Bold Water

Tap Water, Bottled Water - It’s All the Same Thing

Americans like to do everything in a big way, something discomfiting to a European the minute you sit down in a restaurant. Portions are huge, “all you can eat” a favorite come-on, and refills of soda or coffee are often included in the price.

Lately, this trend has spread to water, packaged in bulk for you to take home.

As we read on the bottle’s label, we bought something with the following description: “Mineral free, sodium free. Amount per serving: Calories 0kc 0%. Daily Value (based on a 2,000 calorie diet): Total Fat 0g 0%. Sodium 0mg 0%. Total Carbohydrate 0g 0%. Sugars 0g. Protein 0g. Not a significant source of other nutrients. Caffeine free.” In other words: water. We were in fact buying tap water, but in a bottle, with the approval of a federal agency’s guidelines and with the blessings of the bottler’s marketing department, printed right next to the required information box: “good chemistry. it’s electric. H2O. fresh.”

I am repeating myself: It was really just water. But what we perceived in a Florida supermarket as a curious example of overstating the obvious, almost as a joke, has become a national obsession – and another case study of the propensity for going to the extremes.

Nobody doubts that water from any clean source is not only good for you, but necessary. The oft-quoted wisdom, however, that an adult should drink two liters per day is, according to the science author Joe Schwarcz, a myth. He reports that the National Academy of Sciences in 1945 came up with a calculation that a 2,000-calorie intake would require that amount of water per day. “How the NAS came to this conclusion is a matter of some mystery, and the eight-glasses-per-day guideline has never been scientifically validated. It has, however, become ’fact’ just by the process of repetition.”

And it has been boosted by the process of exaggeration. Bottlers now routinely recommend we drink three liters per day, possibly carrying around at least half-liter bottles with us all the time. As one can see in the streets of American – and increasingly also European – cities and towns, many people heed the call. And this despite the fact that, as Schwarcz continues, “most of the water we need is contained in the foods and beverages that we normally consume.

But such facts apparently do not get in the way of the next big thing, and that, beginning in the nineteen-eighties, was water. On a flight back from the States in 1998, I was served a little plastic cup of said liquid. Of course it did not just state that the content was water. Instead, I marveled at a tinfoil top that showed a lake, a forest, some grey-white mountain peaks and the words “Glacier Valley. Natural Spring Water.” The ensemble gave you the distinct feeling that you were about to consume something stemming from a million year old block of ice. In smaller print it read, “Spring Source and Bottled at Country Pure Foods, Inc. Ellington, CT  06029.”

Incidentally, on that flight I carried with me the New York Times Sunday Magazine. One article happened to be about water, mineral or not. And the author not only had also encountered said Glacier Valley cup – he was from Ellington, Connecticut himself. As far as he knew, Corby Kummer wrote, there were no glaciers, fir trees or big mountaintops near his town – and no particular water source either. He researched the matter and found that the water was simply pumped from the ground, close to a spare parts depot.

And that was just the beginning of his story. As it turns out, most bottled water, whether it calls itself Spring, Pure, Glacier, Alpine or whatever, is practically identical to the tap water of the community where it is bottled. Given the standards for drinking water in the U.S., both are good anyway. But good is never good enough.

There is always room to exploit the fear of consumers not to do enough for themselves. And finally, consumers – especially American ones, I would add – are afraid of encountering a variety of something rather than a predictable piece of merchandise. As a consequence of all this, U.S. bottlers have adopted ways to make sure that their water, from whatever tap or source it comes, always tastes identical; no individual character stemming from possible mineral contents shall disturb the uniformity of (non-)taste. The product is “de-ionized,” treated with ultra-violet rays, etc. As I once read on another label; “RefresheTM, Select Premium Quality, Natural Spring Water, (…) Filtered & Ozonated.” The fact that the content came from Saratoga, NY, once known for its mineral sources, was kept in very small print, as if it only disturbed.

We did not even venture into the next aisles of our virtual supermarket, the ones with all the foods representing all the fads and diets of the last few years. We are, for the present purpose, disregarding this overabundance of everything, all with claims of their health benefits and pointers to what they do not contain. Not only, as Schwarcz just said, do we have enough daily water in what we eat. We are also asked to eat a lot more than necessary. The film Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock merely exaggerated what many people in the so-called developed world and especially in America are implicitly and explicitly asked to do: Eat and drink more.

There are vehement critics of this state of affairs and voices that argue for moderation and a reassessment of the literally insatiable appetite of the American public. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser comes to mind, and Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food that sums up an intelligent triad of advice on the cover page: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But given the relative weight of a multibillion dollar industry in alliance with the public’s belief in the big & bold mantra, I am afraid such publications are just a drop in a super-sized, extra-large bucket.

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