What You Didn't Know About Your Bottled Water

A guide to the basics of bottled water, spring water, tap water, and filtered water (with taste tests)
Think you know your bottled water? What's really in your bottled water (and how it's different from tap 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?

Click here for the What You Didn't Know About Your Bottled Water Slideshow

"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?"

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.) 

[slideshow: 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."

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 eating organic foods, but not about drinking organic, or chemical-free, water," she says. "Think about it — we drink more fluids than we eat food."

Click ahead to find out more about The Daily Meal's bottled water taste test. 

The Daily Meal's Bottled Water Taste Test

Brand Average Score (score out of 100)
Poland Spring 81.75
Dasani 81.25
Aquafina 78.66
Volvic 78.12
Fiji 75
Glacéau Smartwater 74.08
New York City tap water 72.92
Filtered fridge water 70.83
Maine water  67.92
Evian 67.5

 

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