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The new wave of H2O - worth it, or just all wet?

There is a new miracle product currently on shelves that claims to make you smarter, give you energy, boost your vitamin intake, improve your fitness regimen and even help you get a little bit wild.

They call it water.

It wasn't long ago that the marketing of bottled water was regarded as a bit of a joke. Evian is naive spelled backward, people would point out.

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But the multibillion-dollar global industry for bottled water is no longer a laughing matter, and now a tsunami of new "enhanced water" brands are positioning H20 as a means to more than just hydration.

This month saw Loblaws stores across Canada start stocking Clearly Canadian's new line of "certified organic essence water," including dailyENERGY - with taurine, inositol and caffeine - and citrus-flavoured dailyHYDRATION, for those who like water in principle, but not in taste.

Jennifer Aniston's face began appearing in magazines and on billboards as the celebrity spokesdrinker for "vapour distilled" smartwater, and Gatorade introduced a vitamin water called Propel, which claims to contain energizing levels of vitamin B.

There are diet waters, Special K20 protein water (available only in the United States) and even vodka water - liquor stores across Canada are stocking Hydra, an alcoholic concoction branded as "water made naughty."

Marketing and nutrition experts say the "new/improved" water trend is buoyed by an increasingly health-conscious culture well-versed in the benefits of hydration, and looking for flavoured but uncarbonated drinks to quench their thirst.

But Robin Ritchie, a marketing professor at the University of Western Ontario said it's not easy to figure out which products are beneficial and which ones are just "puffery."

"People are beginning to look for ways to use foods as almost quasi-medications," he said. "The challenge is sorting out the really helpful ones from those that claim a lot and offer little."

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And health professionals, too, are skeptical about some of the claims that are being made.

"I find most of them are nothing more than a flavoured water with a really good marketing campaign," said Janelle Belter, a nutritional consultant and owner of Hip Momma Nutrients in Vancouver.

"For $2.25, I'd rather drink from the tap and take a multivitamin."

Ms. Belter recommends her clients drink eight glasses of water a day, depending on their body type, but said the additives in many new water products do little to improve their value.

Most of the waters that claim to improve energy simply contain sugar, artificial sweetener or caffeine, she said, all of which should be consumed in moderation.

And products that promote themselves as dietary or vitamin supplements contain only small quantities of the elements consumers may be seeking out, she said.

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The Special K20 protein water, for example, contains five grams of protein in a 16-ounce bottle. To put that in perspective, Ms. Belter said, an ounce of meat has about seven or eight grams of protein.

"You could just as easily eat a handful of almonds," she said.

But Peter Lemon, director of the University of Western Ontario's Exercise Nutrition Research Laboratory, believes that enhanced water could benefit those who do not eat well to begin with.

"Because they're convenient, they may result in an improved diet for someone who has a poor diet," he said.

The satiating effect of water could be helpful to people trying to diet, he said, but consumers should look carefully at the exact nature of what they are drinking.

The taste, too, may surprise people. While billed as water, many of these products taste like anything but, as they are enhanced with natural or artificial flavours.

"A lot of people don't like the taste of water," Dr. Lemon said. "So that might actually be the draw."

Regardless of the products' flavour or nutritional impact, it is obvious companies are prepared to throw tremendous resources behind their marketing.

In May, Coca-Cola bought Energy Brands for $41-billion (U.S.). Energy Brand is the maker of Glaceau products, including smartwater.

Mr. Ritchie said the notion of "functional foods" has become a huge industry and will likely spawn rebranding efforts for other natural products, such as cheese (probiotic!) and blueberries (anti-oxidant!).

And although he believes many of the new water drinks are "almost certainly overpromising," few customers are likely to be disappointed.

"It's not going to do you any harm," he said. "At worst, you're out a couple bucks."

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