Millions of people love it—but it’s not spring water or mineral water, just purified tap water.
| Michael Mascha is Water Editor of THE NIBBLE.
Bottled Water Issues
The Two Different Kinds Of Bottled Water
CAPSULE REPORT: Michael Mascha, founder of FineWaters.com and author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur’s Guide to The World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Waters, addresses concerns of bottled water’s environmental impact and the distinction between fine bottled water, bottled at the source and mass-marketed bottled, purified tap water.
There has been a lot of media attention recently about the “bottled water fraud.” There are environmental concerns about the amount of unrecycled plastic waste (landfill) produced by plastic bottles that supply what is tantamount to purified tap water. Some sources have calculated that it costs a quart of oil to bring a gallon of Fiji water from the South Pacific to the U.S. Restaurants across the nation are declining to sell bottled water for these environmental reasons. I receive letters accusing me of promoting and prolonging this “bottled water fraud.”
As someone who is a serious connoisseur of the finest waters in the world, I try to explain that there is bottled water and Bottled Water. This is a serious distinction, but it creates confusion in some consumers. Let me try to shine some light on the significant differences between the two.
With the product called “bottled water,” the emphasis is not on the water but on the aspect that it is bottled. It is the convenience of buying water on the go instead of another beverage: You are thirsty, want a drink and choose to drink water. Or, more pro-actively, you seek a certain level of daily hydration, or want to rehydrate after exercise, and carrying bottled water helps you achieve that goal. You could use the water fountain, fill a glass from the sink or even keep a filled flask of tap water in the refrigerator, but clever (and sometimes deceptive) marketing and PR campaigns have convinced you that it is healthier to buy bottled water.
Do You Care Where The Water Comes From?
You should. According to government and industry estimates, between 25% and 40% of bottled water sold in the U.S. is actually bottled tap water. FDA rules allow bottlers to call their product “spring water,” even though it may be brought to the surface using a pumped well and it may be treated with chemicals. The actual source of water is not always made clear. Some bottled water marketing is misleading, implying the water comes from pristine sources when it does not. In 1995, the FDA issued labeling rules to prevent misleading claims, but while the rules do prohibit some of the most deceptive labeling practices, they have not eliminated the problem.
This makes “bottled water” a commodity, and by definition a commodity disguises its origin. Its only true benefit is that it can be purchased in convenient bottled portions, which are disposable (and thus create huge amounts of plastic waste). These are the waters that occupy most of the shelf space in supermarkets, convenience stores and elsewhere, as these brands are owned by large corporations and have vast marketing and distribution powers behind them. I can understand why I get angry letters. I, too would be angry if I paid money for “bottled water,” only to discover it was my local municipal water, run through a filter, minimally processed and bottled. If I were an environmentalist, I would be angry at the amount of plastic waste generated in the name of drinking tap water.
Naturally Bottled Water
There are water companies out there that care deeply about the source of their water. They are proud of delivering natural bottled water and obsessed in protecting the source. I know this, because I talk to them every day. They are U.S. and international companies and individuals; some are new companies and in some instances, the sources of these waters have been used for more then 2,000 years. These companies produce and sell Bottled Water, and the emphasis is on the water.
These waters are very special and, like fine wines, cacao and coffee beans, express their terroir. Each source has a unique composition of minerals, depending on the water’s journey through the earth. Some of the waters are 30 days old before they are bottled (i.e., from the time the water comes to earth as rainwater) and some clock 20,000 years. Many have long been associated with curative powers due to their concentration of palliative minerals and trace elements.
These waters are truly special. The emphasis is on the composition of the water and the purity of its source, and the bottle is just a means of getting the water to you. These fine waters are bottled at the source, treated as little as possible (some not at all). In some instances they are naturally carbonated, in others, carbonation can be added, but that does not detract from the quality of the water.
There are also naturally-bottled waters that are not particularly noteworthy: The water may come from springs but it has no special quality. If it were not for the bottled water craze, some of these properties might not have been searched out and developed. The water is perfectly fine, although many people can’t distinguish them from tap water. At best, they provide a good glass of drinking water. At worst, they stop consumers from seeking out the fine natural waters of more interesting character, that we write about in this section of THE NIBBLE or can be found at FineWaters.com.
Unfortunately, in the U.S., distribution is king: Space on the shelf is often controlled by big distributors, who carry the brands with the biggest names (i.e., generally those which have the largest marketing and promotion budget), because that’s what more consumers are likely to buy. It’s a vicious circle. The finer waters are harder to find, and will require a demand by consumers—or merchants who themselves are in love with fine water and are willing to build up a fine water section to show these products to consumers—to change that.