Something remarkable is happening this year. For the first time ever, sales of bottled water will outpace soda.
This may signal good news for everyone’s health. We all know that staying hydrated is critical for our bodies to sustain themselves, and drinking water is one of the best ways to give your body the hydration it craves (while drinking sugary sodas… isn’t).
Still, all that bottled water comes at a price — quite literally. Globally, people spend around $100 billion a year on bottled water. (Americans account for well over half of that.) In the U.S., bottled water costs around 2,000 times more than drinking water from the tap.
Then there are the environmental costs. Making plastic water bottles results in significant carbon emissions (a primary contributor to climate change) and eats up 17 million barrels of oil annually — enough to fuel one million cars for a whole year! Less than a quarter of the bottled water sold in the U.S. gets recycled, which means that billions upon billions of water bottles are cluttering our landfills and polluting our land and oceans.
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But one glance in a gas station’s refrigerator confirms that Americans have been willing to shoulder these costs in the quest for convenience and (presumably) additional health benefits beyond what’s offered by tap water.
All of which begs the question: Is bottled water actually worth it?
How Your Bottled Water Stacks Up
In order to answer that question, we first need to ID what we mean by “bottled water.” As with any other consumer goods, over the last decade companies have gotten pretty creative in the quest to bottle up the next big trend. Enter wacky contenders such as maple water, cactus water and watermelon water, all of which boast their own potential merits.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the basics. Here’s how the five main categories of bottled water fare.
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What it means: If you see these words on your bottle, that tells you the water originates from an underground spring (which must be identified on the label). Related terms such as “glacier water” or “mountain water” aren’t regulated at all.
Worth the hype? Through the power of marketing, we’ve all been taught to associate the words “spring water” with crystal-clear mountain streams. Sounds delicious (and clean), right? In reality, spring water can contain the same impurities you might find in well or tap water. (When companies claim that their water is “100% pure,” they don’t mean it’s devoid of impurities. It simply means that all of the water is extracted from an underground source.) In short, spring water may not be any cleaner than regular old tap water.
What it means: This one is exactly what it sounds like. Before being bottled, the water is run through a filter.
Worth the hype? Filtering water before you drink it sounds like a good thing, right? Sure. But if you have access to tap water, then you already have access to filtered water. Tap water is always filtered before it leaves the tap — and, in fact, it’s held to higher filtration standards than bottled water. “Tap water is regulated for most pathogens and most problems,” says Arlene Blum, Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley and Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute.
In contrast, bottled water may actually include unwanted elements such as mold, excess bacteria, benzene and even arsenic. And not all states mandate filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water companies. So in this case, you’re probably better off drinking water straight from the tap.
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What it means: Technically, the term “purified water” stipulates that impurities in the water must be removed entirely or reduced to very low levels. The water can be sourced from spring water, surface water, groundwater, or even tap water.
Worth the hype? In theory, purified water is put through more stringent cleansing and filtration processes than other types of bottled water. But because there is little to no regulation of these processes, there’s no guarantee that purified water is any better than other entries on this list. And if you’re concerned about where your water is sourced, purified water will leave you in the dark — companies aren’t required to disclose where the water came from on their labels. Yet another bummer of a bottle, indeed.
What it means: Bells and whistles, essentially. This category of bottled water products promises added functionality or benefits beyond simple hydration (e.g. vitamin- or electrolyte-infused waters).
Worth the hype? If you’re a serious athlete who sweats profusely and/or performs high-intensity exercise for more than an hour at a time, then there may be some value to drinking electrolyte-infused beverages, says Sonya Angelong, MS, RDN, and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The other upside of enhanced waters is that they may help people stay hydrated, because we tend to drink more water when it’s flavored. But be wary of added sweeteners and artificial ingredients, says Angelong. She says it’s a good idea to read labels in order to get a sense for the portion size, be informed about added chemicals, and determine whether the ingredients actually match the water’s health claims. For example, Angelong says she’s encountered enhanced waters that promise electrolytes or fruit on the label, but don’t actually list any sodium, potassium or real fruit in the ingredients list. Bottom line? While enhanced waters may offer some benefits, it’s a good idea to read the fine print before handing over your cash.
What it means: Alkaline water is water with a higher pH (above 8.0) than most tap water, thus making it less acidic. Proponents of the beverage claim it can do everything from improving gut health, to easing symptoms of diabetes, to boosting athletic performance.
Worth the hype? The jury is still out, but most experts agree that regular water is good enough. Our bodies naturally regulate our internal pH range, so they don’t necessarily need help from our beverages. And given that the optimum range varies by organ, trying to enforce a specific pH on your body may do more harm than good.
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A Case for Tap
If your MO is to order tap water, you can feel good about a few of they key stats:
- Up to 45 percent of all bottled water comes from the same source as tap water. (So why pay an astronomical markup for the same product that flows freely at home?)
- In most cases, bottled water is no cleaner or healthier than tap water. Testing by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that tap water and bottled water generally have comparable levels of contaminants, but bottled water may sometimes exceed legal limits. Up to 90 percent of the country’s tap water is considered safe at both the state and federal level.
- Putting aside the question of the water itself, plastic water bottles pose health threats in the form of leached chemicals, many of which are possible hormone disruptors and/or carcinogens.
For the most part, Blum says, bottled water represents an “unnecessary expense [and] unnecessary use of resources and energy. My personal opinion is that tap water is fine.”
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When Bottled Water Might Be Best
In general, experts seem to agree that tap water is superior to bottled water. But cases such as Flint, Michigan and Sebring, Ohio prove that there are exceptions to this rule.
Blum’s own research turned up evidence that unsafe levels of toxic chemicals are present in the drinking water of 66 public water supplies. “These [fluorinated compounds] are… associated with a wide variety of health harms [such as cancer, elevated cholesterol and immune suppression],” says Blum. Based on her research, Blum and her team estimate that there are approximately six million people in the U.S. who don’t have access to adequate drinking water.
“If you really have drinking water that is not safe to drink (due to lead, fluorinated chemicals or PCBs), then bottled water is a better option,” says Blum. Even then, she encourages people to opt for refillable glass containers over one-time-use plastic bottles.
If you want to learn more about your local water supply, contact your local water company or town hall, which can provide you with results from yearly testing. Barring alarming test results, you can rest easy knowing that your tap water is safe to drink. By choosing tap over bottled water, you’ll be doing the environment — and your wallet — a service.