Think before you drink

by Eric Schroeder
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An ever-growing push to raise the nutritional standards for foods and beverages stocked in vending machines has upped the ante for manufacturers looking to make a mark on beverage choices. Already this year, pressure from parents and health advocates has led soft drink producers to agree to stop selling carbonated beverages containing more than 100 calories in U.S. schools.

Will such a move lead to dramatic changes in the drinks category? The impact school sales have on overall volume for the major beverage companies is modest. More important is the degree to which such changes could set the tenor for product portfolio reassessment generally in a nation becoming more attuned to health and wellness.

According to Datamonitor Interactive Consumer Database data, the market value of the U.S. carbonated drinks sector will grow at only a 1% compound annual growth rate between 2005 and 2009, largely driven by diet soda sales. Functional drinks, on the other hand, are expected to grow at a rate of 7%, while ready-to-drink tea and coffee — both products gaining increasing attention for potential health benefits — are expected to climb
at a rate of 8%, Datamonitor said.

Getting the word out
The National Dairy Board was one of the first groups to promote the health attributes of a beverage through its "Milk. It does a body good." campaign. Milk is a rich source of calcium and has been linked with the prevention of osteoporosis.

But gone may be the days of just drinking milk because "it does a body good." Consumers want to know exactly what good it does.

Dean Foods Co., through its Dairy Group division, which is the largest U.S. processor and distributor of milk and other dairy products, has launched The Skinny Cow Fat Free White Milk and Fat Free Chocolate Milk. The new milks have 37% more calcium and 34% more protein than regular milk. According to the company, the new products are being marketed as an effective tool in a reduced-calorie weight loss plan, as opposed to diets that recommend cutting calories or consuming little or no dairy.

According to the National Dairy Council, research suggests the importance of calcium and other dairy components in helping the body’s regulatory system burn fat, maintain body weight and support weight management.

The milk industry is hardly alone in the development of more nutritional products. More recently, beverage makers of all types have been working to develop "healthful" versions of what traditionally may or may not have been considered good-for-you drinks.

Tea a tease?
The health results on tea are a mixed bag. On the one hand, researchers at Michigan State University have published findings that suggest tea is a natural source of flavonoid antioxidants and is the main source of flavonoid antioxidants in the U.S. diet. Antioxidants help
protect the body from free radical damage.

These same researchers propose that regular tea drinking may help maintain a healthy heart. In addition, research has shown tea to be just as effective as water in keeping people hydrated, and in some cases may be used as part of a weight management diet or lifestyle.

But the research on tea consumption is not clear cut.

Less than a year after it concluded green tea is "highly unlikely" to reduce the risk of breast cancer, the Food and Drug Administration earlier this month rejected a petition that sought to allow health claims on green tea touting the beverage’s heart health benefits.

The F.D.A.’s decision followed the review of 105 articles and other publications submitted as part of the petition. But despite the review, the F.D.A. said it could not find any credible scientific evidence suggesting drinking green tea reduces the risk of heart disease.

"We considered but rejected use of a disclaimer or qualifying language to accompany the proposed claim for consumption of green tea or green tea extract and a reduction of a number of risk factors associated with C.V.D. (cardiovascular disease)," Barbara O. Schneeman, director of the F.D.A.’s Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements, wrote in a May 9 letter denying the petition. "We concluded that neither a disclaimer nor qualifying language would suffice to prevent consumer deception in these instances, where there is no credible evidence to support the claim."

Tea was a hot topic at the National Restaurant Association 2006 Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show held last week in Chicago. While green tea has garnered much attention in the past few years it was red tea making a splash at the show because of its naturally occurring antioxidants.

The Republic of Tea promoted its new Good Hope Vanilla red tea at the show. According to the company, the tea contains the herb rooibos. Rooibos is full of polyphenols and flavonoids, which help to protect the body from free radical damage to the immune system. Rooibos also contains iron, potassium and copper.

Can you count on coffee?
Like tea, findings on the health benefits of coffee vary. The Beverage Guidance Panel, assembled last year to provide guidance on the health and nutritional benefits and risks of various beverage categories, in March published its findings in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and found coffee to be on roughly the same level as tea (and just below water), in terms of the most preferred beverages by the panel.

"Several prospective cohort studies have observed significant inverse associations between regular coffee consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes," the panel said. "In a U.S. cohort, a modest inverse association between decaffeinated coffee consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes also was observed, which suggests that compounds other than caffeine may contribute to risk reduction."

The panel also noted that high intakes of coffee have been linked to reductions in colorectal cancer risk in numerous case-control studies. However, those same conclusions have not been reached in prospective cohort studies, the panel said.

A more recent study published in the May issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests drinking one to three cups of coffee per day may help protect against cardiovascular disease and other illnesses characterised by inflammation.

In an analysis of 27,312 women between 55 to 69 years of age, researchers found a substantial reduction in risk of inflammatory deaths among women who drank one to three cups of coffee a day compared to non-drinkers.

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