As consumers look for convenient ways to improve their health, many turn to functional beverages to provide an extra boost. These drinks include an added food, vitamins, minerals or herbs that purport to promote health beyond the basic nutrient value, from increasing focus to promoting better sleep.

"There's huge consumer demand for them," said Jim White, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. He is also owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios, Virginia Beach, Virginia. "You're seeing it with everything from water to sodas to add on extra benefits to try to get more bang out of your buck for each product."

Health clubs that have smoothie bars often serve functional beverages to help members increase energy, strength or stamina.

"When we're talking about functional foods, we're talking about a massive group," said Gina Crome, who is a registered dietitian, owner of Lifestyle Management Solutions, a personal trainer and a personal health coach. "Dietary fiber, fatty acids, prebiotics, probiotics—they're all considered functional."

So how can club owners decide whether to serve functional beverages, and how can they promote them without overpromising their benefits? It comes down to knowing your audience's needs and educating staff on the benefits and risks.

Knowing the Ingredients

Functional beverages made from real foods can be a healthy, safe choice for fitness club smoothie bars, whether they are blended in smoothies or served in bottles as a ready-made drink.

One example of a natural functional drink is coconut water. White said it is a great choice for gym members because it contains electrolytes and offers isotonic benefits to replenish the system.

Natural foods also can be added to beverages at a smoothie bar to provide extra health benefits. For example, adding carrots can provide benefits beyond just beta carotene and Vitamin A; it also provides antioxidant properties that neutralize free radicals and may prevent cancer.

Adding fresh foods to smoothies can give drinks a functional boost, but for many fitness clubs, prepared versions are easier in terms of marketing and selling. When looking for bottled versions of functional beverages, check the labels and know what ingredients they contain.

"Look for things that don't have added sugar," Crome said. "The sugar that's contained within the beverages should be naturally obtained from the fruit and not added into the processing."

Many bottled drinks, including water and flavored beverages, also include added vitamins. These vitamin drinks are typically regarded as safe, although may be unnecessary if your members are already using supplements.

"It's not going to harm anything, but it's basically expensive water," White said. "But if you're not feeling like you're getting enough vitamins, they could be beneficial."

Club owners should be aware of the ingredients in functional beverages that might have potential risks for the clients. For example, energy drinks that contain caffeine or thermogenic properties could cause a problem for some clients.

"There's some product liability there," White said. "You give it to someone with high blood pressure, and exercise itself increases the blood pressure, and it's definitely going to be a concern."

Although many functional beverages with basic vitamins won't cause any problems, some that have a large number of ingredients may need more research.

"It's all about risk assessment," White said. "It's mostly the drinks that have 40 to 50 herbs and formulas that we just don't know about. You just have to assess if that's something you want to put out there."

Balancing Claims with Reality

When selling functional beverages, club owners should make sure they educate themselves as well as their staff about the ingredients. However, keep in mind that even if a product works well for one person, it might not be appropriate for everyone.

"A lot of body builders are gym owners, and they take a lot of supplements, protein shakes, thermogenic type of drinks," White said. "They think it's working for me, so they automatically think that will be good for my client and take a one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone's biochemistry is a little different, so it may affect people differently."

When promoting these products, Crome said club owners should make sure not to promote the health claims as scientific facts. Instead, they should stress that "preliminary studies show" a certain health claim.

"We use a lot of 'mays,'" she said. "For instance, 'this may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease,' or 'this may increase your cognitive function.' If you do a cause and effect, it could get you in trouble. Because the more we know, the more we realize we don't know. When you study something, other studies come along that disprove the other study."

To get information about a product, Crome suggested checking two websites with credible nutrition information: the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Diabetes Association. Registered dietitians also make great sources to find out more information about whether a product is safe for clients.

In addition to educating staff about different functional beverages, club owners can educate members by highlighting different ingredients, whether it's on a poster or a newsletter. Crome suggested having an ingredient for the month, such as kale, and highlighting the health benefits.

"Kale actually has a great deal of lutein, so maybe taking that component and explaining what it is and how it contributes to eye health," she says. "Then at that point, go ahead and feature one of their smoothies with kale in it."

By providing this kind of information, you can educate the consumer without overplaying the benefits.

"You're giving them a fact, you're giving them what it's used for, and you're highlighting a product for the month," Crome said. "With a little bit of education, you can responsibly promote these products."