Bottled Water, Bottled Hype Part 2

By Andrea Karim on 19 April 2007 (Updated 31 August 2007) 14 comments
Photo: water_bottle

This is the second in a three-part series about bottled water. To read the first installment, click here. To read the third installment, click here.

Bottled water companies do an excellent job of marketing their product. Don't think I haven't fallen for it a time or two. I have. I do occasionally buy bottled water, and of course, there are times when water in a bottle is your only option. If I have a choice between a bottle of Coca Cola and a bottle of water, I'll go for the water (and recycle the bottle, if at all possible). And there are places, even in the US, in which the tap water is darn near undrinkable straight out of the tap. Recalling the taste of the tap water in my Brooklyn apartment still sends a little shudder down my spine.

In any case, seeing as how I live in a glass house with my occasional bottle of Evian, I'm not throwing stones at people who choose to drink bottled water every now and then (despite what some slightly challenged readers might think), even if bottled-water drinkers have access to clean and tasty tap water. But what about people who ONLY drink bottled water, even with access to clean municipal water? Why do they do it?

Isn't It Ironic? Don't You Think?

I'd argue that they're probably health-conscious people who have bought into an idea sold by the water bottling companies - that their clean, pure water cleanses your body and flushes out toxins. The irony of this is that people who are concerned about environmental toxins in their systems are only helping to perpetuate the pollution and enviromental degradation by buying bottled water, the production of which just makes everything worse off in the long run.

Or, in the case of my friend, some water drinkers are absolutely convinced that their tap water must be dirty.

Now, we all fall under the spell of marketing campaigns that sell us an image as well as a product (if I drink this beer, chicks in bikinis will dig me; if I wear this lipstick, I'm irresistible to men - and it won't kiss off on their collars!), but in this case, we're paying good money for something that we can get for so much cheaper. At least with things like deodorant or snazzy cars or jewelry, we are making purchases of good that we couldn't easily create or access on our own. I don't have the resources to make my own Chanel lipstick from scratch.

Creating Demand

Companies that bottle and sell water make all kinds of claims about the health benefits of drinking their products. A couple of great examples are Fiji Water, from the Fiji Islands, and Evian, which hails from France.

From SF Gate.com:

The Web site for Fiji Water (fijiwater.com) says the water "is drawn from an artesian aquifer, located at the very edge of a primitive rainforest, hundreds of miles away from the nearest continent." That distance, it adds, "is part of what makes us so much more pure and so much healthier than other bottled waters."

Grace Jeon, Fiji Water's vice president of marketing, said Fiji Water has a naturally high level of silica, which she said "helps strengthen your hair, skin and nails."

David Schardt, senior nutritionist at Washington's Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it appears that Fiji Water is taking liberties with the purported health benefits of silica.

"There are no studies showing that the silica in Fiji Water has any demonstrable effect on the human body," he said.

Fiji Water has done an amazing job, under the tutelage of some very smart owners, becoming a premier designer water. Fiji water is so coveted that Sarah Silverman has spoofed it as something that a diva demands. And how can we resist? A remote, tropical location? Palm trees and frangipani? I can smell the coconut suntan lotion from here.

Because of its remote location, Fiji Water remains probably the most inefficient form of hydration. The production of one bottle of water requires 7 times the amount of water that is IN the bottle.

Evian was the Queen of Bottled Water until Fiji cam along and started touting it's benefits. Evian claims to be bottled in the French Alps (how much purer can you get than that?) and their main web page reads simply "evian detox". Evian's iconic white-capped mountains definitely speak of pure, clean and fresh water.

Evian also has a really bizarre, almost Evangelically-virgin-y-sounding "Purity Pact" that you can sign up for - test your purity, and vow not to drink anything but Evian! This is for the UK site, probably the "Purity Test" that you can take online would cause most younger Americans to snicker. Loudly.

Dasani is one of the most affordable bottled waters available in the US, at about $1 per 18-ounce bottle. Owned and bottled by the Coca Cola Company, Dasani is just tap water. Filtered tap water, but tap water nonetheless.

This is the essence of brand equity, and it's why consumers are happy to pay over the odds for Welsh TyNant water in Cyprus, or French Evian in the Peruvian Andes. It's also why the "water sommelier" has become a feature of upmarket U.S. restaurants.

"Branding does matter, even for a mundane product like water," Frits van Dijk, chief executive of Nestle Waters, said last year.

"We produce value-added waters. Marketing and R&D all have to be financed somehow and that's why you'll never see Nestle in the very low price market. It's not our territory."

There you have it. Value-added waters. And by "value", they mean "this water costs us next to nothing to bring to market, but you'll pay through the nose for it". Think about it - the mark-up on something like a can or bottle of Coke is pretty steep. Production costs, even factoring bottling and transportation costs, are minimal, so Coca Cola makes great profits on every bottle that we purchase. But compared to bottled tap water that has been run through a filter, a bottle of Coke is expensive to manufacture.

By the way, Dasani gets an interestingly mixed review regarding its taste at The BevNET.com.

This water, which has a slightly grainy appearance, actually has a somewhat pleasant taste. Unlike many other bottled waters which taste like plastic, Dasani has a clean and pure flavor that we found to be quite refreshing. Overall, a fairly decent bottled water with a pleasant taste.

I'm afraid I have no idea what to make of "grainy appearance". Are they talking about the bottle? The water is grainy? Would that be the opposite of silky (which is how Fiji Water describes their drinking experience)?

Designer water is an increasingly popular thing, but it can be easy to be mislead about the source of the water. There are sites set up that are dedicated to telling you what waters taste the best. I once stayed in a hipster hotel in Portland, OR, that provided a couple of $8 bottles of water in each room. Glass bottles, snazzy caps, lovely packaging. The name included an umlat, to indicate just how exotic it was. But like exotically-named Häagen-Dazs ice cream, it was all about appearances: it was tap water (you had to read the fine print to figure that out).

Now, again, I'm not saying it's a sin to buy a bottle of Dasani or even Evian if you are thirsty and need water and find yourself somewhere without access to good, healthy, tasty water. But to do so every day, to purchase these products in lieu of being prepared and providing your own bottle of clean tap water, filtered or not... well, I'm not going to call it a sin, but is it a responsible choice?

What About Taste?

My best friend is a great guy. He doesn't waste stuff. I've got him recycling. He doesn't blow money on useless crap. He's frugal. He also, until last week, would buy flats of bottled water at Costco every couple of weeks, because he believes that the water from his tap is bad.

Seattle has some pretty safe tap water. It isn't as tasty as the stuff I grew up with (yummy, rural well water that was so ridiculously pure that it even tasted slightly sweet), but it isn't bad, either. It's certainly better than the water I have tasted in other larger cities.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

I'm very sensitive to smells and tastes, and I can smell the tiniest amount of chlorine in a glass of wafter. Even then, our tap water is pretty good. But I still filter it, which is a habit that I developed when I lived on the East Coast.

I know a lot of people who have come to the conclusion that our tap water is dirty or unsafe or full of chemicals. But I've actually noticed that these people (they include two coworkers, the aforementioned best friend, three family members, and a couple fo good friends) will drink the tap water served in restaurants without a complaint. Sure, maybe they don't want to pay $6 for a bottle of Evian and are just drinking the water out of a sense of frugality. Or maybe they assume that swanky restaurants serve really good tap water. Whatever the case is, I'd bet my Brita filter that most of these people wouldn't be able to tell the difference in a blind taste test between tap water and bottled water.

ABC's 20/20 claims that their unscientific blind taste test found that participants couldn't tell the difference between tap and bottled water. According to the Mr. Mustachio himself, John Stossel:

In our test of bottled waters, Kmart's American Fare — the cheapest brand — won. Big-seller Aquafina came in second. Iceland Spring tied the ordinary tap water for third place. Fifth place went to Poland Spring, and in last place, by far, with almost half the testers saying it tasted bad, was the most expensive water — the fancy French stuff, Evian.

But let's just assume you can tell the difference - are you certain that your bottled water is any more pure than the tap water? Since many bottled waters actually come from the tap, how can you be certain that you are taking a real purity pledge when you pay through the nose for bottled water?

What about chemicals? Isn't bottled water safer?

Many Americans claim to drink bottled water because they feel like tap water is unsafe to drink. And according to the FDA, it's true that bottled water has stricter rules on the allowable levels of some dangerous chemicals, such as lead:

"Generally, over the years, the FDA has adopted EPA standards for tap water as standards for bottled water," Kim says. As a result, standards for contaminants in tap water and bottled water are very similar.

However, in some instances, standards for bottled water are different than for tap water. Kim cites lead as an example. Because lead can leach from pipes as water travels from water utilities to home faucets, the EPA set an action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in tap water. This means that when lead levels are above 15 ppb in tap water that reaches home faucets, water utilities must treat the water to reduce the lead levels to below 15 ppb. In bottled water, where lead pipes are not used, the lead limit is set at 5 ppb. Based on FDA survey information, bottlers can readily produce bottled water products with lead levels below 5 ppb. This action was consistent with the FDA's goal of reducing consumers' exposure to lead in drinking water to the extent practicable.

That seems fairly reassuring, especially to people who are worried about exposure to lead poisoning. And in older buildings, lead in the water can be a serious problem, but it is usually mitigated by simply running the water for twenty minutes or so. Interestingly, the FDA doesn't say anything about how the regulate the bottled water industry, or whether or not they inspect the bottling plants, or how the verify that the water sold comes from the advertised destination.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Gaping holes remain in the regulatory fabric for bottled water, and FDA and state resources dedicated to bottled water protection and enforcement generally are thin to nonexistent. For example, FDA's head bottled water regulator estimates that FDA has just one half of a person (full-time equivalent or FTE) per year dedicated to bottled water regulation. [114] Similarly, bottled water compliance is a low priority for FDA, so specific figures are not kept for resources dedicated to ensuring it meets standards; the compliance office estimated in 1998 that a likely total of "less than one" FDA staff person (FTE) is dedicated to bottled water compliance. [115]

The NDRC report, which I highly recommend as some good, tree-huggin' readin', states very clearly that they are not suggesting that bottled water is any less pure than tap water, and state that they have documented tap water contamination in the past. But they also point out that water bottled and sold in the same state is NOT subject to the FDA regulations, as flimsy as those regulations are.

According to the Earth Policy Institute, "[t]he U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets more stringent quality standards for tap water than does the Food and Drug Administration for the bottled stuff...."

Dasani is just filtered tap water, like we mentioned. Sure, it might be purer than the water from your tap, but is that worth the cost when you could just filter it yourself?

What about Fiji Water, the purest of the pure?

Los Angeles-based Fiji Water runs magazine ads for its bottled water with the headline "The Label Says Fiji Because It's Not Bottled in Cleveland."

Cleveland officials retaliate by running tests revealing that Fiji bottled water contains 6.3 micrograms of arsenic per liter, while the city's tap water has none.

This is the second in a three-part series about bottled water. To read the first installment, click here. To read the third installment, click here.

(Photo by How Can I Recycle This?)

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Guest's picture
Sam Jones

Hello! I really like your article on bottled water and only wish I said it first. I buy my water from AquaBar and they import and market fine H2o, but not Fiji, Voss or anything like that. They only deal with "fine" brands....brands that come in glass bottles and not cheap platsic that they try and serve you at fine resaurants. I love water...it is the universal drink. I drink a healthy does of bottled water and tap water every day, as per AquaBar.

Guest's picture

You ever notice what you get when you spell Evian backwards? NAIVE

Guest's picture
Guest

Oh ok then. Next time I am at the movies or walking down the street and I get thirsty I will go drink from the bathroom sink.

Yes that's so much better then drinking bottled water.

Guest's picture
Guest

Our locat tap water tastes awful.
My wife and I get reverse-osmosis filtered water refills at our local grocery store for 30 cents a gallon. It tastes great, doesn't pollute and we re-use the same water bottles over and over. Not only that, but we always have a 3-day emergency water supply on hand, since we live in California.

Guest's picture
Ken

Sure, tap water is just as good as bottled water, but that's not an equivalent comparison. I drink bottled water when I'm not near a tap.

The equivalent comparison is bottled water to bottled (other drinks). Since most other drinks contain High Fructose Corn Syrup, I'll choose bottled water almost every time.

Guest's picture
Guest

A fantastic alternative to plastic bottles is the Klean Kanteen. www.kleankanteen.com/ Spend the money once and you can use it for years.

Guest's picture
Lauren

Whenever I go into a corner store and see a whole fridge devoted to bottled water, I laugh heartily. However, I also reach in and grab a nice cold bottle. I like having water with me wherever I go (with a nifty screw cap); even more, I like buying it when I forget to pack my Nalgene. It isn't taste, or prestige..its convenience.

Andrea Karim's picture

But convenience at what price? There are lots of things that are convenient (driving to the supermarket even if it's only two blocks away, eating fast food because we're busy) that are detrimental to our environment in addition to our pocketbooks.

Oh ok then. Next time I am at the movies or walking down the street and I get thirsty I will go drink from the bathroom sink. Yes that's so much better then drinking bottled water.

If you plan ahead and bring your own water with you wherever you go, you won't have to spend $1 or more on a bottle when you're thirsty. But again, and I guess I have to repeat this a lot since so many idiots seem to think that I'm recommending a ban on bottled water or something, GO AHEAD AND BUY A DAMN BOTTLE OF WATER IF YOU MUST. I'm not advocating thirst or drinking water from a puddle on the street or anything. Sheesh.

The equivalent comparison is bottled water to bottled (other drinks). Since most other drinks contain High Fructose Corn Syrup, I'll choose bottled water almost every time.

If you are choosing bottled water over Coca Cola, bravo. If it's the only water you drink, then boo. I've noticed that a lot of commentators on these threads haven't read all three installments of this topic.

I wrote this specifically for people who drink ONLY bottled water and eschew tap water, especially since I found that my normally frugal boyfriend was engaging in that behavior. I've openly said that I drink bottled water - but, as in everything, moderation is the key.

My wife and I get reverse-osmosis filtered water refills at our local grocery store for 30 cents a gallon. It tastes great, doesn't pollute and we re-use the same water bottles over and over.

That's an excellent alternative, and fine if you don't mind having to run out to get water. Everyone can find their own solution. It's just that shipping water is highly inefficient, since it comes directly into our homes. But I realize that lots of places have truly awful drinking water.

Guest's picture
Anomoly

Plastic water bottles infact leach toxins into your water. so much for purity

Guest's picture
chris

Haagen-Dazs (HD) is one of the very few ice creams you can buy at the grocery store that contains real cream. Cheaper brands have "modified milk ingredients". That's why when it melts, HD actually looks like cream and the other stuff is a frothy, unappealing goo.

I'm not saying that's the only reason for the price difference, but it is a big one.

Guest's picture
Guest

Yes of course bottled water is terrible for our planet and an awesome waste of energy. what's also aweful is that our governments are adding a known poison to our tap water. Fluoride is a known toxin. It is more toxic than lead and only marginally less poisonous than arsenic
Fluoride is described by its manufacturers safety data as a hazardous waste. It is illegal to dump it at sea
The contents of a family-size tube of fluoridated toothpaste are enough to kill a 12.5 kilo child
Fluoride consumption by human beings increases the general cancer death rate
Fluoride exposure disrupts the synthesis of collagen and leads to the breakdown of collagen in bone, tendon, muscle, skin, cartilage, lungs, kidney and trachea
Fluoride inhibits antibody formation in the blood
Fluorides have a disruptive effect on various tissues in the body
Fluoride confuses the immune system and causes it to attack the bodys own tissues, and increases the tumour growth rate in cancer prone individuals
Fluoride kills red blood cells and damages gastric mucosa, resulting in the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome Fluorides are medically categorized as protoplasmic poisons, which is why they are used to kill rodents
Fluoride is a cumulative poison... we excrete about half what we ingest. The rest is stored, mainly in the bones, where it increases the density but changes the internal architecture of the bone. This makes bones more brittle and prone to fracture. (Eight papers published in reputable medical journals have described the increased risk of hip fracture in elderly people living in fluoridated areas)
Fluoride is put into our tap water at low doses on the premise that it will help to protect our teeth from decay, even though some studies have shown the opposite results, high doses can cause osteosclerosis and other bone disorders. Fluoride bonds to calcium and is thus stored in the bones. it is a cumulative toxin thus very difficult to purge from ones system, if i want to protect my teeth from decay i will stop eating sweets thank you very much. When will our government start putting selenium into our water to quell the AIDS epidemic?
http://www.i-sis.org.uk/AidsandSelenium.php
....or any number of minerals that would be beneficial to our health?
http://www.johnston-independent.com/fluoride_fraud.html#.
I am not saying that buying bottled water is any kind of alternative because clearly it is not, what i am saying is we would be wise to stand up for our water and our own health by telling our local leaders what we think about this terrible fraud.
"There are three things that cannot be hidden, the sun, the moon and the truth" ......Buddha.

Guest's picture
NoTap4Me

U.S. tap water is the worst its ever been in history, and no amount of water treatment by facilities will clean up the water in big cities to anywhere near the quality found at fresh mountain sources. You are doing Americans a major disservice by advocating the drinking of tap water, especially in major cities. The only way that I'll drink tap water is if it passes through a distiller filter...THE ONLY WAY! Until now I've been drinking Evian bottled water and using filtered water to cook with. Very soon, like tomorrow, I'll be buying a DISTILLER for my drinking and cooking needs and a top notch filter for my showerhead. After all, who wants to drink and shower with water carring aluminum, arsenic, porchlorate (found in rocket fuel), fluoride, and other crap. I live in Los Angeles and these are major concerns for us, unfortunately not enough is being done. Although DISTILLED water lacks essential minerals needed by our bodies it is still a billion times better than tap water laced with heavy metals, rocket fuel contaminents, fluoride, viruses, etc.

Guest's picture
Guest

To the people who think that Bottled water is "great and pure", THINK AGAIN. Ever heard of Globalwarming? Or, how about Global dimming? IF YOU HAVN'T WATCH THE "Inconvenient Truth" it rox.
Or here's yet ANOTHER EASY solution: BUY A METAL WATER BOTTLE Cuz the PLASTIC BOTTLES help cause cancer! METAL WATER BOTTLES are HEALTHY (unlike plastic ones) and don't waste as much! they can be used for years and years on end without any problems!
here's the key question: DO you want cancer?
Or how about this one: Do you want to totally destroy this world adn everyone in it because some of you sick jerks wrecked it all?!
THINK HARDER

Guest's picture
Euriel

I come from New Zealand. We have without boast some of the purist water in the world. We have huge mountains that are a stones throw away and it gives us beautiful clean water with no additives. Yet people still buy water by the crateload.

It's redicious. I read one bottle that said it was processed in Kaiapoi which is about a 15 minute drive north of us... Wonder where there water comes from? No doubt the same as ours.