Water is basic in the best way possible: It's simple, it's unfussy, it's the only thing you don't need to weigh the merits of ordering when you go out to dinner with your friends ("The Brussels sprouts? The kale? Neither? Both! Orrrr the beets?!"). It's water. But considering there is now officially a café with a water tasting menu and such a thing as a water sommelier, it seems there's a lot more nuance to H2O these days.
Countless brands touting superior, special water have emerged in the beverage market and are growing rapidly. Let me be honest: I've always called BS on spending anything but $0 on water because filtered tap seemed ay-okay to me. Still, the more I heard about fancy water—alkaline! Filtered through reverse osmosis! Infused with charcoal! Sourced from Hawaiian volcanoes!—the more I grew curious. Are they really healthier, as they promise? Does drinking water with a higher pH level really change my body for the better? Do these things even taste good? Therefore, I decided to try a bunch of different brands of bottled water to see whether I should permanently replace my regular cup from the office water cooler with much bougier offerings from Essentia, Evamor, Core, Waiakea, 1907, or Dirty Lemon instead.
The Taste Test
Sorry to report I couldn't really taste much difference among the waters. Perhaps I just have inferior taste buds, but each bottle tasted like, well, water–definitely smoother and silkier in texture on the tongue–but nothing groundbreaking. Some standouts: Core (also my coworkers' favorite by far) had a slightly sweet taste and 1907, despite sitting in a box for a few weeks, somehow still tasted chilled. ("Magically, miraculously cooling" is a real thing I wrote in my notes. P.S.–this was another popular one among my colleagues.) The only exception was Dirty Lemon Detox, which isn't pure water, but a blend made with lemon juice, charcoal, ginger, and dandelion root. That one had a bit of a grainy consistency and tasted like extremely sour lemonade: refreshing, but it definitely leaves you puckering.
The Health Benefit Claims
All the water brands I tried highlighted high pH levels/alkalinity as a selling point. The main premise backing alkaline water is that it aids in neutralizing an acidic diet (responsible for discomfort like acid reflux). Here's a more detailed breakdown of each brand I tried:
Waiakea ($1.58, 17-oz. bottle), water filtered through volcanic rock from Hawaii and boosted with minerals and electrolytes, says the contents of its water can help strengthen bone structure, lead to "more radiant" skin, hair, and nails, prevent free radical damage, help blood flow, and regulate the body.
Core ($2.30, 20-oz. bottle), which filters its electrolyte and mineral-rich water through reverse osmosis, claims its 7.4 pH (the body's "natural pH") helps the body "effectively assimilate the vitamins, minerals, and food supplement we need to survive."
Along with those benefits presented from the brands, one frequently cited 2012 study published in the journal Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology showed that alkaline water with a pH of 8.8 deactivates the enzyme pepsin, which helps break down food and can cause acid reflux.
The Expert Says
I turned to Dr. Charles Mueller, dietitian, clinical assistant professor of clinical nutrition and director of the didactic program in dietetics at New York University, for his insight on whether different types of water make a difference in the body. "The changes in pH in water have absolutely no bearing or effect on the much more radical changes in pH that naturally exist in your stomach and duodenum," he said. "They're meaningless. Alkaline water has absolutely no bearing on any physiologic change." Dr. Mueller explained that the body is designed to regulate itself. The stomach is already lined with a mucus membrane with cells that protect it and "are resistant to an acidic load," and water reabsorption happens in the intestine, where the body naturally neutralizes content passing through by secreting enzymes. Water has its pH altered multiple times before reaching your bloodstream.
Mueller said the bottled water industry started when sodas started to decline in popularity and companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola started selling lines of water. "They're trying to one-up each other by marketing, which has no basis in science. If you market alkaline water as a dietary supplement and not a conventional food, you can say any claims you want," he said, adding that there haven't been enough clinical studies from "any of the great health care journals" (his examples: the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and The New England Journal of Medicine) to be conclusive about the benefits of alkaline water. Other doctors and nutritionists have echoed his claim, saying that "there are no substantiated health claims" surrounding the health benefits of alkaline water, "research evidence of support is underwhelming," and "alkalinization is another fad without science to support it." Even Waiakea founder Ryan Emmons has said more studies are needed to support the health benefit claims made by the brand's drinkers.
The Bottom Line
As someone who appreciates pretty packaging, these bottles certainly made me *feel* like I was doing something good for myself. Considering the shaky basis of the health claims and my underwhelming experience with drinking fancy water, however, it's safe to say you're not missing out on anything by sticking to regular filtered tap. At the end of the day you're free to chug whatever you want—drinking more water, after all, is one piece of advice health experts give over and over again—as long as you're willing to pay. As for me, I'll be over here happily quaffing the free, unbranded H2O from the office water cooler.
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