Bottled Vs. Tap: The Battle to Quench Our Thirst

Today, bottled water is ubiquitous and cheap: every single second of every single day, more than a thousand people buy and drink a plastic bottle of water in the U.S. But it wasn’t always so. In this episode, we trace a centuries-old power struggle as bottled water went from hip to lame to hot again. Why did doctors prescribe the waters from specific springs for everything from hemorrhoids to hypochondria, and how did whaling ships and a golf course help kick off the first bottled water frenzy in America? How did a swimming pool chemical help tap water fight back, and what did Nike, yuppies, and Orson Welles have to do with bottled water's reincarnation from the dead? And what's up with all these oxygen- or electrolyte-enhanced, alkaline, and even magical waters on supermarket shelves today? Listen in now for the first in our two-part deep dive into this battle of the ages: bottled vs. tap. We'll be back in a week with part two, including the science behind the taste of water, the specialist sommeliers who pair water and food, and the secret to making DIY Pellegrino at home.

A table full of water bottles, maybe several dozen, with a few in focus, cropped to feature their upper halves. There are green trees in the background.

Episode Notes

As we mention in the episode, we have a special treat in the newsletter for Gastropod Super-Fans: A picture of Cynthia in elementary school with Farrah Fawcett hair. (Many thanks to Cynthia’s mom for digging that treasure up!) Trust us, you're not going to want to miss this one.

Peter Gleick and Bottled and Sold

Peter Gleick is a scientist and author of Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. In 1987, he co-founded the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oakland that focuses on water issues. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003 for his work on water resources, and in 2006 he was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Frank Chapelle and Wellsprings

Frank Chapelle is senior hydrologist emeritus at the USGS and a trustee of the Drinking Water Research Foundation. He is the author of Wellsprings: A Natural History of Bottled Spring Waters and The Hidden Sea: Ground Water, Springs, and Wells. In 2000, he received the O.E. Meinzer award, which is given to authors who have significantly advanced the science of hydrogeology.

Mineral Water Prescriptions

In the episode, we mention that, by the 1800s, physicians had become pretty scientific about their water prescriptions, using their new analytical chemistry skills to actually measure the minerals in different springs. If you'd like to learn more, let "A complete list of mineral waters, foreign and domestic, with their analysis, uses, and sources," published by P. Scherer & Co, in 1882, be your guide!

Poland Spring, from "A complete list of mineral waters, foreign and domestic, with their analysis, uses, and sources."

Spandex Spandex Spandex!

And last but certainly not least, as promised: The full-length Evian ad from the 1980s, featuring leggings, sweatbands, and some slightly NSFW panting. Who knew bottled water could get this steamy?


Click here for a transcript of the show. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.