Are commercial superfood-infused waters good for you?
A look at the health benefits of common infusions, from rooibos to probiotics.
A variety of infused water drinks are currently available on supermarket shelves in South Africa, with various ingredients added from cannabis to probiotics, but do these infused drinks really provide you with additional nutritional benefits? And what type of infusion do you need?
To answer the question of whether infused drinks really offer health benefits, you need to look more closely at the label of the drink and the main infusion ingredients as well as additive ingredients.
Common water infusions and their health benefits
Kombucha and buchu
More traditional African herbs that have been infused into drinks include kombucha and buchu. Kombucha is known as an ancient fermented tea beverage that has natural effervescence and is full of probiotics, antioxidants and B vitamins. Buchu is a known South African medicinal plant used as effective diuretic for the treatment of bladder infections, urinary tract infections and kidney infections. The leaves are brewed in a tea to extract its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and also infused into other drinks.
Rooibos extract is a caffeine-free alternative high in antioxidants (unique polyphenols including aspalathin), which is linked to lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Rooibos has a low tannin (4.4%) content, which is beneficial if you have digestive problems following the consumption of tannin-rich drinks, and is traditionally made by fermenting the leaves of the flowering shrub Aspalathus linearis.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a chemical compound found in the highest concentration in the flowers of the cannabis plant, from which the oil has become a popular product ingredient that has become widely available since medical marijuana was legalised in South Africa in 2017. Derived from the hemp plant, the non-intoxicating nature of it means that you won’t get high when taking it. Legally, it should contain less than 0.3% of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient found in marijuana. Health shops (and even some supermarkets) have begun carrying CBD-infused capsules, edibles (gummies, not dagga brownies!), tea, sparkling water, energy shots, vapes, inhalants and topicals. There are some health benefits from studies done for its medicinal properties, but read the labels of products first to check unwanted added ingredients and sweeteners (which is not always regulated). Most infused water drinks and tea bags (which you can infuse in hot water yourself) contain about 2–5mg CBD either per tea bag or per 100ml (about 8mg in a 400ml bottle of CBD-infused sparkling water). CBD shots contain 5mg per 50ml but can also contain high levels of caffeine, ginseng, ashwagandha or lemon balm.
According to Dr Christiaan Malherbe, head of analytical services at the Cannabis Research Institute (CRI) laboratory in South Africa, the dosage and effects of CBD are different for everybody. “Rather start with the smallest recommended dose of 5mg by SAHPRA (South African Health Products Regulatory Authority) and don’t exceed the maximum allowed dose of 20mg per day,” he advises. “But check that the product you choose carries the logo of the CRI to reduce the risk of a substandard product.”
In Pharmaceuticals scientific magazine, studies indicated that a dose of 15mg of CBD per day gave the beneficial effects for pain relief, recovery booster, reducing inflammation and helping tissue damage. Some infused waters also have additional antioxidants added to give your immune system a boost, as well as flavourants and sweeteners.
Even though a report by the World Health Organisation supports that there is no evidence of health-related problems associated with the intake of pure CBD, it’s recommended that you still consult your doctor before consuming CBD products.
Aloe ferox/aloe vera
Aloe ferox or Aloe vera has thick, fleshy green leaves with an inner gel-like substance that is juiced or blended into drinks. The liquid extracted from the plant is known as aloe vera water or juice and it has a slightly bitter, citrusy flavour. Aloe vera juice is typically aloe vera gel mixed with citrus juice, and aloe water is when the aloe gel is mixed with water or infused in water. For thousands of years this clear gel has been used topically to help treat wounds, skin infections and burns. Aloe is also known to stimulate the production of collagen in the body, which maintains flexibility in the skin, bones, joints and tissues. It also has a high antioxidant level with vitamins B, C and E and folic acid protecting against free radical damage from the environment. Because of its natural bitter taste, aloe water is typically combined with sweeteners or juice to make it more enjoyable to drink. Thus check the nutritional ingredients and amount of sugars it can contain.
Probiotics can be consumed from a variety of foods or supplements. Live probiotic cultures are often found in fermented dairy products such as yoghurt and milky beverages as well as in fermented foods such as pickled vegetables, tempeh, miso, kefir, sauerkraut and soya products, which can contain some lactic acid bacteria.
Most studies show the benefits of a dosage of 1 billion to 100 billion live organisms or colony-forming units (CFU) per day. It can also be taken as tablets, capsules, powders and liquid drops, or be added to drinks. The balance or imbalance of bacteria in your digestive system is linked to your overall health as well as disease control, but when taken in sufficient amounts, it can help to restore the natural balance of your gut bacteria.
Health benefits that may follow from probiotic consumption include assisting in weight loss, digestive health to prevent diarrhoea or reduce its severity, and assisting your immune function. According to research published in Applied Environmental Microbiology, lactic acid-producing bacteria in probiotics may reduce cholesterol by breaking down bile in the gut and thus helping to keep your heart healthy. Probiotics from the bifidobacterium and lactobacillus strains can improve symptoms of ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease, according to research published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences and Biomedicine Research International. This is important for your overall health as your gut microbiome is also linked to your brain health, emotional health and cardiovascular health. A study published in Science Magazine in 2016 added beverages like tea, coffee and wine to the list to introduce new microbes to your gut system to contribute to better overall health gut diversity, and not only from your daily probiotic and occasional kombucha intake.
While kefir water is packed with probiotics, it also helps to increase your immunity, slows down cancer cell growth and can improve overall health. An added bonus is that it can easily be made at home. This fermented, carbonated drink is produced using water kefir grains also known as tibicos. It is a grain-like culture of bacteria and yeast fermented for 24–48 hours. It then produces a probiotic-rich drink packed with beneficial bacteria. Kefir provides a better source of probiotics (lactobacillus, lactococcus, streptococcus and leuconostoc) than yoghurt or commercial probiotic-infused drinks. Various studies indicate that besides boosting immune function, it also potentially aids cancer prevention including colon and blood cancer.
Coconut water is found on drink shelves but should not be confused with coconut milk that comes from pulverised coconut flesh and is mostly found canned on shelves. Coconut water is the clear fluid that comes from young coconuts and contains a combination of water, carbohydrates and electrolytes with a subtle, slightly sweet taste. Kilojoules and carbohydrate content are similar to most sports drinks if sugars are added; otherwise 240ml contains only 177kJ. But remember sport drinks are formulated for athletes to replace fluids and electrolytes lost from activity and sweating, not couch potatoes or weekend warriors, and thus you need to check the added sugar content of coconut water drinks. On the labels of coconut water, it will mostly list vitamin C, but this is due to the addition of ascorbic acid as a preservative and not found as a natural source in coconuts.
The final verdict
The main benefit of drinking infused water is simply the fact that adequate hydration is key to being healthy. According to the advice from medical experts, the insufficient consumption of water can lead to muscle spasms, renal dysfunction, increased risk of bladder cancer and even, with extreme dehydration, death.
If you don’t like the taste of plain water, rather than leaving it out of your diet entirely or replacing it with sugary drinks or sweetened storebought infused water, you can infuse water yourself with sliced fruit like lemon, oranges, grapefruit, berries, strawberries, apples or kiwi, or herbs like mint, sage or basil – you can even buy special infusion bottles for your water. This can be a healthy alternative to plain water.
Note: According to the Mayo Clinic, you first need to check with a health professional if you have any underlying illnesses or are taking chronic medication before taking any herbal supplements that might interfere with the reaction of the medication that you have been administered.