Best Water Enhancers: The Good and the Bad of Water Enhancement
Most people feel like they should be drinking more water. Some health experts say we need eight eight-ounce glasses each day, known as the 8 by 8 rule (about two liters total). Others say even more would be better, but the consensus seems to be that most people aren’t drinking enough.
Not only does drinking plenty of water prevent dehydration, it’s also believed to increase weight loss by decreasing our appetite and speeding up our metabolism.
For many hikers, it’s a struggle to down eight or more glasses of water when you’re out on the trail. When we have so many other options like coffee, tea, soda, or juice, why would you pick plain old water?
Water enhancers are a solution to this problem by injecting some flavor into any glass of water.
Flavor enhancers do raise some questions...
- what are these enhancers and what are they made of?
- Are they nutritious?
- Are they safe to add to every glass of water we drink?
- Do the benefits of drinking more water outweigh any negative consequences of the added chemicals?
Drinking more water instead of sugary sports drinks is always a good choice, but, what happens when we start adding water enhancers to our hiking water bottle?
What are water enhancers?
Water enhancers encourage you to drink more water by giving it flavor. Using water enhancers is as simple as adding a few small drops. With that being said, the nourishing water takes on delicious new flavors like blueberry, coconut, or green tea.
Most brands of water enhancers contain a negligible amount of sugar, making them a great alternative to calorie and sugar rich alternatives.
Some manufacturers brand their enhancers as something akin to a supplement - chock full of vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes to keep the body in peak condition. These claims warrant some deeper investigation into what’s actually in those little bottles and whether they’re really as healthy as they claim to be.
Are water enhancers healthy and what's in them?
Drinking more water is a healthy habit and water enhancers are typically 98% water - but what's in the other 2%?
Below are some of the most common ingredients found in water enhancers. All of them are FDA-approved for safe consumption, but being aware of what's really inside is important.
Yes, this is the same citric acid present in citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and oranges. The acid gives the enhancers a sour bite while also acting as an antioxidant. It’s perfectly safe to consume, as we already consume plenty of it through our everyday fruits and vegetables.
You might be familiar with this one’s chemical cousin, ethylene glycol, which is the principal ingredient in your car’s antifreeze and is extremely toxic.
The propylene glycol found in water enhancers works like an antifreeze – it’s used to dissolve food coloring and flavor agents - but unlike ethylene glycol, it’s considered safe for consumption in small doses. It might not be the best thing to be putting in your body day in and day out.
This one is commonly found in enhancers that are marketed as “all natural.” Stevia is a sugar substitute that’s 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, but because it’s not digestible, it adds zero calories to your drink.
Studies show that stevia is quite to safe to use, and unlike many other artificial sweeteners, it doesn’t lead to unhealthy changes in eating habits. While the name might be unfamiliar, you don’t have much to worry about when adding a little stevia to your water.
Unlike stevia, sucralose (what Splenda is made from) is an artificial sweetener. It’s 500 times sweeter than sugar, but also isn’t digestible and therefore has no calories. Some studies show that sucralose can contribute to migraine headaches, so that’s something to keep in mind and avoided.
While most water enhancers are just designed to give your drink a little extra flavor, some provide an electrolyte boost like a sports drinks.
Electrolytes are the salts necessary for your body to function properly, mostly made up of sodium and potassium. If you continue drinking plain water without replacing some of those salts, like during an intense climb or on an incredibly hot day, it can lead to a potentially life-threatening condition known as hyponatremia (water intoxication).
Electrolytes are perfectly safe and an important part of your diet, and there’s no problem with consuming them as part of a water enhancer.
What are the best water enhancers?
There are quite a few water enhancers to choose from and ultimately comes down to what you're looking for. Most of the packaged options contain some sort of artificial flavoring, it's about which one is both tasty and healthy.
This is probably the most popular water enhancer on the market right now and can be found at almost any supermarket; they also come in dozens of flavors. MiO contains no sugar, but it does have sucralose and propylene glycol in it.
The company touts that it contains some B vitamins, but they’re at such a low concentration that it really won’t matter. Their “energy” flavors also contain a dose of caffeine. These bottles are ubiquitous and will be convenient to find at a store near the trailhead if you forgot to pack them, but overall, they have their downsides.
Crystal light liquid
One of the other big water enhancer companies that use sucralose in their formula. In fact, their ingredient list is nearly identical to MiO and comes in a similar number of dozens of flavors.
It’s really just a matter of taste between the two companies and finding a particular flavor that you like. Some of them contain caffeine, but most don't.
This is one of the most popular “all-natural” water enhancers out there right now. They use stevia instead of sucralose and eschew ingredients like propylene glycol as a base.
While the company makes a lot of claims about removing toxins from your body, boosting your mental capacity, and providing you with more energy, there’s really not much science behind it. If you’re worried about artificial chemicals, add Stur to your water on your next camping trip, but realize that the biggest benefit to drinking it is quenching your thirst.
Celsius on the Go
The biggest claim to fame with this one is that it contains green tea and guarana seed extract, both of which have caffeine in them. In addition to caffeine, Celsius contains vitamins C, B6, B12, Biotin Chromium and Calcium. It does not contain artificial sweeteners, colors, or preservatives. Being all-natural with a kick of caffeine seems like an option if you’ll be doing a particularly strenuous trail and need to stay hydrated and energized.
What are some natural alternatives to water enhancers?
The most obvious answer is water. But, if you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably interested in some more options. A more comparable alternative is using something natural to flavor your water.
Water enhancers have really only hit it big in the past decade, but long before they came in those convenient little bottles, people were adding flavor to their water.
Here are some of the best natural alternatives.
If you’ve ever set foot in a hipster cafe, you’ve for sure had a glass of cucumber-spiked water. In addition to providing some earthy flavor, cucumbers are rich in vitamin C, manganese, beta-carotene, and a number of antioxidants. They’re also said to support a healthy immune system while promoting healthier skin (source).
Carrying fresh vegetables in your pack isn’t very convenient, but it’s a great alternative if you’re concerned about the chemicals in artificial water enhancers.
Nothing is quite as refreshing as a cool glass of water with a mint leaves tossed in the mix. Mint leaves are healthy and promote digestion and reduce fatigue (source).
Fresh mint is the best, but if that’s not available, you can also pack a bag of dried leaves and put some in a tea strainer to add a little minty goodness.
Dried cinnamon sticks are easy to throw in your bag, and their invigorating flavor is sure to give you a boost of energy during the midday slump. Cinnamon is also loaded with antioxidants and has even been shown to reduce cholesterol. Unfortunately, the sticks release a lot more of their flavor in hot water, so use them to make a morning tea instead of dropping one in your water bottle.
Adding a slice of lemon to water is fairly common at restaurants, but few people think to do it at home. Citrus fruits have tons of vitamin C, along with potassium, folate, and a healthy serving of calcium.
Fortunately, there are a number of water bottles out there that have an “infuser core,” or a strainer you load up with fruit, which adds flavor to your water throughout the day.
Are there any downsides to using water enhancers?
The short answer: no. Even the most artificial water enhancers are considered safe for consumption, and drinking water with a little extra flavoring is a better choice than becoming dehydrated or sipping on sugary drinks.
Consuming artificial chemicals
While the FDA has approved all their ingredients, flavor enhancers are only considered safe when consumed in the small doses. Never drink a straight shot of a water enhancer; a typical two-ounce container is supposed to be diluted in 1.5 gallons of water.
The effects of the chemicals have not been tested at higher concentrations, and they could be harmful to your health if not consumed as directed.
Sticky and messy backpack
Flavor enhancers take up negligible space and add very little weight to your pack, but one thing they can do is make a mess out of all your gear. The bottles aren’t designed to be smashed between your camp shoes and cook stove. Pack your bag too tight and you’ll end up with a sweet-smelling mess everywhere.
Smelly messes are a major concern if you’re hiking in bear country since bears will be attracted to the anything covered in the water enhancer.
If you’re drinking the recommended eight eight-ounce glasses of water every day and adding an enhancer to each one of them, the cost is going to add up.
It still won’t be a ton, maybe between $1 and $3 each day. That’s not a big deal if it’s just for a weekend camping trip, but an everyday habit will end up costing you between $300 and $1000 a year.
What's the best water enhancer?
Truth be told, the best water enhancer for your next hiking trip is the one that you enjoy. The health benefits of drinking more water outweigh any minor negative effects any of these enhancers might have. However, if you get migraines are or worried about consuming artificial chemicals, there are several all-natural water enhancer brands.
Additionally, choosing a brand with a shot of caffeine will temporarily boost your energy levels, but also adds to dehydration. It’s important that you consume more water (perhaps without a flavor enhancer) afterward.
Whichever brand you choose, just remember that it’s the water that’s good for you, not the vitamins and minerals that are being added to the enhancer.
Your body gets plenty of those from the food you eat. What it really needs on the trail is water, and if adding a little flavor to it gets you to drink another bottle, go for it.