What You Didn’t Know About Your Bottled Water‏


Remember the days when getting a drink of water meant going to the kitchen sink to fill up a glass? Yeah, we don’t either. Nowadays the market for water is flooded (get it?) with choices to meet your H2O preferences. But with so many options, it’s hard to know what exactly you’re drinking. Spring water? Artesian water? Mineral water? Bottled water? PH-balanced water? And don’t even get us started on artisanal tap water. But what’s really in your water — and what tastes the best?

“The single most common refrain I hear is, ‘It’s just water,'” says Michael Cervin, senior editor of Bottled Water Web, the leading source of bottled water information on the Internet since 1996, and the author of the upcoming book Our World of Water: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Earth’s Most Precious Resource. “All water, however, is not created equal.” So what’s the difference between one bottle of water and another? Where the water comes from, and how it’s treated — those are the factors that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says make the biggest difference in taste between tap and bottled water.

Tap water is often thought to be the most “natural” of the waters, simply because it isn’t bottled — but though you might think the water from the tap is clean, think again. Cervin says that municipal water isn’t natural water after all of its treatment. According to the EPA, tap water is most often disinfected with chlorine, (the least expensive option to treat water), chloramine, ozone, or ultraviolet light to kill disease-causing germs. But there’s a lot that can be found in tap water even after treatment. From the many minerals and trace elements found in tap water come a whole slew of other harmful ingredients: fluoride (as much as 60 percent of public water supplies have added fluoride, says Cervin, usually for for dental health), herbicide and pesticide runoff, pharmaceutical runoff, and chloroform (the end product of adding chlorine to water for disinfection — that’s the stuff that can put you to sleep).

And yes, some of that municipal water is what ends up in your water bottle — though often with added-on treatments and purification systems. That’s right, tap water. Just more than 40 percent of bottled water is municipal (or tap) water, Cervin says. (The Food and Water Watch Report puts that number even higher, at about 47 percent in 2009). Of course, bottled municipal water goes through a separate treatment. “[The water is] cleaned and often stripped of any natural minerals and trace elements, then a specific recipe of minerals are added back in,” Cervin says. “Therefore it is not natural spring water. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for me the water is rather bland.” Cervin compared it to the treatment of milk — milk that’s been filtered, pasteurized, cleaned, and enhanced with vitamins added back in. “Do we have real milk anymore, or an ‘enhanced’ version of milk?” he asks. “… So to my point — is it real, unadulterated, natural water?”bottled-istock

One example of bottled municipal water? Glacéau’s Smartwater brand. After some research, we found in its bottled water report that before water becomes Smartwater, it comes from municipal water systems. (The report also notes that there are a few protected groundwater sources as well.) Another brand that got a lot of buzz recently? Dasani. An article by Occupy Monsanto claimed to expose that Dasani was nothing more than filtered tap water; the same report included a stat from beverage marketing company Canadean, which stated that two out of every five bottled waters are “purified” waters and not “sourced” waters. But in fact, Dasani already admitted to that back in 2007. Another bottled water in, well, hot water? Ice Mountain spring water, owned by Nestlé Waters. A consumer lawsuit was filed back in October 2012 against Nestlé Waters North America for failing to disclose that the Ice Mountain water was purified tap water. (And Nestlé Waters is behind seven of the 10 top-selling water brands in the country.)

Besides municipal water, the other source of bottled water  is from natural springs (hence the pretty mountains and trees that often decorate a label of a water bottle). Cervin points out that many of these natural springs are heavily protected to keep out contaminants, with features like fences to keep animals (and their feces) out. However, that doesn’t mean that water from a natural spring is as fresh and clean as you think it is. Laura Pressley, Ph.D. from Austin, Tex. and the founder of Pure Rain bottled water, says that 90 percent of spring or “artesian” (a fancy word for spring water) has fluoride. Fluoride isn’t all bad — after all, it’s what the dentist gives you to keep your teeth healthy, and it’s often added to your tap water — but Pressley (and others) worries about the health effects of too much fluoride. On top of links to low thyroid function, bone cancer in children, and dental fluorosis, Pressley says high fluoride exposure is linked to IQ reduction in studies. “More than 30 international studies have confirmed this,” Pressley says. “And what’s scary is that mothers are using bottled spring water in their baby formula without realizing what’s in it.” The EPA notes that bottled water labels must indicate whether or not fluoride has been added back into the water, but doesn’t have to say whether it contains naturally occurring fluoride.

What else comes with your water? Well, a lot of other scary stuff, says the EPA. Both tap water and bottled water aren’t completely safe from certain contaminants. The EPA states in an informational guide:

Bottled water, like tap water, can come from a ground water source, such as a well or spring, or a surface water source, such as a river or stream. Most bottled water comes from a ground water source. Ground water is typically less vulnerable to contamination than water from surface sources. However, ground water can still contain naturally high amounts of certain contaminants, including radioactive elements, arsenic, and nitrates, or be vulnerable to contamination from human activities, such as industrial waste, faulty septic systems, and underground gas or chemical tanks.


And of course, it’s all about how the water is treated. The EPA states that tap water and bottled water are treated differently, mainly due in part to cost-effectiveness. Says the EPA:

Tap water may be disinfected with chlorine, chloramine, ozone, or ultraviolet light to kill disease-causing germs. Water systems use these disinfectants chlorine and chloramine because they are effective and inexpensive, and they continue to disinfect as water travels through pipes to homes and businesses. Bottled water that is disinfected is typically disinfected using ozone or other technologies such as ultraviolet light or chlorine dioxide. Ozone is preferred by bottlers, though it is more expensive than chlorine, because it does not leave a taste and because bottlers do not need to worry about maintaining disinfectant in water sealed in a container.

On the other hand, bottled water can go through a number of treatments, including distillation, micron filtration, ozonation, ultraviolet light, and reverse osmosis. Pressley says that with reverse osmosis, it’s the closest you can get to truly purified water; reverse osmosis removes up to 90 percent of chemicals in water, and up to 90 percent of fluoride. The problem is, she says, is that it’s costly for companies to use reverse osmosis to treat their water; reverse osmosis can reduce the water supply by 50 to 80 percent. “Reverse osmosis has such low yield returns,” Pressley says, “[which is] why many companies don’t do it.”

Cervin also notes that spring water is treated a bit differently than tap water. “Natural waters — and all waters — are tested for microbial impurities, [then] filtered to remove impurities then bottled at their source,” he says. “[Natural waters] are not usually treated with ozone because they are inherently clean. That’s the benefit of natural spring waters.”

However, what mucks up this issue of bottled water versus tap water is where bottled water comes from, and how it’s treated — and that’s hard information to find on the label. “Truthfully, the vast majority of bottled waters are not transparent about their sources,” Cervin says. “There is NO federal mandate to include that information on their labels. People construe this as the industry having something to hide, which is not the case.” And to make it more confusing, bottled water and tap water are regulated by two different governmental bodies: the FDA for bottled water, which regulates it as a food product, and the EPA for tap water. Cervin dislikes this as much as the rest of us: “Comparing the two is apples and oranges. Frankly, all water needs to be governed by the same agency and not bisected as it currently is,” he says. The Government Accountability Office came to the same conclusion back in 2009, according to a story from The New York Times. Said then-Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak in a letter sent to 13 bottlers, “[N]either the public nor federal regulators know nearly enough about where bottled water comes and what safeguards are in place to ensure its safety.”

bottled water

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), known for its groundbreaking research of bottled waters and their transparency, found similar results in its last scorecard in 2010. Of the 173 bottled waters the group surveyed, more than half of them flunked the test — 18 percent of them didn’t list where the water came from, and 32 percent of them say nothing about how the water is treated. “Many brands fill their labels with vague claims of a pristine source or perfect purity — but no real facts. If people are willing to pay up to 1,900 times the cost of tap water in order to buy water in a plastic bottle, they deserve better than that,” the EWG stated in its survey.

Of the waters EWG surveyed in 2010, nine of the top 10 brands failed to answer where the water came from, how it was treated, and whether past tests had found any contaminants. That’s a big deal, because the major players — Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo — hold about 65 percent of the market share, Cervin says. (However, Cervin does note that about 75 percent of bottled water companies are small family operations, usually regional or local bottled waters with limited distribution.) It’s why we at The Daily Meal decided to take a look at some of those top brands and put them through the wringer — not simply with a taste test, but with an analysis of sourcing and treatment as well.


So what’s a person to do — throw out all the water bottles in the world? Well, as learned from Cervin and others, there’s certainly the good, bad, and the ugly of bottled water, and if you did toss out all the bottled water out there, you’d certainly be throwing the environment a bone or two by doing that. Shari Portnoy, MPH, R.D., LD/N, a registered dietitian, has followed the dangerous effects of bottled water on not only our health, but on our environment as well; no one can ignore that plastic bottles leach BPA (Bisphenol-A), the chemical linked to breast and other types of cancer. (Even as recently as this week, Poland Springs’ 3- and 5-gallon bottles were recalled for having traces of gasoline, a side effect of Hurricane Sandy.)  And let’s not forget the plastics that are piling up in landfills. “The recycling rates in America are at 30 percent — that’s appalling,” Cervin says. “We are one of the worst recyclers in the world.” And even uglier, says Cervin? “… the painful fact that literally one in seven people on our planet (imagine every seventh house in your neighborhood) does not have daily access to clean water,” he says. “And those numbers are likely to grow as the availability of fresh drinkable water on this planet is less that 3 percent of all the water on the Earth.”

Is there a silver lining to all of it? Well, sure — it’s better than drinking a soda or sugary drink. The key, Pressley says, is to educate yourself on what you’re actually drinking. It’s what inspired Pressley, after dealing with health issues that weren’t solved by going organic alone, to create her own line of bottled purified rainwater, which she says is one of the purest available bottled waters out there. “We worry about eatingorganic foods, but not about drinking organic, or chemical-free, water,” she says. “Think about it — we drink more fluids than we eat food.”

1. Poland Spring
Does it list its treatment process: Yes
The website redirects to the Nestlé Waters website, with detailed reports on its spring water “10 step quality process” for treatment.
Does it list its sources: Yes
The website gives a little blurb on finding sources, etc., etc. But the label on our bottled gives a laundry list of sources that the water came from: Clear Spring, Hollis, Maine; Evergreen Spring, Fryeburg, Maine; and the list goes on. The Nestlé Waters website says that Nestlé waters come from 50 springs, but doesn’t say where the springs are.
Does it list its water quality analysis: Sort of
A quick Google search (we couldn’t find a link on the website) brought us to a PDF with the quality report from 2010.
How does it taste: Number one out of 10, with a score of 81.75
One very anti-bottled water tester remarked after the taste test that the only bottled water she bought was Poland Spring because of the price — and now we can take a note from her. It wasn’t a hit with everyone (two thought it was tap water, one believed it was bathroom faucet water) but others said it was clean, smooth, and simple.
2. Dasani

Well, this would have been a much easier task had there been a website for Dasani other than a garbled Facebook page. (No, I do not want to do a Flavor Dance for Dasani Drops.) The Coca-Cola website was no help, either. Instead, we had to go off what the label said.

Does it list its treatment process: No

However, the ingredients label reveals something interesting: it contains water, magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride, and salt. With an asterisk, the label says the salt “adds a negligible amount of sodium,” and “minerals added for taste.” We’ll see how that does. Magnesium sulfate, as defined by the EWG, is “an inorganic salt; found in sea water and in mineral deposits” and is a safe food additive as defined by the FDA; potassium chloride is another inorganic salt with the same safety status.

Does it list its sources: Yes, if you know what to look for

The label says “purified water,” which our sources say is a sign that it’s really filtered municipal water — and that’s what the company has admitted to over the last few years.

Does it list its quality analysis: No

How does it taste: Number two out of 10, with a score of 81.25

“Refreshing,” “clean,” “sharp,” and “mineral” were the most commonly used words to describe Dasani.

3. Aquafina

Does it list its treatment process: Yes

On its website, you can watch a demo of its treatment process: prefiltration, filtration, “intense light” (which we can only assume are UV rays), reverse osmosis, charcoal filtration, polishing filter, and ozonation.

Does it list its sources: Yes

The Aquafina website links to its bottler and water source information.

Does it list its water quality analysis: Yes

On the Aquafina website, there is a 2011 sample water quality analysis as an example, with the note: “Our Aquafina plants each conduct on average 320 tests daily, 1950 tests weekly, and — when we include off-site monitoring, 102,000 tests annually to assure the consistent quality of our Aquafina bottled water.”

How does it taste: Number three out of 10, with a score of 78.66

“Virtually no taste,” said one tester — which may be why Aquafina won over so many testers. Still others said they detected a sour flavor or an aftertaste from the water; one commented on a “super plastic-y” taste.

4. Volvic

Does it list its treatment process: Sort of

The website gives a report on the natural filtration process, but that’s about all you get.

Does it list its sources: Yes

Right on the bottle and on the website: it’s sourced from the Clairvic Spring in Volvic, France.

Does it list its quality analysis: Yes

The website does break down its mineral content, and says that it complies with the World Health Organization, NSF International, and FDA standards. A link at the bottom of the website gives the full water quality report.

How did it taste: Number four out of 10, with a score of 78.12

It was described as clean, “normal,” and “plain” (with a side note: “but that’s how it should be?”). Others noted no aftertaste, while one person said it tasted chalky.

5. Fiji

Does it list its treatment process: Yes

From the website: “FIJI Water’s state-of-the-art bottling facility was designed to protect the purity of our water at every step of the production process, and as part of that strict commitment to quality, no human hands are allowed to touch it. In fact, the facility was built directly on top of the FIJI Water aquifer, where a completely sealed delivery system draws the water up from the protected chamber and places it directly into our iconic square bottles, which are made from the highest-grade terephthalate (PET) plastic resin. To put it simply, until you unscrew the cap, FIJI Water never meets the compromised air of the 21st century nor is it touched by another human being. No other natural waters can honestly make that claim.”

Does it list its sources: Yes

From the website: “FIJI Water comes from a single place: the remote Yaqara Valley of Viti Levu (one of Fiji’s two principal islands). Here, hundreds of feet below an ancient rainforest, is a vast, geologically unique, underground aquifer from which we draw our water.” FIJI also claims to be the only artesian sourced-water of the top 10 bottled water brands in America.

Does it list its water quality analysis: Yes

Through the FAQ section of its website, FIJI gives a water quality analysis test, with more details on the filtration and bottling process (no word on the date of the report, though). Also, on the label is the typical analysis of certain minerals — silica, calcium, magnesium, pH, etc. — in milligrams per liter (on the 1 ½ liter bottle we bought).

How does it taste: Number five out of 10, with a score of 75

One tester said it was the “cleanest by far,” but others said it tasted filmy (“but not in the worst way”), stale, and flat. One tester said it tasted like the water fountain.

6. Glacéau Smartwater

Does it list its treatment process: Sort of

If you can get through the sing-songy descriptor on the label and website, you’ll find that the water is vapor distilled, with added electrolytes. It basically says it mimics the process of rainwater. However, a bottled water report goes into more detail about how it’s purified: with charcoal filtration, vapor distillation, ultraviolet light disinfection, re-mineralization (if that’s a word), and ozonation.

Does it list its sources: Yes

From its bottled water report: “Most facilities that purify and bottle Smartwater procure water from municipal water systems. At a few plants, however, water is obtained from protected groundwater sources managed by the bottling plant, with approvals from local authorities.”

Does it list its quality analysis: Yes

Again, from the same bottled water report, Smartwater breaks down all of the minerals and elements found in its water in a typical analytical report.

How does it taste: Number six out of 10, with a score of 74.08

Clean was the all-around description of it, but others said it felt heavy and others said it felt soft.