turns out that crystalline fructose is not derived from fruits or vegetables, as it may sound. In fact, it is derived from a high fructose corn syrup.

    How do I know that?
    From the definition provided on the Sugar Association website: "Crystalline fructose is produced by allowing the fructose to crystallize from a fructose-enriched corn syrup. The term 'crystalline fructose' is listed in the ingredient statements of foods and beverages using this corn sweetener. It is important to understand that the 'crystalline fructose' listed as an ingredient comes from cornstarch, not fruit."

    The source of crystalline fructose - high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS - is by itself a topic for another research. Opinions regarding HFCS cover a whole spectrum - from moderate excitement (versatile, natural sweetener) by the Corn Refiners Association, up to horror stories with a taste of conspiracy (Pretty murky!) by some activist organizations.

    There is a recent article which may become the beginning of a larger campaign.

    The article entitled HFCS is not 'natural', says FDA was published on April 2, 2008 by FoodNavigator-USA.com, a "daily online news service", which "seeks out news stories and data of value to decision-makers in food and beverage development in Europe."
    What was the purpose of this publication, and who paid for it is not so important for the purposes of this review. I just wanted to show that the topic of high fructose corn syrup is controversial.

    By the way, on bottle labels of vitamin water you can find the slogan: "the inside is natural. the outside is plastic." The intention of the slogan is to encourage recycling - but the claim has been made: the vitamin water is natural.
    Well, what I can say...

    If the FDA will indeed determine that HFCS (and its derivatives) cannot be called natural, then Glaceau (and many other firms) will need to change their labels. Some folks already think this statement is not accurate.

    Naturally, or not, each bottle of vitamin water contains 32.5 grams of sugar. This is almost 7 teaspoons of sugar! A can of Coke has 39 grams, Sprite - 38 grams.
    Bear this in mind next time you think about a second (or even a third) bottle of any of these good tasting drinks.

Well, finally, it is time to turn to the least pleasant part...

The Ugly

In the beginning, I praised marketing messages on Glaceau bottles.
Now I am about to "grill them".

It is absolutely fine to present, to emphasize, and even to exaggerate (moderately) those features of a product which are positive and useful.
It might be acceptable NOT to stress some weak sides of a product (only if there are no safety reasons, of course)
.And it is unacceptable to make claims which can mislead customers!

Regrettably, here are some questionable statements from Glaceau.

  • On the label of "multi-v" vitamin water (icon on the right) we read that this is an "all-in-one product containing more of the nutrients you need".

    Wait a minute, what about those missing vitamins: D, B1, B2, B7? Don't we need them on a daily basis any longer?
    What about minerals like iodine, selenium, copper, and others which are not included in "multi-v"?
    What about the fact that, except vitamin C, a bottle of "multi-v" contains only about 62% of all other vitamins presented there?

    My opinion: This drink cannot be called "all-in-one", containing "more of the nutrients you need".

    Silly me, I am reading bottle labels, and think that they should talk about what is actually inside the bottle...

  • Continuing with the same theme.

    Several products ("defense", "focus", "multi-v") have the following slogan on their labels:
    "vitamin + water = all you need".

    Hmm... What does vitamin + water make?.. I think, vitaminwater, right? So, Vitaminwater is all you need, right?..

    We know already this is wrong - see the previous bullet.

  • On the Glaceau website we read the following question in the FAQ section, there is a question: "Is there a limit to the amount of Vitaminwater I can consume in a day?"
    And the answer is: "It is virtually impossible to drink too much Vitaminwater. Vitaminwater carefully formulated to deliver functionality safely. the risk is that drinking vitaminwater can be habit forming and it's a very difficult addiction to break!" This is the complete answer.

    First, I hoped that they were just joking about the addiction.
    Second, it looks like a responsible answer would have something more. What about those 32.5 grams of sugar and 125 calories per bottle? On the Coca Cola website, for example, we can find the following statement: "Remember that some beverages contain calories that count toward your daily caloric intake." This is a responsible approach.

    I would suggest Coca Cola (now a parent company of Glaceau) review vitamin water marketing materials, to make them more trustworthy.

  • You probably saw a statement on each dietary supplement product that said that the claims made about this product were not verified by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). This is because most of dietary supplements marketing materials talk about health benefits. There might also be statements that a particular supplement is not intended to prevent or cure any disease, or something like that.

    The reason for these warnings is to distinguish dietary supplements from medications, and to let customers know about this.

    Vitamin water is not a medicine.
    It is not a dietary supplement either.
    It is a soft drink, and soft drinks usually do not have any health related claims on labels... But vitamin water does!

    • "this combination of zinc and fortifying vitamins can help...keep you healthy" (label of "defense" vitamin water)
    • "it's got potassium and b vitamins to help you recover and feel refreshed" (label of "revive" drink)
    • "vitaminwater power-c is specially formulated with nutrients that enable the body to exert physical power by contributing to structural integrity of the musculoskeletal system, and by supporting optimal generation and utilization of energy from food." (Glaceau website)
    • "vitaminwater balance is specially formulated with bioactive components that contribute to an active lifestyle by promoting healthy, pain-free functioning of joints, structural integrity of joints and bones, and optimal generation and utilization of energy from food." (Glaceau website)
    • "vitaminwater rescue is specially formulated to support optimal metabolic function with antioxidants that may reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and vitamins necessary for the generation and utilization of energy from food." (Glaceau website)

    Vitamin water is being camouflaged as a dietary supplement - without any warnings which any dietary supplement must have!
    Great marketing move, no doubt.

    I suppose Glaceau marketers know what they do, but maybe they have just been lucky that no one has sued them so far.

Bottom line

Let's summarize:

  • Vitamin water is a novel, sophisticated, tasty soft drink, with no artificial colors and preservatives.

  • It does not replace multivitamin and mineral supplements, as it does not contain all necessary vitamins and minerals.

  • It contains substantial amount of sugars, which you should consider while drinking it.

  • It is disguised as a dietary supplement with health related claims - but it is not a supplement - it is a soft drink

  • I like Glaceau vitamin water! ...but I question some statements made by its manufacturers.

P.S. In the beginning, I wrote that there was a time when I was taking multivitamin tablets, but I don't do that anymore. You can see why on this page.

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