Where can you quench your summer thirst with a concoction fortified with medicinal herbs? At your corner store, where fruit-based, remedy-laced brews have splashed into the mainstream.But will you really get a hit from the ginseng, ginkgo, chicory, astragalus and more swimming around in these drinks? The fact is, there is no law that says manufacturers have to tell us how much of the herb is actually in the product -- and because of trade secrets, they aren't about to volunteer the info.
And while there's no doubt that you might enjoy a pleasant buzz after guzzling one of these colourful, fruity beverages, it probably won't have a lot to do with the ginseng or ginkgo.
Think caffeine instead. One of the more popular additions to these coolers is guarana, a Brazilian herb that contains high concentrations of a compound almost identical to caffeine. Consumed in sufficient quantities, guarana can cause all the bad stuff associated with coffee: insomnia, anxiety, trembling, palpitations. If you're pregnant or breast-feeding, guarana, like any caffeine source, is not for you.
Other herbal caffeine fixes include yerba maté, kola nut and green tea. And if you have a health problem or are on medication, it's best to err on the side of caution and avoid these drinks until we know how much herb is in them.
The bottom line?
If you enjoy the taste of these hybrids, go for it, but don't expect any healing magic.what the experts say "Homemade herbal drinks are a better alternative because you can make a stronger drink. I can't imagine that at the price of these drinks there's a therapeutic effect. I recommend herbal ice teas and herbal popsicles for kids. Commercial herbal beverages do help us get back to seeing our drinks and diet as medicinal, and that's really positive. It's something every traditional culture has. Caffeine (and caffeine-like substances) cause an insulin spike, almost like a sugar high and low, so they will tend to contribute to mood swings, insomnia, breast tenderness and anxiety."
JEN GREEN, naturopathic doctor "Because the herbal drinks don't give amounts, I don't use them. Still, I think they're better than having a caffeinated, sugary soda. Some of the herbal drinks I've seen list sugar as a first or second ingredient -- in that case I don't think there is much benefit. I don't use guarana in my clinic. For an energizing herb, I'd use a ginseng.'
LINDA WOOLVEN, master herbalist "Guarana and yerba maté have been used in beverages in other cultures for years. Guarana is a natural source of caffeine, and the total amount of caffeine in a bottle of Tsunami is less than you'd find in 2 tablespoons of coffee. We're constantly reviewing the ingredients used in making SoBe products. We are not aware of any contraindications for these ingredients, especially for the quantities contained in our beverages. That said, anyone with health issues might want to consult a professional before consuming."
KRISTINE HINCK, South Beach Beverage Company "We're leaving it up to the individual to decide what our product can do for them. Guarana does contain a natural form of caffeine and is recognized as something that can potentially stimulate and increase blood flow and energy. As far as people getting refreshed and revitalized, they wouldn't keep on drinking the product if that weren't the case.'
PETER WEBSTER, founder, SMART(fx) Beverages "We put 4,500 milligrams of active herb in our 355-ml bottles. We don't give the breakdown because it's proprietary, and also there's no room on the label. What we've tried to do in our drinks, and believe we've accomplished, is include herbs that counterbalance each other so there are no weird effects, no crashes. I look forward to the day when by fulfilling certain obligations to Health Canada we're allowed to start making claims, and along with that comes accountability, which I like. We don't use guarana. We feel that it's a little too strong an herb. We replaced it with green tea, which is easier on the body. We also have some kola nut in some of our drinks."
MICHAEL BAIN, president, RainMaker Mirage Beverage Co. Inc. "We are developing a policy on the addition of medicinal herbs to foods. I agree, there is an information gap, and that's something we're going to be looking at. If an herb dose in a food were high enough to provide a therapeutic effect, then that product would be something that would probably be regulated as a natural health product. Those regulations are still in development."
NORA LEE, scientific evaluator with Food Directorate, Health Canada