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The bottle-versus-the-tap debate

Special to The Times

Quenching thirst can be more complicated than taking a trip to the water fountain or turning on the kitchen tap.

Hundreds of bottled waters are sold in the United States. Some are touted to enhance athletic performance, others come flavored with fruit essence or are vitamin-fortified. There’s even water with enough added caffeine to rival a strong cup of coffee. And for those who like exotic sources, there’s bottled water from Fiji and Iceland.

Americans are so eager to lap up bottled water that it’s second only to soft drinks as the leading beverage consumed in the United States, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp. In 2005, we spent $10.1 billion to drink nearly 8 billion gallons of bottled water -- that’s 26 gallons per person -- and per gallon paid more for water than for gasoline.

So why ante up a buck or more for a bottle of water that costs less than a penny per glass from the tap?

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People drink bottled water “for quality, safety and good taste,” says Stephen Kay, vice president of communications at the International Bottled Water Assn., a group representing bottlers and distributors. “They’re reaching for bottled water for hydration and refreshment.”

Just don’t count on any special health benefits. “There is no health advantage being gained by these drinks, although the flavor can increase your intake,” says Scott Montain, a physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass.

Nor has bottled water been proved to be safer than tap water, although federal law requires it to be at least as safe. The Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water as a food product, dictating ingredients, good manufacturing practices, labels and even official definitions for spring, artesian, mineral and other types of water. Various state regulations also apply to bottled water.

But a four-year study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, found major regulatory gaps. By the group’s calculation, 60% to 70% of the bottled water sold in the United States -- including carbonated water, seltzer, club soda, tonic water as well as flavored and fortified waters -- is exempt from FDA bottled water standards.

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“Even when bottled waters are covered by FDA’s specific bottled water standards, those rules are weaker in many ways than EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] rules that apply to big-city tap water,” the group found.

Big-city tap water is not allowed to contain fecal coliform bacteria and must be tested for these pathogens 100 times or more a month. But bottled water plants face no such regulation from the FDA and are required to test just once weekly. And while public water systems report their test results, “none of the bottled water test results have to be made public,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Erik Olson.

The FDA examined the feasibility of asking bottled water companies to provide test results to the public and concluded “that it wasn’t feasible,” says the water association’s Kay. But because bottled water is an FDA-regulated product, Kay says that if a product was “out of compliance it would not be available in the marketplace.” Consumers who want to see test results “can contact the company directly,” Kay says.

Independent tests show that some bottled waters don’t contain what they claim. ConsumerLab.com analyzed four brands of vitamin water and found that only one -- Propel Fitness Water -- provided the amount of vitamins listed on its label.

From a body weight perspective, however, bottled water -- or any water, for that matter -- has a caloric edge when poured against soft drinks, sports drinks, juice and sweetened tea or coffee beverages.

University of North Carolina researchers have found that 20% of daily calories consumed by those age 2 and older come from beverages, and about half the excess calories consumed daily are from beverages, most of them with added sugar. Consumption of sugared beverages has climbed threefold from an average of 50 calories per day in 1977 to nearly 150 calories per day in 2001 -- or enough to pile on about 15 pounds per year.

So water -- bottled or from the tap -- ranks as the drink of choice in a new beverage guidance system developed at the university.

Here’s what else you need to know about water:

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* How much water daily? Women need about nine cups of liquid daily, including drinking water, while men need about 13 cups. Coffee, tea, other beverages and water-filled foods, including fruit, vegetables, milk, soups and stews, can all count toward this total.

* Chilling improves taste. Whether you guzzle tap or bottled water, drink it cold for improved flavor.


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