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Ask Dr. Sears: Is Vitamin Water Safe for Kids?

Q. My 2½-year-old daughter recently asked to try my vitamin water (she liked it and said it "tasted like Jell-O!"). While I never give her soda or foods with artificial sweeteners, I don't see much harm in letting her have some of this vitamin-enriched water. Are there any pediatric concerns regarding these drinks? 

A. The bottom line: Don't waste your money on vitamin water. You're better off serving your child plain bottled water and letting her get vitamins from healthy foods and/or a daily multivitamin. Here's why:

Vitamins in the water may not be as nutritious as the vitamins in food. My main concern is that, biochemically, the vitamins in the water may behave differently in the body than vitamins that naturally occur in foods from nature, such as apples or broccoli. Due to a biochemical quirk called synergy, when a food's vitamins and minerals are packaged together, they help one another absorb into the bloodstream more efficiently and function better throughout the body. When, for example, vitamins C and E are eaten together in a food, such as a green leafy vegetable like spinach, the health effect on the body is much greater than when the vitamins are consumed individually as, say, vitamin C in vitamin water. In short, food gives you the whole package of nutrients. Vitamin water gives just a few vitamins and may not be nearly as effective the same ones eaten in foods.

Let water be water. One of the most important nutritional principles in childhood health is to shape young tastes. You don't want your child to grow up thinking that drinks should "taste like Jell-O"  -- in other words that every drink must be colored, flavored, or sweetened. Rather, you want her to develop a taste for plain water. Start now to instill in her the belief that water is a healthy  -- and preferable  -- drink.

Vitamin water may not be as healthy as you think. While I don't know which brand of water you drink, I can assume that if it tastes like Jell-O to your child, it's artificially colored and/or sweetened, both of which could be harmful to your child's health. In my opinion, artificial food colorings (such as red #40) have never been proven safe for growing children. In fact, the government categorizes them as GRAS (generally regarded as safe). This translates to: "We're really not sure!" Try to restrict not only artificially sweetened beverages but those sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup as well. Researchers believe these beverages are the top cause of childhood obesity in America. In addition, studies have shown that gulping down sweetened beverages can depress the body's immune system, just the opposite of what you hope to achieve from consuming vitamins.

I'm also concerned that vitamin water may harm the teeth. Medical journals have recently published warnings about acidic beverages eroding dental enamel. Vitamin C (chemically known as asorbic acid), which is generally one of the vitamins added to vitamin water, is acidic, while plain water is not. Another safety concern is the "drug interactions" that could potentially occur among the ingredients in these so-called smart beverages. The combination of all these herbs and vitamins have, most likely, never been studied in children. We know that nature safely combines nutrients in fruits and vegetables, but we don't know the safety of combinations put together in a laboratory and then added to a bottle of water. Many nutritionists believe that vitamin water is simply a gimmick, and I tend to agree.

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