One of the first things that caught my attention, when I moved to the USA this spring, was the label on the bottled water (see Fig.1). To me it was unbelievable that I could not find the mineral content on the label (e.g. the major ions, as in EU). Instead, I was given completely useless information on the % fat, carbohydrate, protein, etc. At one point, this spring-early summer, I decided to get into this and find out why the label is as it is, what is the composition of the water I buy, or in general, what is the difference in the waters I can find in my shop. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I got a post-doc position, so I abandoned this mini project unfinished. Here I’ll share my already slightly outdated findings.
So, Why that label?
The label is as it is because bottled water in the US is regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as packaged food product. So, as all other packaged food products, it has the “nutrition facts” labeling. Bottled water sales are compared to the sales of all other commercial soft drinks (as in this report). And, as its “nutrition facts” label shows, it is definitely the healthiest choice. Next to the FDA regulations, bottled water should comply also with the US EPA quality regulations for drinking water. Undoubtedly, bottled water would in most cases comply with these standards, as no company would like to poison it’s customers. However, I would like to know, for example, how hard is the water I’m buying. Not having the mineral composition of the bottled water on it’s label, means that I cannot make an informed choice, based on differences in the mineral content of the many brands I can find in my local store. What is left is to chose based on branding, or advertising. Or, to go through the quality reports on the internet sites of the producers. And that’s what I did.
After I looked through the major brands of bottled water in the US, it is safe to say that they are definitely not mineral waters. Mineral water is water with Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) above 250 ppm (parts per million). Usually on the bottle there will be information about the type of water. So, next to mineral, bottled water can be:
- purified – depending on the type of purification: distilled, deionized, demineralized, and water treated with reverse osmosis; With the purified waters, what matters is the treatment process, not the source of the water. Some of the popular brands are actually enhanced purified waters, which means that after the treatment, some ions are added, so the water tastes better. Such waters can be seen as “design waters”, as their composition is following a recipe.
- sterile – haven’t seen yet bottled water in the supermarket with this kind of label, but who knows…
- sparkling – these are carbonated waters
- drinking – could be municipal water that is further treated
Details on the source(s) of the water are usually provided on the labels, however in some cases this makes little sense, as the sources are spread through few states.
After looking through some of the quality reports (which can be found on the internet sites of the producers), I have the feeling that the focus in the USA is on the “superior” treatment of the bottled water. It is normally compared to home-filtering systems, or municipal water supply. Some brands also advertise themselves as “sustainable” (e.g. Aquafina: 40% less plastic of the label size, reducing the weight of the packaging, cutting down on transport distance etc.).
Top 10 bottled water brands in the USA
According to statista.com (see Fig.2), consumption of bottled water per capita (gal/cap or l/cap) in the US is growing; For 2014, it was 34 gal/cap (about 128 l/cap). The total volume of consumed bottled water in the US was 11 billion gallons (41.6 billion litters) – a 7.4% increase from 2013 (according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), as sited here).
The Top 10 brands of bottled water (based on sales) are owned by four companies: Nestle Waters North America, The Coca Cola Company, PEPSICO, and Fiji Water. The leading brand for the last two years is Dasani with respectively 9.8% (2014) and 10.2% (2015) of the still bottled water market (see Fig.3). Right after follow Aquafina, Nestle Pure Life, Glaceau Smartwater, Poland Spring, Glaceau Vitaminwater, Deer Park, Ozarka, and Fiji. There has been some exchange of positions, and the infographic at the end of this post is based on the data for 2014.
Ah these minerals!
Apparently TDS and those magical minerals are the answer to consumers’ choices, or that’s what we are told. Looking through the quality reports by the producers, it is easy to spot statements like:
” This TDS is what gives Arrowhead brand its personality and distinguishes it from other waters.”
” The Deer Park tradition of ideal taste comes from perfectly balanced minerals…. This TDS is what gives our Deer Park Brand Natural Spring Water its personality and distinguishes it from other waters.”
“This beloved Northeast water has perfectly balanced natural mineral content, capturing the perfect taste and wonderment of Main…. A light blend of minerals contributes to the legendary taste of Poland Brand Natural Spring Water. This TDS is what gives our Poland Natural Spring Water its personality and distinguishes it from other waters. ”
“Because silica does not dissolve easily, the water from our spring sources is relatively low in mineral content, which is the reason for Ozarka’s refreshing great taste.”
” Zephyrhills Brand Natural Spring Water’s great taste is the result of rainwater percolating to the surface through limestone bedrock, which is rich in calcium carbonate and magnesium. As it surfaces, it captures these and other minerals, giving Zephyrhills Brand the highest mineral content of all Nestle Waters North America’s spring waters.”
Dasani: “… expertly designed water…“, “… with special blend of minerals for the pure, crisp, fresh taste that’s delightfully Dasani…“, and from the FAQ: “… Dasani does add variety of minerals, incl. salt, to create the crisp fresh taste you know and love. Although we are unable to disclose the exact quantities of minerals added to our water, we can tell you that the amounts of these minerals (incl. salt) are so minuscule that US FDA considers them negligible or “dietary insignificant”.”
” Aquafina’s purification system is designed to remove trace compounds like carbonates, bicarbonates, chlorides, sulfates, phosphates, nitrates, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potasium, iron, and manganese. These compounds are also refered to as Total Disolved Solids (TDS). While some of these compounds, like calcium and potasium, are necessary for your body, their minute levels in most bottled waters have no impact on health. Therefore, we remove these compounds to deliver pure water.” (from the FAQ)
Glaceau smartwater: “…We looked to the sky and saw a different way to purify water…“, “…inspired by the clouds…“, from the FAQ: “What are electrolytes and what kind are found in smartwater? Electrolytes are ionized minerals that have a charge and thus conduct electricity. The unique blend of calcium, magnesium, potasium in smartwater creates a taste that is distinctly fresh, crisp, and pure”
Anyhow, reading these and many other similar statements, I started asking myself “How different are really these waters?”
So, I did a comparison. I summarized the water analysis data from the official bottled water quality reports (see google sheets, references to the sources are provided too; all links were active on 28th of December 2015). I was planning to prepare graphs for all the elements, but my free time ran out, so I stopped at TDS. It seems to me that the reported TDS contents are fairly similar or varying too much. With the exception of five of the brands, the rest have too large of variation in TDS to claim that TDS is what makes their taste stand up. But, hey, that’s just me! Someone else may get completely different conclusion.
What’s clear is that:
1. In Europe, most of the brands of bottled water (mineral or spring waters) have one particular source. For the most popular US brands – this is not the case (see the infographic)
2. Purified and enhanced waters are popular. Which, in my opinion, doesn’t have anything to do with the taste of the water (again see the TDS comparison in the infographic)
Here is the infographic (the sales data is from 2014, for the other references click on google sheets):
picture in the heather: source