Not so many years ago, if you wanted a convenient, ready-to-drink beverage (RTDs, in industry-speak), your choices were pretty much a vending-machine soda or a sugar-packed iced tea from the gas station. But the last decade has ushered in the healthy bottled beverage — Teas! Flavored waters! Green juices! — and now the market is flooded with a dizzying array of drink options, each targeting a specific palate or nutritional need. Many of these offerings are simply smarter versions of old standbys. Say, bottled iced teas minus all the sugar and artificial flavors. Some, like cold-brew coffee, have legit health benefits. But plenty others tout trendy ingredients and claim to do wonders for your body despite zero science to back them.
To determine which RTDs are truly good for you, and which are unhealthy hype, we enlisted the help of nutritionists and ranked them from best to worst. They’ve helped us dissect the biggest categories, appraise their healthfulness, and give you a few suggestions worth grabbing to quench your next thirst.
9. Green juice
Green juices run the gamut from nutritious to liquid candy, yet they’re all given a health halo. “Nobody recommended juices 10 years ago,” Caspero says. “Then the green juice burst happened, and suddenly they’re all thought of as super healthy.” You’ll find the bottom line in the ingredient label. “If a green juice is mostly kale, parsley, spirulina, spinach, or cucumbers, it should be fairly healthy as far as having lots of micronutrients,” Caspero says.
But more often than not, RTD green juices are predominantly fruit, which is added to combat veggies’ bitterness. Fruit is fabulous, of course, but a few apples, pears, and some berries will douse a drink with way more sugar than you want in one sitting. (Think about it: Would you ever sit down and eat three apples and a bowl of berries as a snack?) Plus, all the fiber has been stripped away. “Nature encases sugar in fiber, and are bodies are designed to metabolize sugar with fiber,” says Caspero, adding that fiber is also satiating and the cornerstone of a healthy gut.
Verdict: If you’re truly unable to get in enough whole vegetables and fruits in a day, then the occasional low-sugar, veggie-centric green juice is OK. (Though, watch the sodium content, Amidor says, because some green juices skew sky-high in salt.) Just, please, don’t think you’re detoxing by downing one.
5. Coconut water
Touted as a lower-calorie, all-natural alternative to Gatorade, coconut water was all the rage a few years ago. But now many experts have pointed out that there aren’t enough electrolytes — or the right balance of these minerals — to make coconut water a sufficient recovery drink. Plus, “unless you’re exercising really hard for a long time or in hot weather, you probably don’t need extra electrolyte replacement in the first place,” Caspero says.
Verdict: It’s not the best call for your workouts. And if you’re spending big bucks on coconut water because you think it’s a step up from plain water, stop kidding yourself. But if you want to sip on something that’s naturally sweet and has a lot less sugar than fruit juice or soda, coconut water is fine. As long as it’s a natural, pure version, those 60 or so calories won’t break you — although they will add up if you guzzle it all day every day.
Ready-to-drink teas can range from healthy to horrible for you. If you’re sipping straight tea without additives — and real tea, meaning it’s brewed from the Camillia sinensis plant — then you’re steeped in polyphenols and phytonutrients. But oftentimes what comes in a bottle or can is not tea at all, or it’s a few drops of tea drowned in fruit juice, lemonade, or straight sugar.
Verdict: “I’m not a huge fan of RTD teas unless they’re unsweetened,” Caspero says. “Brands like AriZona are the worst because they’re packed with sugar. Some claim to be healthier because they use honey or maple syrup instead of cane sugar, but at the end of the day, it’s all just sugar.” You should also avoid teas that contain artificial sweeteners because “they alter your taste buds, and we still don’t know their long-term health effects,” Caspero says. Stick with either unsweetened or a tea with just a dash of a natural sweetener.
This centuries-old fizzy, fermented elixir has gone supermarket mainstream. Made from cultured bacteria, yeast, and tea, kombucha contains probiotics, enzymes, B vitamins, antioxidants, amino acids, and, if you buy the right brands, not too much sugar. “Generally, kombucha is low in calories, rich in good-for-you bacteria, and overall healthy,” says Toby Amidor, RD, MS, author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen.
However, just because it’s healthy doesn’t make it a magic potion, as kombucha is often viewed. The drink does supply nutrients and may aid digestion, but there’s no proof it staves off colds, prevents gastrointestinal diseases, or “detoxes” your body. “The claims some kombucha companies make about detox concern me,” Amidor says. “There is zero evidence that you need anything more than your liver, kidneys, and a healthy diet to detox sufficiently.”
Verdict: If you can stomach the tart, vinegary taste of a low-sugar kombucha — and you’re not drinking it in place of healthy whole foods — it offers solid nutritional bang for your buck. Just be sure to read labels carefully. Many companies add fruit juices, honey, or other forms of sugar to make kombucha more palatable, which can be fine, so long as these additives don’t dominate the drink.