The Evolution of H20

The new generation of bottled water—so-called “functional waters”—
are designed to impart an array of health benefits. But don’t throw out
your supplements just yet.

By Susan Weiner

January 2006

In the beginning, humans consumed life-giving water from lakes, streams and rivers. Through the centuries, man became industrialized and created reservoirs and plumbing and a system to bring water right into the home. But eventually, humans determined they could not survive on tap water alone, so modern man and woman began to drink water bottled from exotic locales. And they were pleased. Soon, bottled water was fortified with nutrients and enhanced with fruit flavors. Man and woman decided this water was good.

Through the years, as the vast array of bottled waters have grown to, shall we say, biblical proportions, people have become more savvy and sophisticated about them. Waters now complement nearly every lifestyle, originating from mineral springs, artesian wells, mountain streams and underground aquifers. There are sparkling waters, purified waters, distilled waters, mineral waters, source waters and waters supplemented with fluoride, botanicals, herbs and fruits. These elixirs—which would have tasted delightfully refreshing after tackling a bison—are now intended for soccer moms, college students, weekend warriors, schoolchildren and anyone looking for an energy boost or the convenience of water-on-the-go.

In time, bottled waters have become as celebrated as the wheel: Americans gulped down more than 6.8 billion gallons in 2004, or 24 gallons per person, reports the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), a trade industry group. In fact, our thirst for bottled waters shows no signs of abating. Other than carbonated soft drinks, US residents consume more bottled water than any other beverage, and sales are expected to soar in the future. Explosive growth has placed bottled water in nearly every natural foods store, supermarket, convenience store and vending machine.

Water Defined

The FDA classifies bottled water according to its origin.

* Spring Water: Bottled water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the earth’s surface.

Spring water must be collected only at the spring or through a borehole tapping the formation feeding the spring. If external force is used to collect the water, the water must have the same composition and quality as the water that naturally flows to the surface.

* Purified Water: Water that has been produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis or other suitable processes while meeting the definition of purified water in the United States Pharmacopoeia may be labeled as purified bottled water.

* Mineral Water: Water from an underground source that contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids. Minerals and trace elements must come from the source of the underground water and cannot be added later.

* Sparkling Bottled Water: Water that, after treatment and possible replacement with carbon dioxide, contains the same amount of carbon dioxide that it had as it emerged from the source. Sparkling bottled waters may be labeled as “sparkling drinking water,” “sparkling mineral water” and “sparkling spring water.”

* Artesian Water: Water from a well that taps an aquifer (layers of porous rock, sand and earth that contain water) which is under pressure from surrounding upper layers of rock or clay. When tapped, the pressure in the aquifer pushes the water above the level of the aquifer. According to the EPA, water from artesian aquifers is often more pure than other waters.

* Well Water: Water from a hole that is bored or drilled into the ground, which taps the water aquifer.

eality, the concept of water in a bottle isn’t all that new: Europeans have bottled and sold curative mineral waters for thousands of years, and even cowboys and pioneers toted containers of it across the range. So if tap water is free, or nearly free, then why pay for bottled water? The idea that bottled water is superior to what runs from your tap and convenience are two reasons, but taste is foremost.

Most Americans are served by a system that uses surface water from rivers, lakes and streams, while the remaining 10% to 20% obtain water from municipal or private ground wells. Since more than 60% of coastal rivers and bays are mod- erately to severely polluted and the majority of Americans live within 10 miles of polluted water, according to the Sierra Club, municipalities and private companies typically treat water with chlorine. The end result is water with a chlorinated aftertaste and the potential for chlorination byproducts like chloroform, a common disinfection byproduct that is carcinogenic to rats and mice.


To purify water without altering taste, bottled water producers use one or more of the following methods: reverse osmosis, distillation, filtration, ozonation and ultraviolet light, processes that utilize oxygen, filtration mechanisms, ultraviolet technologies and vapor. Protecting and monitoring water at its source also helps to ensure that contaminants are kept at bay.

Other than removing unwanted substances, minerals, tastes and odors, conventional water—whether bottled or tap—remains essentially unchanged. Functional water, on the other hand, is water that has been purified and enhanced for nutrition value. The end product is non-chlorinated water designed to impart an array of health and lifestyle benefits.

As a result of the burgeoning functional water market, a number of well-researched ingredients and technologies are reaching the marketplace in bottled form. Additionally, earlier functional waters have been improved upon or refined. For instance, while the first generation of functional waters contained caffeine, newer waters emphasize natural herbal ingredients intended to provide a similar energy boost.

Many people feel that supplements are essential to well-being, and vitamin-enriched waters have increased in popularity as consumers learn more about health and longevity. The US Market for Bottled and Enhanced Water Report from Packaged Facts, a leader in food and beverage market research, says that bottled water supplemented with vitamins A, C, B3, B6 and B12, and minerals such as calcium, zinc, potassium and magnesium, are commonplace and contribute significantly to the overall bottled water market, valued at nearly $10 billion dollars.

In the latest development in vitamin waters, scientists have determined how to dissolve vitamin E—a fat-soluble vitamin normally insoluble in liquid—into bottled water. The unique formulation of the heart-healthy, free-radical fighting vitamin utilizes tiny units of vitamin E called nanoparticles, which are so small they are essentially invisible in water.

Value-Added H2O

Newer waters even cater to the different nutritional needs of men and women. W2O, a nutrient-rich spring water formulated especially for women, incorporates 100% of the RDA for folic acid and vitamins B12, B5, B3, B2 and B6, along with less than 100% of the RDA of eight other vitamins and minerals—making the beverage nutritionally suitable for women at every stage of life, including pregnancy.

“Your very best waters, on a daily basis, are the natural waters with naturally occurring minerals,” says Diana Doty, RN, a holistic nutritional counselor at Sunrise Nutritional Services in Ithaca, New York. For those with diets short on whole foods and long on processed products and sugary drinks, functional waters can help. “I’d prefer to see a person give up a cup of coffee to drink a bottle of water,” says Doty. “That can open the door to other things.”

Drink Safely

The US government has its regulatory hand in your bottled water. Not only are manufacturing facilities strictly regulated at the federal level by the FDA under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, and at the state level by state agencies, but water samples are analyzed, bottling plants are inspected and quality regulations are enforced. Members of the IBWA adhere to even stricter standards, known as the Model Code, allowing one unannounced annual inspection by an independent firm.
Do most bottled waters pass the test?

According to a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study of more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of bottled water, the answer is yes. While NRDC scientists did discover contaminants in about one-third of the tested waters, most of the bottled waters were found to be high quality, with only one brand exceeding the allowable limits of some contaminants.

Meanwhile, an NRDC study of tap water in 19 US cities found that pollution and deteriorating, out-of-date plumbing can provide drinking water that might pose health problems. The study, which outlines a plan to protect the nation’s drinking water supply, concluded that up to 7 million Americans become sick from contaminated tap water each year.

The key to drinking the proper water is to know what you’re buying. “You should use common sense when you’re reading the label,” says Doty. If the number one ingredient is sugar, put it back and find one with little or no added sweeteners. If the water contains some vitamins but not the full RDA, Doty says it’s not a total loss. “Any is better than none. These products do have their place, but I don’t want people to think they can drink a bottle of water instead of taking a vitamin pill.”

Not all functional waters are made from spring waters rich in naturally occurring minerals. Some waters are collected from wells, some from aquifers and other underground sources, and still others are municipal tap water that is treated before being bottled. If the bottle does not indicate the source of the water, consumers have no way of knowing its origin.

For those who break a sweat at their job or in the gym, oxygenated water is the latest technology formulated to accelerate recovery time after working out. Super-oxygenated waters boast of up to 10 times more O2 than typical tap water. Bottlers say the body absorbs the extra oxygen, enhancing physical performance, reducing cramps, fatigue and muscle soreness, and improving mental clarity, stamina and endurance.

Researchers, however, question the reputed exercise-related benefits of super O2 waters. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) enlisted the Humane Performance Research Lab at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse to test O2 water and found that the claims just don’t measure up. “In normal healthy exercisers, hemoglobin is already 97% to 98% saturated with oxygen,” says researcher John Porcari, PhD. “Obviously, there is very little room to improve upon this factor.”

Waters infused with time-tested herbs and botanicals aim to enhance energy, improve overall health or tackle a specific issue. Herbal ingredients as diverse as astragalus, black cohosh, damiana, evening primrose, ginseng, goldenseal, guarana and schizandra are all available in bottled water brands throughout the US, offering health benefits never before associated with water. Feeling blue?

A daily bottle of functional water imbued with the proper dosage of mood-boosting St. John’s wort may help fight depression, while echinacea-laced water claims to help boost immunity.
Unique functional waters that have yet to reach US shores include water containing the acai berry, an antioxidant, mineral and protein-rich berry native to Brazil that is said to have a fatty-acid ratio similar to olive oil. An unparalleled functional water that comes from France, L’eau Bronzante, is a “bronzing drink” rich in aloe vera extracts, vitamin C, concentrated beta carotene and lycopene, and is said to turn the drinker a deep tan after consuming a bottle a day for nine days.

Back on the Bottle

It’s a rare day when full-time mom Ellen Marshall isn’t toting her 14-year-old son, Evan, along with several bottles of water, to after-school and weekend activities. In fact, Evan hasn’t had a sip of tap water for more than five years. “It’s because it tastes better than the local water,” explains the East Windsor, New Jersey mom, “and I would rather give him bottled water than soda.”

Municipal waters are generally treated with fluoride, a prerequisite to forming and maintaining strong teeth. Most bottled waters, however, contain fluoride at a level of 0.3 parts per million, far less than the optimal level of 0.7 to 1.2 ppm, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Armed with this knowledge, Marshall supplemented Evan with fluoride drops during his formative years. Not all parents realize that the majority of bottled waters lack sufficient fluoride. Still, other parents oppose the use of fluoride at all, claiming it is detrimental to overall health.

Concerned that too many kids are missing out on the protective element of fluoridated tap water, the ADA requested that the FDA require bottled water manufacturers to list fluoride levels. “Individuals who drink bottled water as their primary source of water could be losing the decay-preventive effects of optimally fluoridated water available from their community water supply,” says the ADA.

Functional water producers are combating this problem; there are now more than 20 brands of water with added fluoride in the marketplace. Trinity Kids water, from Idaho-based Trinity Springs, is even known for the high amount of naturally occurring fluoride in its water—so much so that it is reduced to the exact amount recommended by the ADA.

Water, of course, is essential to human life, though it seems that most Americans drink functional water for other reasons, primarily taste, convenience and well-being. Younger, health-oriented people are driving the market’s growth; they’ve grown up with bottled water and it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to pay for what runs from the tap for free.

Functional water undoubtedly seems to be the logical next step in the evolution of bottled water. Thirsty to profit from its popularity, marketers are poised to flood the market with products featuring even more vitamins, herbs, antioxidants, minerals and fruit extracts. Bedazzled by the lure of water plus a range of these value-added ingredients, consumers don’t appear ready to give up their bottled water any time soon. Evidently, if you bottle it, they will come.

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