The rise of alternative water
With the sugar tax soon to come into effect, many are looking for a healthy substitute. Are 'superdrinks' more than a clean-living fad, asks Tomé Morrissey-Swan
The idea has been batted around for a while now, but the so-called 'sugar tax' on fizzy drinks will officially come into effect on April 6. The date was announced last week and will see a tax of 30c per litre added on to sweetened drinks with over 8g of sugar per 100ml in a bid to fight rising obesity rates.
With all the discussion around sugary drinks and now the promise of being charged an extra 10c for every can of Coke, many of us are looking for a more nutritious substitute to our beloved soft drinks.
Water has flowed safely from our taps in all its refreshing goodness for years, but that won't cut it for some people. And in recent years, a number of drinks have emerged claiming to provide natural alternatives to plain old water.
The global market for 'alternative' waters has seen huge growth in the last five years and in the 2016, the UK market for coconut water alone was worth over £100m, up 20 times from 2012. Others, from maple and bamboo to cactus and aloe water, are firmly on the health-trend radar. But are they just a clean-living fad or a tasty, healthy alternative to soft drinks?
One of the latest additions is birch water. Proponents cite its array of nutrients (manganese, potassium, vitamin C, calcium and more), for others, it's expensive and there's a lack of scientific research behind it.
London-based company TAPPED launched its birch water in 2015 after its founders noticed people beginning to shun sugary drinks for low-sugar, low-calorie alternatives. "We've seen this over the last few years with coconut water," says founder Paul Lederer, "and now with the next wave of 'alternative waters', such as aloe water, cactus water and 'straight from the tree' waters such as birch water and maple water. People are increasingly turning to alternative waters and hydrating drinks that are more natural."
Birch water has a long history, having been an important folk drink for centuries. "People in the Nordics and Baltics have, every spring, often following a harsh winter, enjoyed birch water as a rejuvenating and uplifting tonic," Lederer explains.
While it may provide a much-needed pick-me-up after a harsh Nordic winter, is birch water - and other waters for that matter - worth the hype?
Nutritionist Lily Soutter is unconvinced. "A lot of these water alternatives are really expensive, and I don't think they're necessarily worth the cost," she explains. "They're being dubbed as trendy new health drinks. They do come with things like amino acids, some antioxidants and vitamins, but you can get those elsewhere for a fraction of the cost."
For Soutter, there's nothing wrong with drinking alternative waters, but it's important to be wary, and it depends on how you're drinking them. As a replacement for sugary soft drinks, there's no problem - most are lower in sugar and more nutritious. "They're not necessarily harmful products, people shouldn't be avoiding them or scared of them. What I want to get across is that people shouldn't be fooled by claims," says Soutter.
The claims Soutter refers to are most evident around coconut water. "I've had clients who have downed a litre of coconut water, not realising there's 6g of sugar per 100ml, so they're ending up having 60g in one sitting. With fruit juice, we're not being fooled, but with coconut water, the message isn't so clear."
According to TAPPED, its pure birch water contains a quarter of the calories of a typical coconut water and very little sugar. Its flavoured birch waters, such as bilberry and lingonberry, and elderflower, contain 8-9g of sugar per 250ml; Coca-Cola has 10.6g per 100ml.
And Lederer doesn't want birch water to replace water. "We'd never suggest or expect that people would stop drinking ordinary water and drink birch water instead." But if it could help people cut down their sugar intake by switching from soft drinks, that could only be a good thing.
"The main takeaway is that it's better to quench our thirst with tap water," says Soutter. "If you want to indulge in these waters, there's nothing wrong with it, but be wary."