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Meet water’s cooler cousins

Times Staff Writer

Strolling the aisles of the supermarket, the hip and health-conscious know better than to stop at the endless array of sparkling and spring waters. These bottles offer only hydration. The aqua-chic want something more.

Their water must be enhanced. With herbs, chemicals, even supposed twists on the inherent structure of water, alluring new brands promise a host of health benefits that regular water doesn’t provide. Fortified with a potpourri of nutrients, caffeine, fiber and ever more exotic extras, they build on a following created by their now-pedestrian cousins, those waters spiked merely with fruit or a few run-of-the-mill vitamins.

They have names like Skinny Water and Woman on Top’s Slimmer You H2O (with an appetite suppressant to help you lose weight), Penta and HiOsilver Oxygen Water (structured and oxygenated to help you hydrate better), and Smartwater, Vitaminwater and Propel (with electrolytes, vitamins or minerals, to help you energize, immunize and rejuvenate yourself).

Not all of the products look like water; they can be pink, yellow, green or blue. They don’t always taste like water -- they may be flavored with cherimoya, pomegranate, sugar or herbs. And unlike regular H20 (or “dead water,” as it is sometimes called by enhanced-water marketers), these beverages often contain calories, although not as many as, say, a Coke.

Packaged with much more pizazz than regular bottled water, enhanced waters are also marketed more artfully. Some are sold only in high-end boutiques. Others, such as Ed Hardy Structured Water -- from the hipster icon considered the godfather of the modern tattoo -- are niche to the extreme. Hardy’s water is available only at his flagship L.A. store, exclusive gyms, raw food restaurants and really hot healthy restaurants, according to Jeff Carrillo, founder of the water.

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“There is more going on in this water, physically and intentionally, than any other water on the planet,” Carrillo said. “It’s a reality.”

For all the health hype, though, experts say most of these waters do not do much more than plain old water. They hydrate, they refresh -- and that’s about it.

But they are extremely lucrative.

The market for enhanced waters increased more than twentyfold between 2000 and 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp., a research consulting firm based in New York. The market is now worth more than $428 million.

“Bottled water has shown exceptional growth,” said Gary Hemphill, managing director of the Beverage Marketing Corp. “What has happened in the last several years is that companies have looked for ways to broaden that opportunity, to innovate around water.

“What we have now is water-based products with something added.”

John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, a trade publication that tracks industry trends, said these products are “at the tip of the intersection of two key trends. One is consumers’ continuing love affair with bottled water. The other is consumers’ growing interest in beverages that do more than refresh and taste good, i.e. they offer a functional benefit -- energy, vitamins or minerals.”

For many of the waters, nutritionists say, the benefits depend on the brand and the specific quantities of minerals and vitamins. As with any product, consumers need to read the label.

“If they have vitamins added, clearly they have things regular water wouldn’t contain,” said Susan Bowerman, a registered dietitian and assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. “The question is, is this the best way to get your vitamins?”

When you eat a whole food, Bowerman said, you get more than the vitamins. You also get minerals, fiber and, most important, phytonutrients -- compounds in plant foods that give them their health benefits.

She said she is not aware of any water that contains the equivalent of a multivitamin, and says in fact that would be unlikely because some vitamins are not water soluble. If the water did have the equivalent of a multivitamin, she said, it probably wouldn’t taste very good.

“They definitely don’t make up for a bad diet,” Bowerman said.

She is also skeptical of the effects of the so-called weight loss waters, some of which contain Garcinia cambogia, an Asian fruit. Current research on humans does not seem to indicate that hydroxycitric acid, the key component in G. cambogia, has any effect on obesity, Bowerman said.

However, though getting vitamins through water is an expensive alternative -- at up to $2.50 a bottle -- it probably can’t hurt, she said. The waters may actually benefit people who don’t like swallowing pills.

Nutritionists and chemists dismiss, however, the waters that claim to have chemically different structures than plain old H20. These so-called oxygenated, structured, clustered, unclustered and vitalized waters purport to raise energy levels, reverse aging, remove stress or, in the case of one water, just make water “thinner and wetter.”

“It’s snake oil,” said Stephen Lower, a retired chemistry professor from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, who runs a website on “water-related pseudoscience, fantasy and quackery” (www.chem1.com/CQ/). “There is no evidence that you can change the structure of water,” he said in a phone interview.

On his site, which features a Bunk House Gallery evaluating dozens of water products and their health claims, Lower writes: “The hucksters who promote these largely worthless products weave a web of pseudoscientific hype guaranteed to dazzle and confuse the large segment of the public whose limited understanding of science makes them especially vulnerable to this kind of exploitation.”

Other health claims are harder to prove and disprove. Borba is one of the newest entries into the enhanced water market. Calling itself a “nutraceutical,” defined as a foodstuff (as a fortified food or dietary supplement) that provides health benefits, Borba waters take health claims to a new level. Just a year old, the pastel-colored waters (at $2.50 a bottle) are not even available in supermarkets. Instead they are sold in high-end skin care boutiques such as Fred Segal Beauty, or at skin care counters in upscale department stores such as Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman.

Scott Vincent Borba, the 32-year-old Woodland Hills-based entrepreneur who created Borba waters, commissioned his own research on their effects on the skin. He uses the results on the labels and on his website. “Scientifically proven to improve moisture levels by an average of 66%,” says the blurb for Borba Skin Balance Water (Replenishing).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not recognize or regulate nutraceuticals as a category and doesn’t require premarket testing for either cosmetics or dietary supplements. As for other types of enhanced water, as long as companies adhere to bottled water standards and follow the law in terms of labeling, they can add ingredients, colors and calories and still call it water, said an FDA official.

None of that seems to matter to many consumers. Ed Winston, who runs the Culver City branch of Mrs. Winston’s Green Grocery, a sandwich and salad bar with natural snacks and fresh food, said he sells a lot of beverages, and enhanced water is in the top 5%. “A lot of people don’t eat well, and they know it,” Winston said. “They figure if they get vitamins in a bottle, they are doing better. They are trying.”

Besides, they taste good to a 21st century person on the run.

“I am totally addicted,” said Dalia Lachs, 21, as she tossed two bottles of hot pink vitaminwater (Focus) into her cart at Whole Foods. “I drink one a day instead of supplements. I forget to take vitamins. But if I have a bottle of water, I’ll drink it.”

Whatever the case, enhanced waters certainly look cool. Here in Los Angeles, where models and movie stars tote water bottles around like fashion accessories, maybe it’s more about cachet anyway.

“There are status waters,” observed Bowerman, the nutritionist. “People don’t want to walk around with a supermarket-brand water bottle.” Michael Mascha, publisher of the website Finewaters, which aims to place water into an epicurean context, put it this way in a phone interview: “I’m not sure if this is the best delivery mechanism [for vitamins] or the best cost-benefit, but enhanced waters look so nice, you almost cannot resist buying them.”

That fact is not lost on the manufacturers. Borba comes in a bottle frosted like a high-end skin care product, with a handsome leather-textured label.

“Literally, we try to mimic the look and feel of a Louis Vuitton purse with our label,” said Borba. “The idea was, if I am going to be walking around with skin care, I want it to be cool.”

Glaceau Vitaminwater, meanwhile, comes in pretty colors with clever, irreverent labels. Like the label on “power-c dragonfruit (c + taurine)”: “legally we are prohibited from making exaggerated claims about the potency of the nutrients in this bottle. therefore, we wouldn’t tell you that ... this drink gave agnes from delaware enough strength to bench press llamas ... legally, we can’t say stuff like that, cause that would be wrong, you know?”

The abundance of the new offerings could leave some consumers longing for a choice like “Neau,” a clear plastic bottle with a simple logo -- and no water. It can be filled with tap water and used over and over. The product is sold in the Netherlands by a Dutch foundation.

Proceeds go to drinking water projects in countries such as Sudan, Vietnam and Peru.


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