Seldom has a product been marketed and promoted so successfully. Even though bottled water can cost up to 10,000 times as much as regular tap water, it sells big time. What is it about bottled water that has so much appeal? Is it really better for you?
Drinking bottled water isn’t new. In fact it was common seeing either a
Sparkletts or an Arrowhead water cooler in many homes in the mid 1950’s. The
water man would make weekly deliveries and hoist those hefty glass containers
filled to the brim with water onto the coolers and retrieve the empties. This
was about as portable as it got for decades. Then, beginning in the 1980’s,
“personal” bottled water, which a person carried with them, became very trendy.
Propelled by savvy marketing, Perrier, Dasani, Evian, and more than 700 other
brands of bottled water have since become mainstream (pun intended).
First of all, why would a person want to pay as much as $3.50 for a bottle
of water when it comes right from the tap for pennies or even less? While there
is a lot of controversy about the efficacy of water testing, we’ll get to that
later on. In the meantime, let’s focus on the taste of drinking water. I mean
who wouldn’t want the taste of fresh water from a clean, clear mountain stream?
Well, that is what’s been long marketed as the taste you can expect from
bottled water. Admittedly, ordinary tap water does have taste differences. Some
water even has an odor depending if chlorine or some other disinfecting agent
is used. If you travel across the country you’ll probably notice it. None of it
can be described as tasting “bad” but there are different water “tastes.” So,
early on the key selling point of bottled water was its “fresh, mountain stream
quality.” Or, its “natural spring” taste. So, if taste is a criteria then
bottled water may have an advantage over some tap water.
But far overshadowing taste as a selling point and issue is the safety of
ordinary tap drinking water. That was called into question in the 1980’s and it
has struck a nerve with consumers ever since. A city water scare in Milwaukee
in 1993 just fueled the claims that bottled water was better and safer. And in
the summer in New York City, if a
water main bursts then everyone heads for their nearby store to buy bottled
water. They are not likely to scoop up spilled city water and boil it instead.
But one has to ask if anyone (repeat
anyone) has ever died in the U.S.
from drinking municipal drinking (tap) water? Your author could find no record
of such an incident. Nonetheless, the bottled water industry hit hard at the
water safety factor and created a demand for bottled water. Then, athletes and
other celebrities were seen with their water bottles and that did it. It became
Bottled water sales have never looked back. It should be noted here, by the
way, that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for
overseeing and regulating public drinking water in the United
States. The Federal Drug Administration
(FDA) is responsible for regulating bottled water products at the federal
level. Additionally, with tap water, county and city governments are
responsible for testing and purifying the water supply. With bottled water
there is no further regulation. And if a company bottles and sells water within
a given state there is often no regulation oversight at all.
Some 60% of Americans drink bottled water, at least occasionally and there
are more than 700 brands. Surprisingly, a higher percentage of Blacks,
Hispanics and Asians drink bottled water than the rest of the population.
Perhaps at least some of this goes back to their country of origin where
drinking water was not always secure. And since many live in the poorer areas
they may be convinced that the city water is as bad as the rest of their
But this aside, drinking bottled
water has not only become a drink of necessity but a “beverage choice,” meaning
that many consumers choose bottled water over drinking a soda. This is a good
thing because people are supposed to drink several glasses of water a day and
substituting water for soda is a good nutritional decision. Also, people see
professional cyclists and marathon runners being handed bottles of water as
they race by. Again, it reinforces that if bottled water is good enough for
these elite athletes then it is certainly good enough for me.
Added Nutrients & Flavors
To solidify bottled water as being “good for you,” some major companies have
started introducing added nutrients and listing it on their labels. The
response from some nutritionists is that water is water – you don’t need
nutrients. But it can’t be denied that this is a great selling point. And now,
water such as Dasani (bottled by Coca Cola) comes in flavors such as lemon and
cherry, with more to come. In addition, bottled water can also come carbonated.
In fact, that is what really launched Perrier – it was naturally carbonated.
So, it came with “natural gas.” (Again, pun intended).
This perhaps is the crux of the problem – which water can pass not the taste
test but the safety test. Well, tap water testing is highly regulated. As
stated before, the federal government has its strict guidelines and each state
and local municipality in turn has additional testing procedures. A few years
ago the National Resources Defense Council did a comparative study and found
that only tap water is required to be disinfected. Also, testing for bacteria
is done once per week with bottled water and hundreds of times per month by
city water systems.
So, is tap water just as good? Well, McKesson Water (bottlers of Sparkletts,
Alhambra, Aqua Vend and Crystal)
says its comparisons show contaminants in tap water where there aren’t any in
their bottled water products. For the research-oriented consumer here is a tip
– check it out yourself. Most bottled water companies have literature on their
products. And the city water systems certainly do. In fact, from what your
author has seen they are very proud of their product and will be happy to send
highly detailed reports and brochures.
Where Does It Really Come From?
If all bottled water came from a hidden mountain stream, a rare spring in Southern
France, or some other exotic place that would be great. But it
doesn’t. Studies have shown that 30% or more of bottled water products are
actually bottled tap water. Just because a bottle has a picture of a mountain
stream on it doesn’t mean it came from there. To be sure some water products do
but it is more expensive. It has to be pumped from the stream or spring, and
then trucked to a plant where the water is treated and bottled. So some
companies prefer the easier route. For real bottle water aficionados it pays to
The Bottom Line
From all the research it is probably fine to drink either bottled or tap
water. Even though claims fly back and forth about which is better (or safer)
the fact is you’re probably not going to get sick drinking either. And if any
of the bottlers had contaminated products it would be a huge black eye and hurt
the entire industry. As far as taste goes, bottled water does seem superior to
some city water systems. And with added nutrients and flavors, bottled water,
has stated before, has become a beverage of choice. One more thing – bottled
water is very convenient.
Walk into any supermarket, fast food outlet, or even today’s movie theaters
and you’ll find bottled water. Because bottled water is much more expensive
than tap water the one thing any smart consumer would want to be aware of is –
where does this water come from? If it truly is from an exotic source, fine.
But you don’t want to pay up to several dollars more for what you can already
get for a fraction of a cent. As a matter of comparison that, as they
say, “doesn’t hold water.”