Is it really that good for you?
I had a memorable experience involving mineral water as a university student on a summer trip through Italy. I’d visited Hadrian’s Villa – a Roman-era ruin that was once the vacation spot of the Emperor Hadrian – and since my train back to Rome wasn’t leaving for several more hours, I decided to head for a nearby hillside town and catch a bus from there to the train station.
But it was a scorching hot day such as you get in July in the Roman hills, and within a mile of leaving Hadrian’s Villa I had gone through my canteen bottle of tap water, and I had a long climb up a hill in full sun before I reached the town atop the hill. As I approached the base of the town, I saw a covered area where a dozen or so women were busy hand-washing laundry over large concrete basins, and I could see water pouring down the center of the basins – it seemed to be water from an underground spring, since I could not see any spigots on the taps.
“L’aqua e potabile?” I asked them – is the water drinkable?
“Ma certo!” they laughed – of course. Then they watched eagerly as I filled my canteen with water, and took my first swig. Imagine my surprise – it was cool, bubbly mineral water, and probably the most satisfying drink I’ve ever had!
What is mineral water?
Mineral water is drinking water from a natural source that contains minerals or other dissolved ingredients; the minerals or other solutes are assumed to provide health benefits or a unique taste. In earlier times the main value of mineral waters was their therapeutic value, and people traveled great distances to bathe in or drink the waters of mineral spas. In modern times this practice has been supplanted by the more convenient practice of drinking bottled mineral waters, which many people assume provide similar health benefits without requiring lengthy trips to expensive spas. But considering there is little evidence that these mineral spas provided any health benefit (other than what the wealthy obtained there by having some pleasant R&R;), it seems odd to assume that bottled mineral waters will do you much good either.
Mineral water differs from spring water only in the level of mineral content. In theory both mineral and spring water can be either still (ie. not bubbly) or carbonated (bubbly). The US FDA defines mineral water as having at least 250 ppm of dissolved solids from an underground water source.
Some bottlers will take regular tap water, distill or otherwise purify it, and then dissolve minerals into it, and try to pass it off as mineral water. Based on the US FDA definition they cannot label the water as mineral water in the US, but in many other countries the regulations are less stringent (or less stringently enforced), and even within the US bottlers have gotten good at using marketing language (“Contains 8 essential minerals”) to create the illusion that a heavily processed form of tap water is actually mineral water.
Health effects of mineral waters
Mineral water bottlers, along with books, websites, and other media selling mineral water, make extremely vague health claims, such as that drinking 5 glasses of water daily will reduce the risk of cancers, hypertension, etc. and will flush out toxins. But there is no evidence that mineral water does a better job of this than distilled water or ordinary tap water. (Of course most websites won’t tell you that, because you can make money getting people to buy mineral water; it’s hard to make a living convincing people to drink tap water!)
In Europe especially, it’s a widely held belief that mineralized waters provide additional health benefits, over and above being less contaminated than tap water or spring water. The World Health Organization has not found any convincing evidence that justifies these beliefs. It is likely that the increasingly global obsession with mineral water is a symptom of increasingly affluent people wanting to feel well-to-do: if you can afford mineral water, you’ve come a long way, baby, so you’d better drink it to show you can afford it!
Some studies have shown weak links between consumption of mineral water and certain changes to health. For example:
- Participants in an Italian study who were given mineral water had reduced LDL and total cholesterol levels, compared to their counterparts given tap water. Researchers theorize that the increased sodium content of the mineral water may actually help lower blood cholesterol levels. The study was conducted over a nine week period so long term health effects are not known.
- Osteoperosis is a known side effect of consuming colas, which leach calcium from the bones because of their high content of phosphoric acid (that’s why you can use Coca Cola to dissolve rust!) Mineral waters, which are usually more alkaline than regular tap water, have been found to reduce calcium loss in female study participants, compared to other study participants drinking tap water.
- Some studies suggest that an alternating regimen of mineral water and tap water – three days of each, repeated – may reduce the incidence of kidney stones in those suffering from this ailment.
- One of the main issues with drinking carbonated mineral waters, or any carbonated beverages, is the effect of the carbonation on acid reflux. The dissolved CO2 in carbonated beverages can produce carbonic acid, which can increase stomach acidity levels, while the increased pressure of dissolved CO2 in the stomach coming out of solution can increase pressure on the lower oesophageal sphincter, causing it to weaken and allow acidic stomach juices to rise up toe oesophagus.
Some of the health claims you’ll find touting the benefits of mineral waters are misleading in that they draw conclusions from studies of the negative health effects of drinking demineralized water, and conclude that mineral water is the only alternative. The studies in question have shown many negative effects from drinking water that does not have any mineral content – distilled water, or water from snow melt for example. These waters tend to be much lower in mineral content than regular tap water, and there is evidence that continued intake of demineralized water can deprive the body of essential minerals, and cause other health problems. But this is pretty much the same as noting that people suffocate when they don’t have access to oxygen, so we should all be walking around with oxygen tanks!
Environmental impact of mineral waters
I find it ironic that many people drink mineral waters or other bottled waters because they’re concerned about the health impacts of environmental contaminants they imagine are contained in tap water. The bottled water companies have done a great job of creating and building up this irrational fear, and people can’t seem to see through it to the reality that bottled water is actually a big part of the problem, not the solution, and that mineral water in particular is a net negative contributor to water quality.
Consider a bottle of Evian or Perrier, for example. Assuming a 1L bottle, and assuming the plastic Evian bottle weighs about 50 grams, while the glass Perrier bottle weighs 300 grams; assuming each bottle travels by freight train roughly 700 km from its source to le Havre (a major port in the north of France), then 4700 km across the Atlantic to Halifax NS by ship, then another 1000 km or so to my town by transport truck, getting the Evian from its source to my house will consume roughly 230 ml of gasoline, or roughly one forth of the total volume of the mineral water, while getting the Perrier to me will consume roughly 286 ml of gasoline, not far from a third of the total volume. (I’m not factoring in the energy costs associated with manufacturing the bottle, doing the bottling, or driving the bottles from the supermarket to my house.) In the process, shipping the Evian will contribute 148 grams of CO2 to the atmosphere, while shipping the Perrier will contribute 183 grams. So we are busy drinking ourselves into an illusion of better health while simultaneously burning up precious non-renewable fossil fuels and filling the air with greenhouse gases.
If you are concerned about the health effects of drinking your tap water, then instead of falling for the bottled water manufacturers’ hyped up claims of health risks, I suggest you do some research into your local water supply. Ask your municipal water provider for copies of the tests they must regularly do on their treated water. Or buy a water testing kit yourself. If you’re not satisfied with the answers you get, consider home water filters before you spend your life savings on mineral waters that neither you nor the planet will really benefit from.