This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Bottled vs. Tap: The Battle to Quench our Thirst, first released on July 6, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: There’s not much to say about these. I’m failing—my descriptors are failing me.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I think they taste kind of like clouds and rainwater and fresh air.
TIM BUNTEL: 3B is a little cloudy. There’s nothing on the nose. That’s kind of bad.
TWILLEY: Have you tried this? 5A?
GEOFF MANAUGH: Oh yeah, that’s really really flat and strange. Almost tastes like… it tastes like bottle. I mean, it is water, but at the same time…
GRABER: Yes, it’s true, we were actually doing a water taste test. The things we do for you, dear listeners. But actually it’s because we were curious: could we tell the difference between all those bottled waters out there?
TWILLEY: Because that’s what this episode is all about. Bottled water and its sworn enemy, tap water, and their centuries-long battle to quench our thirst. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food—and water—through the lens of science and history. Recently we ran a guest episode, Body Stuff with Jen Gunter, and she busted the eight-glasses-of-water-a-day myth. Obviously the bottled water companies love and promote that myth, but it’s not their only weapon in the bottled-versus-tap death match.
TWILLEY: It’s a smackdown and we have ringside tickets. So let’s get going with the trash talk. How did bottled water get so big, how did tap water fight back, and what should we be drinking anyway?
GRABER: Is bottled water better for you than tap water? Does it taste better? Should you bother shelling out your hard-earned cash for those plastic bottles?
TWILLEY: These are the big questions, but we also get into more niche aspects of the rivalry: like, why do American and European bottled waters taste so different, and what has that got to do with a golf course in Maine?
GRABER: As well as curing goiter.
TWILLEY: Which raises yet another slightly less relevant question, what actually is goiter? And, of course, there’s the question that’s keeping you all up at night: what do both yuppies and Nike have to do with the bottled water takeover of America?
GRABER: All that, plus the water sommelier who will set you up for the absolutely perfect water to go with your… whatever you’re eating. For as long as humans have been around, we’ve always needed to find sources of drinking water.
TWILLEY: But that challenge has not looked the same throughout our history. Peter Gleick is co-founder of the Pacific Institute, which is a nonprofit focused on global water issues. He’s also the author of the book Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. And Peter classifies the human-water relationship into three different eras.
PETER GLEICK: The first era of water, in the way I think about it, was really before civilization, when humans were hunter gatherers. And we simply depended on nature to provide the water that we could find in rivers or lakes. And life was miserable and short and brutish anyway. And that that era lasted literally for hundreds of thousands of years during the evolution of humanity.
GRABER: Frank Chapelle is a geologist who specializes in the chemistry of groundwater, and he wrote a book called Wellsprings: A Natural History of Bottled Spring Waters. Frank says that finding clean water to drink was one of the many things that made our life as early humans so miserable and so brutish.
FRANK CHAPELLE: Water, by its very nature, is not usually particularly clean. It’s a very good solvent. It’ll dissolve just about anything.
TWILLEY: Which means it picks up whatever it travels through and intermingles with whatever gets into it—good and bad. Rocks, quote unquote organic matter, by which I mean basically animal poo.
CHAPELLE: And so drinking water, for a lot of—most of human history, if you had a source of clean water, then you were pretty lucky. Because it’s just not very common.
GRABER: And humanity has gathered by these rare, clean water sources. But sometimes we do have to leave home. And so one of the earliest examples of bottled water we have has been just finding ways to put that water in a container for storage and then transport it, either for our own use or to sell it.
TWILLEY: We’ve talked about this before, in our episode on food packaging and the one on glass. Those very first containers would have been made of animal bladders or hollowed-out gourds, and then people started using clay-lined baskets, and then earthenware pots.
GRABER: By about 4000 years ago, people in ancient Egypt were transporting and selling water using those earthenware pots—Frank has an image in his book of a water seller from the time of the Pharaohs with an urn on his back. And he’s deeply bent over, because water is HEAVY. One gallon weighs eight pounds, and a cubic meter—that’s three feet by three feet—it literally weighs a ton.
TWILLEY: Portability has always been a problem for water. But, at this point in history, all water was just water. There was no battle between tap vs bottle. You got it wherever you could and you moved it around however you could.
GRABER: Over the millennia, we got better and better at moving that water around. People developed complex systems of reservoirs and wells and aqueducts and pumps, really all around the world. But at the same time, we also realized our water was getting dirtier and making us sick.
TWILLEY: By now, we’re into what Peter calls the second age of water. It starts with us being able to move it around and bring it into the cities where lots of people were gathered. That’s a big advance in our relationship with water. But when you have lots of people living together you have lots of poo, and we’ve already talked about how good water is at picking up poo. That part was not an improvement.
CHAPELLE: So in the Middle Ages, the only people that actually drank water were people that were very poor. And drinking water was certainly not fashionable. It wasn’t something that the nobility or the middle class would do.
TWILLEY: People didn’t know exactly what the problem with water was, but they could tell it wasn’t great for their health. Everyone knew you’d likely get sick if you just drank water neat.
GRABER: Which is why, going back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, people who could afford it didn’t drink water straight. Instead, they used to mix water with small amounts of booze. They didn’t know why that made it better, but it did. Of course now we know that the ethanol in wine and beer and even spirits killed off some of the microbes in your water that could make you sick.
TWILLEY: This is actually how vodka got its name—voda is the Russian word for water, vodka means little water, and, when the name vodka was coined, adding that diminutive meant it was a refined, improved version of the original. Basically, vodka was better water.
GRABER: But, as we said, the Russians weren’t alone in wanting to improve upon their water.
CHAPELLE: When the pilgrims got to Massachusetts, the water that they were drinking on the ship when they came over was always mixed with beer. So it was about 2% alcohol. And again, that was kind of just basic water treatment, because that’s what people did in those days. And one of the reasons why the crew offloaded the pilgrims in the middle of December, when it was freezing cold, was because they were afraid that the people on board, they weren’t going to have enough beer to make it back to England.
TWILLEY: William Bradford was the pilgrim who ended up being governor of this new colony, and he wrote about this water crisis—he said in his diary that the ship’s captain offloaded them and forced them to drink plain water—oh horror of horrors—to save the beer for the sailors on their return voyage.
CHAPELLE: And having to drink water was something, I mean, even, you know, in a relatively pristine area, that was not something that they were happy about. The first building that they actually built was a beer house, so that they could brew beer.
GRABER: Phew. Such a relief. A couple of centuries after this, industrialization was in full force, cities were growing, people were crowded together in terrible conditions, and, in Europe and in the US, drinking water got even worse.
CHAPELLE: You know, they had a real problem with the water quality. And in the 19th century, there were these periodic epidemics of cholera and typhoid.
TWILLEY: Which are waterborne diseases.
GRABER: But, weirdly, the 1800s were also the moment when drinking water became super fashionable among the rich. But not just any water.
GLEICK: Mineral waters were a thing. When people took the waters, in France, and in Britain, they went to places where there were natural hot springs and natural mineral waters of different qualities bubbling up. And there was this idea that these natural springs would provide health benefits. And people would go to them and they would soak, and they would drink the mineral waters of different kinds. And maybe, maybe, they would get better.
GRABER: Frankly, a sick person who went to visit the springs and take the waters at European towns like Baden Baden or at Carlsbad might have gotten better just because they were out of the city and they were finally drinking clean water. Water that comes right from a spring is actually usually pretty clean, it’s been basically been filtered underground. And nothing much has happened to it between that filtering and bubbling up to the surface.
TWILLEY: But also remember that water is an excellent solvent and it picks up whatever it travels through? Well, the water at all of these trendy natural springs had traveled through all different kinds of rocks and it had picked up particularly high levels of minerals along the way.
CHAPELLE: Some of those waters contain pretty high concentrations of bicarbonate. Well, that’s pretty good medicine for someone with an upset stomach.
TWILLEY: Sodium bicarbonate is literally Alka Seltzer. It’s an antacid that we still use today.
CHAPELLE: Some of those waters have relatively high concentrations of iron. Well, in the 19th century, young women of reproductive age, they would get a kind of anemia that was called chlorosis, because it kind of turned their skin green. And people realized that drinking water from one of these high iron springs would actually, it would solve the medical problem. Another example from Saratoga Springs is Congress Springs actually has iodine in it. And people noticed early on that drinking water from Congress Springs could actually cure a simple goiter.
GRABER: Goiter isn’t really common anymore, because now we put iodine in our salt. But, before we iodized salt, goiter was incredibly common—it’s a lump in your throat that’s an enlarged thyroid, and it’s caused by not enough iodine in your diet. Which iodine-rich water effectively treated.
TWILLEY: People had noticed that certain waters seemed to help with certain illnesses for a long time, but, by the 1800s, they also had the analytical chemistry skills to actually measure the minerals in the water. And they got pretty scientific about the whole thing. Doctors would literally prescribe water from different springs to people with different health problems.
CHAPELLE: I actually have a book that was written by a German doctor named Dr. Kreisig in the 1820s. They have different springs, and he makes a list of the ailments that the spring waters are good for.
GRABER: Doctors at the time prescribed the waters for everything; hemorrhoids, formation of gravel in the bladder, fatty degeneration of the heart, diseases of the female organs, jaundice, dyspepsia and loss of appetite, stiffness of joints.
TWILLEY: Even hypochondria. For which you’d want to take Birmenstorf water from Switzerland, in case you’re curious.
CHAPELLE: In the early 19th century, medical technology was, shall we say, primitive? And, in those cases, you know, spring waters probably were as good as anything else. The other thing that was going on was the placebo effect. You know, just taking a placebo will make 30, 40% of people say that their condition is better. Well, that’s a pretty good hit rate in the 19th century.
GRABER: However they solved your medical problems, these spas became a big deal. Visiting springs was a social occasion, part of the circuit for the wealthy.
TWILLEY: In fact, over time, the medicinal aspect of it was more of an excuse for a good time. Jane Austen makes fun of this in her books.
NORTHANGER ABBEY CLIP
MRS. ALLEN: No, said Dr. Allison, no other place will do so well for a gouty constitution like Mr. Allen’s.
MR. ALLEN: No other place will do so well for (oof!) for squandering money.
MRS. ALLEN: Oh, fie Mr. Allen! You know you love to see me happy.
TWILLEY: Mrs. Allen is determined to go to Bath, in the west of England, to take the waters. And her plan is to bring the heroine of Northanger Abbey, Catherine, with her.
GRABER: Let the drama begin…
NORTHANGER ABBEY CLIP
MOTHER: Mr. and Mrs. Allen come with an invitation, Catherine.
MRS. ALLEN: We would like you to accompany us to Bath for a time.
TWILLEY: Spoiler, the novel ends with a wedding. Like all Jane Austen novels.
GRABER: And this whole medical and social spa scene didn’t just take place in Europe, Peter says that the colonists found springs that could solve all your woes in the New World, too.
GLEICK: And so in the 1700s, even in the United States in the early days of America, around Philadelphia and in New York, some of the founding fathers swore by some of these mineral baths and they drank some of these mineral waters.
GRABER: And so as a result springs basically turned into resorts—all those rich people needed food and accommodations, and also entertainment. And it turns out that the second golf course in America was built at Poland Spring.
TWILLEY: Yes, *that* Poland Spring. Which you now find in bottles in every convenience store in the land.
GLEICK: And so, in some ways, these early mineral waters were the first commercialized waters, and they were the first waters that became popular. Evian, and Perrier, and San Pellegrino—a lot of the famous names in bottled water and spring water come from those early natural sources of bottled water.
GRABER: The rich and famous could travel to Poland Spring—it’s still a town in Maine, about forty minutes inland north of Portland. But the owners of the spring and resort in the 1800s realized they could make an additional fortune by bottling up that water in glass bottles—and they could sell it to everyone who couldn’t afford to come to the spa.
TWILLEY: These bottles are actually kind of amazing—Poland Spring’s owner had the idea to make them in the shape of Moses, who famously summoned a refreshing spring in the desert by striking a rock. The opening of the bottle is on top of his head, it sort of looks like an inverted top hat, and his long beard and staff make him look a little wizardy, like Merlin. If you happen to have one in your attic, they’re worth quite a bit these days.
GRABER: It seems like the first bottled water in the US was sold from Jackson’s Mineral Well near me in Boston, in 1767. Apparently the water was “impregnated with iron” and that turned it a rich purple color. Yum.
TWILLEY: Poland Spring was a little bit later to the bottling party—its owner, a Mr. Hiram Ricker, started bottling it in 1845. But before that, he was putting it in wooden barrels.
GRABER: Turns out that because of the geology of Maine, the rainwater that gets filtered through the region’s glacial sand and granite and then bubbles up at Poland Spring is slightly acidic. It’s not as acidic as vinegar or anything, but it does help stop microbes from growing, which keeps the water better for longer.
TWILLEY: The idea of water going bad is a little strange to think about nowadays, but before modern purification, even clean spring water had a pretty good amount of bacteria in it, and over time those microbes would grow, and you would not want to drink that, even though we’re talking about microbes.
GRABER: Poland Spring water that was stored in barrels stayed fresh-tasting and cleaner longer than other water, and people noticed the difference. And so did Hiram Ricker.
CHAPELLE: The reason that they started bottling it was because it was being purchased by captains of whaling ships, because the water would actually not spoil on board the ship as fast as other waters and that’s when some other people said, Okay, well rather than just selling it to whaling ships we’ll try to sell it in our grocery stores for the same exact reason. And that’s what Poland Spring came from.
GRABER: Poland Spring became super popular. Its fame grew around the world. Poland Spring water was declared the best spring water in the US at the world fair in 1904.
TWILLEY: By that time, Poland Spring and other bottled waters were no longer seen primarily as medicine.
GRABER: We mentioned that urbanization and industrialization had made city water even dirtier—so this newfangled bottled water was seen as a fantastic source of the best clean water.
TWILLEY: Bottled water had become big business by the late 1800s, with companies selling millions of bottles a year. For a moment, bottled water looked like it was winning the war with tap —at least among those who could afford to buy this fancy spring water. But sit tight, this battle isn’t over yet. Bottled water only had the upper hand for about fifty years.
GRABER: What knocked bottled water out of the lead, and in fact what almost killed it entirely, is something that actually saved millions of lives—it’s the discovery that not only was bad water bad for us, but that we could clean it up.
TWILLEY: The first step in tap water’s comeback happened in London in the 1850s, just as bottled water was starting to get big. At the time, like Frank said, cholera was a huge problem. This is actually something Geoff and I wrote about in our quarantine book: this new disease, cholera, showed up in Europe and spread fast. It killed more people more quickly than any other epidemic disease of the 1800s.
GRABER: In London, a famous doctor named John Snow figured out that he could trace cholera to a water pump. This is obviously a much longer story, but this discovery revolutionized our approach to water.
GLEICK: It was the first real evidence that we needed to do more than just provide water to people, we needed to provide clean water to people. And really, that led to a whole series of inventions over the next half century or more about how to do that. How to make sure that your municipal water supply was clean and safe and purified. And it led to water treatment, and really the modern water system we have today.
TWILLEY: There were lots of improvements and innovations and gradually water got cleaner and cleaner. But the big breakthrough was chlorine. Which kills bacteria.
GLEICK: Oh, it was a huge deal.
VOICEOVER: After settling, the water is filtered and chlorinated. One of the largest pumping stations in Europe is at Kempton Park, where the pumps displace the almost incredible total of 50 million gallons of water a day. And all the time, it’s being tested and decontaminated. Thanks to the meticulous care of the experts, London’s water is safe.
GLEICK: And when that was proven to be effective, cities all around the country started to do that. And cholera and dysentery basically disappeared. Waterborne diseases in the United States basically disappeared. It was a tremendous advance for public health.
CHAPELLE: And so the bottled water industry immediately crashed, because the major reason for drinking it, because it was less likely to be contaminated, basically went away overnight.
GRABER: Spring water might have surged ahead in the 1800s, but, by the early 1900s, chlorinated tap water was number 1. It was new, it was a symbol of science and progress, Frank says it was a sign that technology could conquer all our problems. Nobody was interested in old-fashioned bottled water anymore.
CHAPELLE: And the only reason it didn’t crash all together was there was a market for five gallon bottles of water that you could put in your factory or in your shop or wherever else you didn’t have plumbing. And that was it. And the bottled water industry in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s—that was it. You know, it was the water cooler, where people would stand around and talk about the Yankees beating up on everybody else.
TWILLEY: Bottled water might have been unfashionable in the early 1900s, but it did give us the tradition of gossiping “around the water cooler.” Side note, scuttlebutt is also another term for gossip exchanged around a water source—in this case, the scuttled butt was the cask that had a hole punched in it so it could be used to serve water on a ship. And scuttled butt is quite fun to say repeatedly.
GRABER: Scuttlebutt scuttlebutt. And we’ve got all the scuttlebutt about how bottled water staged its comeback.
GLEICK: So when I was growing up, we all drank water from the tap. And out and about, there were water fountains everywhere. I grew up in New York City, there were, there were 100 water fountains in Central Park. Every playground had a water fountain, every school had water fountains. And nobody I know died of thirst because of the lack of bottled water.
TWILLEY: The time period Peter’s talking about here, when he was a kid and there was no bottled water—it’s the early 60s. The bottled water industry that was booming in the late 1800s had all but died by 1960.
GRABER: But just a decade or so later, something had changed. Frank told us exactly where he was when he first noticed it.
CHAPELLE: I remember in the late 1970s, in 1978, I ran the Baltimore marathon. And I got to the end of the race, and of course everybody’s thirsty and tired. And there were these bottles of water on a table. This is the first time I’d ever seen it.
TWILLEY: So what happened? How did bottled water rise, vampire-like, from the dead?
GLEICK: What really changed in some ways was plastic. The invention of really lightweight, cheap, unbreakable, plastic permitted waters to be put in plastic and to be sold more cheaply and to be moved around. You know, water is very heavy and water in glass bottles is even heavier, and that’s expensive. So plastic helped bring bottled water to the masses,
GRABER: This new plastic is called PET. Like all plastics, it’s a petroleum product. And it was not originally invented for drinks.
GLEICK: They were two engineers in England, who were trying to come up with longer lasting materials, lightweight materials that could be used for packaging during World War Two, that could be used for clothing, in particular. And PET is basically nylon. It’s a version of nylon, that then became very popular for clothing. And it wasn’t until much later that versions of PET were used for food, when the food industry realized that it was durable, it didn’t impart a taste. It was clear, it could be made perfectly clear, so you could see the food you were packaging. And ultimately, the beverage companies realized basically it formed a perfect container for beverages.
TWILLEY: That breakthrough came in 1968. An engineer at DuPont was trying to make a plastic bottle that was tough enough to hold fizzy drinks, and he made it with PET.
GRABER: The engineer just so happens to be Nathaniel Wyeth, who curiously enough is the older brother of the famous American painter Andrew Wyeth.
TWILLEY: Art and bottled water, two great things that go great together. But this PET bottle was the start of a revolution.
CHAPELLE: And that’s what I saw in 1978, it’s the first time I’d ever seen it before. And apparently it was kind of a new thing under the sun at the time.
GRABER: Nestle introduced some of the earliest bottled water, and they say it would have been impossible for bottled water to have gotten big again without the invention of these PET plastic bottles.
TWILLEY: PET meant that water could be sold alongside soda, in the same bottles, as a cheap grab and go option. But although plastic was fantastic, it wasn’t enough to boost bottled water over tap on its own.
GRABER: Enter Perrier. It played the next key role in the bottled water comeback. The company’s water was huge in Europe, but they thought they could be even bigger by conquering the American market. Their challenge was to get Americans to pay a relatively hefty sum for water, when they were already getting it for free from their taps. So Perrier had the idea to blanket America with ads.
TWILLEY: Honestly, no one except Perrier thought it would work. The consulting firm McKinsey did a big report saying bottled water had no future in America. But Perrier went all in. They spent something like $20 million in today’s money.
ORSON WELLES: Deep below the plains of Southern France, in a mysterious process begun millions of years ago, nature itself adds life to the icy waters of a single spring: Perrier.
GRABER: I don’t know if you all recognize that voice, but Perrier hired Orson Welles himself! If you’re too young to have heard of him, he was a super famous director and actor. He starred in Citizen Kane, for instance.
WELLES: Its natural sparkle is more delicate than any made by man, and therefore more quenching, refreshing and a mixer par excellence. Naturally sparkling, from the center of the earth: Perrier.
CHAPELLE: And apparently the advertising campaign, it just kind of tipped things. And especially in New York City, you know, sophistication is important. Conspicuous consumption is important. And it just caught on.
TWILLEY: At the time, New York was home to a new group of people: the yuppies. Young Urban Professionals. They were wealthy, they were cosmopolitan, they were, as Frank says, into conspicuous consumption. And they loved this sophisticated French beverage. Suddenly, bottled water was desirable again.
GRABER: In four years, Perrier conquered America—they zoomed from selling only three million bottles in 1975 to 200 million in just four years, and they changed the culture. Famous actors like Richard Burton said he’d given up booze in favor of sparkling water, Farah Fawcett whose hair inspired a generation of copycat haircuts, including my own in elementary school—she said she even used Perrier to rinse that famous hair.
TWILLEY: Folks, Cynthia is going to share an exclusive, never-before-published photo of her in elementary school with her feathered Farah Fawcett hair in our special newsletter that goes out to supporters. Sign up at gastropod dot com so you don’t miss out.
GRABER: Thanks mom for digging that one up.
TWILLEY: Back to the bottled vs tap smackdown. Plastic, Orson Welles—they all helped boost bottled water. And then came the exercise boom. Jogging was basically invented in the 70s. It was popularized in the US by the guy who co-founded Nike. And then the 80s were all about aerobics and spandex. Perrier started sponsoring the New York City marathon. And other traditional European bottled waters quickly joined in the fun.
COMMERCIAL CLIP—WORKOUT MUSIC AND HEAVY BREATHING
VOICE OVER: Keep your body at its peak. Drink Evian. Evian, With its unique balance of minerals, pure Evian spring water, from the French Alps.
GRABER: You can’t see this ad, obviously—though you should go look at it, and we’ll have it on our website, gastropod.com. It’s a marvel of a lost era, the 1980s. There are sweaty bodies and headbands and leg warmers and plenty of leotard- and short-short-clad crotches. It is genuinely amazing.
TWILLEY: But the bottled water message wasn’t all sweetness and light.
GLEICK: You do what you can to make your product attractive and desirable. And you do what you can to make the competing product dangerous or unhealthy or unattractive. And in this case, the competing product is tap water. And so in the early days of bottled water especially, the bottled water companies vilified tap water. They did what they could to make you fear tap water by pointing out the problems with municipal tap water, which occur. So it was the fear message. And that was very effective.
GRABER: This message resonated partly because the environment, and the water all around us, had gained national attention around that time. The late 60s and the early 70s are kind of the dawn of the environmental movement in the US. One of the most visible events that sparked the movement was when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland literally caught fire.
CLIP FROM THE DOCUMENTARY CUYAHOGA
JAMES EARL JONES: And the Cuyahoga, a relative unknown, became an overnight sensation. The pollution problem received national attention. Time Magazine reported shortly after the incident, “Some river. Chocolate brown. Oily. Bubbling sub-surface gases. It oozes rather than flows. Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown, Cleveland citizens joke grimly, he decays.” All joking aside, the situation was indeed grim.
TWILLEY: That was the 60s. But, by the 1970s, the EPA had been created, and there was a bunch of new legislation in place to clean things up, including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
GRABER: But it was too late. This was the final blow that set tap water far behind bottled water in this competition. People were afraid of what was coming out of their tap, and bottled water promised a safe, healthy alternative. Plus, bottled water was super convenient.
TWILLEY: Because, as the decades went on, cities had stopped investing in maintaining their drinking fountains in parks and schools. And many fewer new fountains were included when stadiums and other big public spaces were being built.
GRABER: On top of that, bottled water companies did what they could to make tap water a less convenient choice, too—in fact, one company had a whole six-step program to help restaurants discourage their customers from choosing tap water.
TWILLEY: The result was a solid win for bottled water. When Peter wrote his book, ten years ago, he figured out that one thousand people buy and drink a plastic bottle of water every single second of every single day in the U.S. It’s a multi- multi-billion dollar business, in America and around the world.
GRABER: Since Peter’s book was published, bottled water has only become more popular. In fact, it’s now the most popular drink, more popular than juice, soda, beer, anything. Americans drink more bottled water than any other packaged beverage.
TWILLEY: And it’s not just Perrier and Evian any more. We’ve got alkaline waters and Aquafina and all sorts, coming up after the break.
GLEICK: And, you know, they’re given names like, oh, Arctic water, and Mountain water and Yosemite water, and Aquafina, which I’m sure the Pepsi company spent a lot of money coming up with that name. And they’re designed to make us think of purity and nature and health. Ironically enough, many of the names of those waters have nothing whatsoever to do with where that water actually comes from.
GRABER: This is another one of the very bizarre things about the bottled water industry. They can call their water whatever they want. Like there was a brand called Arctic Spring, but it was literally just purified Florida tap water.
GLEICK: And there are plenty of examples of that. There was a Yosemite bottled water that came out of the ground in Los Angeles, you know, nowhere near Yosemite National Park.
TWILLEY: This proliferation of tap water sold in plastic bottles was an intriguing development in the 1990s. It started when someone at Pepsi noticed that people would refill their empty Perrier and Evian bottles from the tap, and just carry on using them. And so Mr. or Ms. Pepsi Executive was like, huh, we could fill bottles with tap water and sell them and get a piece of this booming bottled water market, too. So they did.
CHAPELLE: Pepsi wasn’t going to go to the trouble to actually get a spring because there’s lots of logistical problems with that. And Aquafina, actually, I think they market tested it somewhere in the southwest, it might have been in Arizona. And you know, people liked it. And all they did was take municipal water and and reverse osmosis the dissolved solids out and put it in bottles and sell it.
TWILLEY: These dissolved solids—they’re just the regular minerals that are in all water, spring or municipal. And, in fact, even though Coke and Pepsi take all the minerals out of the tap water, they actually have to add some back in again before they bottle it.
GLEICK: So interestingly enough, if you take all the minerals out of water, which you can do with these modern processes, the water tastes terrible. It’s basically distilled water. It has no minerals in it, it’s actually unhealthy to drink. This is an important message for your audience. Do not drink distilled water, it’s really bad for you. It has no minerals. And when you drink distilled water, it actually takes minerals out of your body. It takes them out of the blood, it takes them out of your stomach lining, it’s not a good thing to drink.
TWILLEY: That’s why reprocessed tap water still has minerals—taking it out and adding it back just means Aquafina has a certain formula that always tastes the same.
GRABER: These new brands of renamed municipal water were a huge change from the origins of bottled water. Originally in Europe and in the US, bottled water was bottled spring water. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, all the popular bottled water brands did actually come from springs. But not anymore.
TWILLEY: Some water does come from springs, or rather from a groundwater well right next to the natural spring.
GLEICK: And that’s what Arrowhead and Deer Park and Zephyr Hills and Poland Springs, those are the sort of well known spring brands in the United States. That’s where those come from. And they’re allowed to be labeled, quote, spring water.
GRABER: So today, if you go to the store, you can get spring water. There’s bottled processed tap water, and then these days there’s another kind of water. The magical kind.
STEPH CURRY: Most people don’t know this about me, but I’m a bit of a water connoisseur. All those notes need to come together in harmony for that perfect sip. When I first tasted Oxigen, I knew. I knew it was the best freakin’ water I’ve ever had.
GLEICK: They have extra oxygen, which is ridiculous because you can’t add extra oxygen to water, it leaks out.
TWILLEY: Sorry Steph Curry, you may be a legend on the basketball court but you are not actually a water expert and your Oxigen water is in fact complete crapola.
GLEICK: Or there are alkaline waters
GRABER: And alkaline water has some serious star power behind it.
HALLE BERRY: From water to food to energy, everything we consume affects us. The water I drink is essential. That’s why I choose Flow. It’s the only water that can keep up with my active lifestyle. My connection to health and wellness has allowed me to re-spin the way I live my life.
TWILLEY: That was Halle Berry talking about Flow, which is a naturally alkaline Canadian spring water. Gwyneth Paltrow is a big fan of Flow too, and we all know that her health and wellness advice is not necessarily super scientific.
GRABER: Alkaline water just means that it has a slightly higher pH level—acidic water would be slightly lower pH than neutral. Pure water is exactly neutral, which is a pH of seven. The brands and the famous people who stand by those brands claim that alkaline water gives them better hydration, whatever that means, and they say it gives them more energy, reduces headaches, and maybe even prevents cancer.
TWILLEY: But here’s the thing, your blood is already alkaline. It has to be, otherwise you’d be dead, and all the hydrochloric acid in your stomach will neutralize that alkaline water before it reaches anywhere else anyway. There’s basically no evidence for any of alkaline water’s health claims.
GRABER: But those aren’t the only magical powers waters are supposed to have today.
VOICE OVER: New Snapple antioxidant water. It helps protect your body.
SINGERS: U.G.L.Y. You ain’t got no alibi!
VOICE OVER: Propel—the only water with enough electrolytes to put back what you lose in sweat.
TWILLEY: Antioxidants definitely have health benefits when you get them from fresh whole foods, together with other nutrients. Experts aren’t so sure they do anything when you isolate them and put them in bottled water. Bottom line, if you’d like some antioxidants, use water to wash down some fruit and veg.
GRABER: And as for electrolyte water, well, this one has a LOT of sports figures in favor of it. The theory is that you lose electrolytes when you sweat, and you need them, and this is a good way to replenish them. But really, you mostly lose salt, and these waters aren’t salty. If you’re cramping you might need potassium, but the best way to get that is to eat a banana. Experts say don’t bother with these electrolyte waters, or really any of these special, infused waters.
GLEICK: There are a lot of very unusual sort of… I would call them snake oil, they’re sort of modern snake oil examples, where the proponents are claiming really what I would call magical, mystical properties. And I would really beware of those.
TWILLEY: Peter is not about to run out and buy alkaline water, and, in fact, Cynthia and I do not spend our hard-earned cash on such ridiculousness, but a lot of people do. And the bottled water industry is immensely, immensely profitable.
GLEICK: Well, needless to say, the beverage companies are very cagey about what their profit margins are for any of their products, including bottled water. But it’s a hugely, I would argue, it’s a hugely lucrative business. So just to give you a few examples, when Nestle’s bottles Arrowhead from this natural spring down in the national forests in Southern California, they take millions, literally millions of gallons of water out of that spring every year. And they pay the federal government $500 a year for the permit to take water out of that natural ecosystem in Southern California. You know, then there’s a cost to transport it to the plant and they bottle, there’s a cost for bottling. But basically, they’re getting the water for free, the public water for free, and they’re turning it into a very, very lucrative private commodity.
GRABER: And Coke and Pepsi and the other brands that are just extra purified tap water? They do pay for that water but they pay just municipal rates for water, and that is an extraordinarily tiny fraction of what they charge.
GLEICK: I estimate that basically a bottle of water sells for two or three thousand times what the same amount of water costs out of your tap.
TWILLEY: In fact, the water itself is typically the least expensive part of the whole package.
GLEICK: Yeah, so the funny thing is, some people have described the bottled water industry as not really selling water, but selling plastic.
GRABER: Plastic is not only more expensive for the companies than water is, it also accounts for the majority of the environmental footprint. First of all, like we said, plastic is made from petroleum.
GLEICK: And so a tremendous amount of fossil fuels goes into the plastic itself. And it goes into the energy required to make the plastic and it goes into the energy required to to run the bottled water plant and to process the water itself, and… So there is a big energy footprint, an enormous energy footprint associated with the bottled water industry. Not to mention the plastic waste problem.
TWILLEY: Only something like one in every ten bottles gets recycled—the other nine end up in landfills or in the ocean where they leach harmful chemicals and take more than a thousand years to break down.
GRABER: And just in case you want to feel good about the water bottles you do throw into the recycling bin, well, PET isn’t a great material to recycle. It tends to degrade and so it usually gets made into products like carpet that don’t need to be clear and light and flexible. So even if water bottles are recycled, they’re rarely made into new bottles. Which means nearly every water bottle you buy is made from freshly extracted oil.
TWILLEY: It also takes water to make water—the kind of filtering that bottled water goes through is wasteful. Some filtering processes, like reverse osmosis, can take three liters of water to fill a one liter bottle. Although to be fair, the average across the whole industry is better: 1.4 liters to make one liter.
GRABER: That’s not quite as bad, but it’s not great. But in general, water companies argue that their use of water is minimal. Most water in America goes to farming, that’s about 70 percent. Then a bunch of water is used for industrial purposes, or municipal water. The industry says they take less than 1 percent of the US supply and bottle it.
GLEICK: Yeah, so that’s one of these half truths that the bottled water industry loves to talk about. It is true that the amount of bottled water we consume in the United States is a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the total water that we use for everything in the United States. The concern, of course, is when the amount of bottled water that we bottle comes from a very small spring or a natural source in a local community. And then it can be a big deal. And just as an example, you know, one of the bottled water brands is Arrowhead.
TWILLEY: Arrowhead is big brand, it’s owned by Nestle. And the original and still one of the major sources for Arrowhead is a natural spring just down the road from me in the San Bernardino National Forest. And Southern California is a pretty dry place to start with.
GLEICK: And in fact, they take a very substantial amount of the total flow of that spring. And that hurts that natural ecosystem. So you have to think about the specifics of where the water comes from, how much water is being extracted, where that water would go if it weren’t being bottled and sold.
GRABER: Given all of this, it seems like everyone should be drinking tap water. But we aren’t. As we’ve said, bottled water is a bazillion dollar business. So what’s going on?
TWILLEY: Is it because bottled water is safer? We’ve all seen the horrific situation in Flint, Michigan—if our pipes can’t be trusted, then maybe bottled water makes sense?
GRABER: Sometimes people complain about the taste of the water that flows from their tap. So does bottled water taste better? Is this why it’s so huge?
TWILLEY: We’ve got all the answers in our next episode, plus bottled and tap water taste tests, water sommeliers, DIY mineral water, and more. Tune back in to see who will emerge as the ultimate victor in the bottled vs tap battle of the waters.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Peter Gleick and Frank Chapelle, we have links to their books and research on our website, gastropod.com. Where you can also find the hot and heavy Evian video, I do recommend checking it out.
TWILLEY: Don’t forget to sign up to support the show so you can see Cynthia’s Farah Fawcett feathers from her glamorous elementary school years. Unmissable, in my opinion. And thanks to producer Sonja Swanson who suggested we share Cynthia’s photo, in addition to her original suggestion that we make an episode all about bottled water.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks, til then!