Bottled Water: The Hoax

Watched a great Penn & Teller “Bullshit!” episode a few months ago on the bottled water industry, which confirmed what many of us already suspected: Bottled water is not more pure than tap water, nor more healthy, and the bottled water industry is environmentally nasty. Not to mention the fact that most people can’t tell bottled water from tap water in a blind taste test (in the episode, they crafted some fancy “high end” water labels and affixed them to empty plastic bottles, which they then proceeded to fill with water from a rubber garden hose in the back alley; the footage of diners at a fancy restaurant being invited to comment on the taste of the “gourmet” waters was priceless). Loved the close-up of the Dasani bottle label, which proclaims proudly “Source: Milwaukee municipal water supply.”

Because Penn and Teller cuss so much (well, Penn does), and because their shows often seem skewed or riddled with personal agenda checkpoints, I sometimes find their credibility dubious. So it’s nice to find an op-ed in the New York Times coming to exactly the same conclusions.

Nor is there any health or nutritional benefit to drinking bottled water over tap water. In one study, published in The Archives of Family Medicine, researchers compared bottled water with tap water from Cleveland, and found that nearly a quarter of the samples of bottled water had significantly higher levels of bacteria. The scientists concluded that “use of bottled water on the assumption of purity can be misguided.”

Oh, and there’s the small matter of highway robbery:

Ounce for ounce, it costs more than gasoline, even at today’s high gasoline prices; depending on the brand, it costs 250 to 10,000 times more than tap water.

Bottled water is the ultimate consumer suckerpunch, yet remains phenomenally popular. Do people simply not know it’s a consummate waste, or do they know and buy it anyway? The whole phenomenon is beyond me.

Music: Mike Watt :: Maggot Brain

19 Replies to “Bottled Water: The Hoax”

  1. One word. Convenience. Do you carry a glass for drinking water with you? Or a canteen? I don’t. A bottle of water is a handy way to get a drink that isn’t going to rot my teeth, jack up my blood sugar, or keep me up all night. It’s all about the packaging.


  2. Water bottles are a dime a dozen. Spend $3 – $8 on one and carry it with you. You’ll rarely see me at work without my Nalgene in tow (filled with 100% delicious tap water from the bathroom!), and I sure see them hanging off a lot of people’s backpacks.

  3. Convenience and choice. The catch-words of our last few decades. And regardless of consequences too.

    Let a man dare challenge somebody’s ability/right to choose something for themselves. The consequence in Australia of this is that we have massive water shortages now – but there’d be hell to pay if the government legislated that all new buildings must also plan a rainwater tank for connection to gardening, laundry, etc.

    For a country like ours with limited fresh water resources, we sure act like morons. All in the name of choice.

    And back to your own topic, doesn’t it also take large quantities of water and other substances to produce a single litre of this bottled water? Isn’t that environmentally criminal?

    But I daren’t stand in the way of consumer choice?

    Maybe living in India, watching ladies line for hours in the sun with a bucket on their heads waiting for their turn at the public water pump every two days has influenced me a little.

  4. Let’s not even mention the lack of FDA oversight for bottled water. On average, tap water is far safer than bottled water.

    Read the report at the Natural Resource Defense Council’s site. The entire report is quite elucidating.

  5. I live in the city in Australia that is widely known for it’s foul tasting tap water. I grew up in a country town, on a farm actually, and lived on rainwater for the first 16 years of my life, beore having to move up here where the universities are, and the water isn’t.

    Whilst NY water might be as nice as bottled water, I can tell you that that certainly isn’t the case everywhere. Anyone can tell the difference between tap and bottled water here. If you have a glass of tap water, you can taste and smell the chlorine well before the water reaches your mouth. I’ve trained myself to drink it (it get’s expensive if I play a game of Touch and need 2L of water, then referee two more games at 2L each…), but when I crack the lid off, I know whether the bottle I’m drinking from is from the shop, or from the tap.

  6. In Europe most bottled water actually comes from natural springs, not from the municipal water supply. It is really supposed to be better, but of course you can’t really know for sure if that is the case. In any case, areas that are used for extracting this water are usually environmentally protected, which should help.

  7. All these fancy and expensive waters coming from so-called “fresh and natural (underground) resources” in Europe… I dunno, there’s something seriously wrong in there. The marketing, the hype, the silliness… it’s all too slick. Just a gut feeling, but I simply don’t trust hyperbole marketing about a “natural product” which should easily sell itself it it really were that good. I have the same feeling about all these “rejuvenating, natural yoghurts” and stuff… All BS if you ask me.

    Another gut feeling – and this goes back as far as I can remember (even before the hype) — when I drink bottled water, I get a dry mouth. I don’t have this when I drink tap water…

  8. I’m in the same situation as Matt. In the Summer in N. Dallas, the tap water reeks. Something to do with (supposedly) harmless algae blooms in the local lakes. Stuff is downright nasty, and all the chlorine in the world can’t hide the taste…

  9. I also agree with others that sometimes bottled water *is* better than your local tap water. New York City is not a fair comparison, their tap water is some of the best in the nation. My tap water here in Colorado Springs is almost always good. However, the San Jose/Sunnyvale tap water is repulsive, and when my wife and I lived out there we drank bottled water almost exclusively. Don’t know if you’re not getting the same water where you live, Scot, because I could sure taste the difference.

    As for the whole business of bottled water being somehow safer than tap water? That’s probably just advertising FUD.


  10. Based on these responses, it’s clearly not accurate to make a blanket statement that tap water is indistinguishable from bottled, since this depends so much on the quality of tapwater where you live.

    Still, massive amounts of bottled water are consumed even in places where the tapwater is excellent.

  11. For the cheaper brands of Bottled Water, it is a Scam. Most Expensive brands are the same, but one or two expensive brands are actually alright.
    I do remember, about 18 months ago when a series of Chain Emails were doing the rounds, stating that Used Bottles had Chemicals in them which reacted to Tap Water and did nasty things to you. The Alleged Conspiracy Theory was that the email was started by Coca-Cola to encourage more people to buy “Mount Franklin” Bottled Water. (I find Mount Franklin has more Chlorine in it than Tap Water).
    I personally only buy Mizone, which is a Sports Water with only Subtle Flavours. Most Softdrink Junkies can’t stand it, and You can’t get the same taste with Dilute Cordial. When I’ve finished the 800ml Bottle, I take it home and refill it from the Brita Filter.
    Most Water-Drinkers I know also drink Mizone.
    Coca-Cola and Schweppes have both tried to emulate Mizone, but both products tasted like Sugary Urine. H2Go+ is the next best; my sister loves the Berry Flavours, l while I prefer Mizone’s Citrus.

  12. Not sure why I didn’t suggest it in my post before – but why don’t people do as Daniel does: Get a filter on your home tap?

    I’ve drunk water from all over the place. The foullest tasting was up in Gympie from memory. Water from the Ganges didn’t taste all that bad oddly enough.

    But seriously, wouldn’t that be a more environmentally conscious decision? I grew up drinking rainwater too but I can stomach the bad tastes here. One thing though – I drink tea far more than water, which probably accounts for the fact that I don’t mind the taste :)

  13. The plastic containers that most bottled waters come in may well be poisoning people. I read some article in The Independent about how it mimics female hormones and causes feminization in male animals and humans. Hmmm…when did plastics come in widespread use? And when did gays explode on the scene…

  14. Perfect example of how stupid our society is. Bottled water is nothing more than a status symbol, its a symbol of social status and healthy living, in other words you see everyone else doing it – you want to do it too. Same thing with cell phones, SUVs and tatoos. For some reason it makes people feel good about themselves knowing that they’re trying real hard to be like everyone else, only people with their heads in the sand don’t see this.

  15. We’ve filtered our tap water for a few years now and there is a notable difference in taste. I also can’t stand the bad taste of water in some restaurants I eat at. We just keep a huge Brita in the fridge and cycle about gallon a day through it typically. I agree with the convenience and packaging factor though I also agree bottled water is a scam. Just knowing that Pepsi and Coke got in on the game when they saw the global market for it kind of sums it all up to me. Also, more recently on the Blow Out show my wife watches the salon owner decided he wants to sell bottled water to shower with. What an arrogant, idiotic idea.

    My dad bought a bottled spring water company in upstate New York a few years ago. The level of filtration required is enouhg to get almost anything out of it but the salt. One problem that kept coming back once in a while was a heavy salt content some seasons that in some years caused a need to bring in other water to dilute it. And since then the company was sold off, only to discover that the salt problem was not natural mineral deposits as suspected but was really runoff from salting the roads. Yuk.

    I’ve really enjoyed most of the Penn and Teller episodes of B*llsh*t I saw. The blasts at PETA, diets, recycled paper and such were great, but the one that really drove home to me the most was the on 12 step programs and how the end result is the same number of relapses if they didn’t do 12 step. The whole 12 step thing to me, and why I could never buy into it, is that the idea of surrendering to a higher power sidesteps personal responsibility and accountablity. It undermines self esteem. It may work for some, but I didn’t make sense to me.

    I get a feeling like I get from Michael Moore when I watch Penn and Teller debunking. It’s interesting, it’s believable, they put on a good show and know how to get their point across. But I get this tingle of waryness that I know I’m being led down the path, and a slight arrogance of self-promotional indulgence that rubs me a little wrong even if it’s a good production.

  16. I am split on this discussion. Bottled water is very convenient for people on the go. And if you don’t mind paying for it, then that is your descision. I do, however, feel that it is a huge waste of money just for a prepackaged bottle of tap water. I never buy bottled water. I am used to drinking well water at home, which I believe is the best type of water there is. However, when I am living in the city on municipal water, I will use a Brita filter for my drinking water. This is a cheap alternative to bottled water that is relatively convenient . Overall, I think bottled water is just a way for big companies to make easy money. They have all of you fooled.

  17. Not only does tap water vary greatly from year to year, season to season, and treatment plant to treatment plant — the quality of the infrastructure and household plumbing vary greatly. Your kitchen sink might even have heavily leaded solder joints in the supply line — or outgassing plastic parts in the faucet.

  18. you must be kidding yourself if you think that tap water tastes just as good as bottled water ,tap water comes from a large dam and if you have lived on a farm with a dam you would know that their are all sorts of bug and animals drink and swim in that water which you are drinking. Bottled water comes from deep in the ground and is naturally filted through sandstone which gives it a clean crisp taste no you can have your tap water with all kinds of stuff in it but give me bottled water any time .

  19. @water user: You’re making huge and untrue generalizations. A LOT of bottled water brands come from municipal water supplies. And many many blind taste tests have shown that local tap water can taste as good as or better than bottled water, but this depends entirely on the location of the tap water (every city’s is different) and the brand(s) of bottled water being tested. Finally, tap water is subject to government regulations for purity and particulates, while bottled water is unregulated. As a result, many bottled water brands are less pure than tap water.

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