Skip navigation Making water

1. Guzzling trouble
2. Disturbing reports
3. Waterlogged?
4. Tap=crap?

We tapped a small portion of the "water aisle" of an upscale supermarket. Most bottles do not indicate their origin, but one bottle - and the water -- came all the way from Fiji! Which water was described as "dull," or "smooth" in the Why Files taste test?


Pure drinking water has made a huge contribution to public health. How will history record the contributions of a "vitamin-enhanced water beverage"?




Gaining on wine tastings in popularity, a "water tasting" is sure to challenge the tastebuds to - well, could you distinguish well water from spring water from lake water from mineral water? Question: Which one of these discerning drinkers described a "vitamin-enhanced water beverage" as "sweet vomit?" And how do you "clear the palate" between waters?





Put your mouse over the image to look at H20's magical makeover.

POSTED MAY 22, 2003

Guzzle, guzzle, toil and trouble
As sure as spring, Americans are reaching for their water bottles. And we are not talking about battered aluminum canteens stuffed into musty canvas sacks. We are talking about an increasing amount and variety of bottled waters, merchandised in sparkling pure plastic bottles with a "lifestyle" sales pitch.

Table of variously shaped commercial bottled waters.

Take your choice of refreshing spring water. Icy-cold glacier water. Lightly flavored mineral water. Carbonated water. Fruit-flavored water. Vitamin enriched water -- even "sports water."

This latest marketing brainstorm is water sodden with cheap sweetener. Whether it's actually water, or more like sody pop, we'll leave to your imagination, but we wonder why this stuff would be healthier than Choke or Mountain Stew.

None of this stuff, neither plain-old distilled water nor the latest "vitamin-enhanced water beverage" pours from the tap at pennies per gallon. Today, in America, water has gone upscale. You don't even "drink" the elixir of life. Instead, you "hydrate" -- confident that an infusion of hydrogen atoms will boost your metabolism or supercharge your social life.

Not long ago, societies were judged successful if they could provide pure, clean drinking water from a pipe. Over the past century, civil engineers developed cheap, highly effective techniques for ridding water of parasites and contaminants. In the developed world, the engineering marvels of drinking-water supply and sewage treatment deserve credit for much of the 20th century's improvements in lifespan and health. No small achievement, either.

Group of people sample water from various bottles with labels obscured.

Canteen rolls over to bottle of water A liquid future
Nowadays, the tap is tapped out. You can't dig it to turn a spigot, but it's way cool to buy your H2O by the liter -- at prices that make gasoline look like a steal. Hydrating with designer water is all the rage in the United States, where average annual consumption is 61 liters per person, second only to Western Europe, where 93 liters go down easy.

Intent on growing their liquid assets, water and beverage companies have started dumping stuff into water. Vitamins. Herbs. Even corn syrup, the el-cheapo sweetener found in soda and other foods that seldom appear in the health-food aisle.

Question #1: How healthy is bottled water?

Is anybody checking for parasites, pathogens or contaminants?

The Why Files

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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.