Making A Splash

Bottled water is riding a wave of popularity, but is it any better than what comes from the tap?

July 24, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The new must-have accessory is a bottle of water - for the car, the jogging trail, the classroom or office, the pool or the beach.

Whether for its presumed fresher taste, its upscale, health-conscious image or simple convenience, bottled water is making big waves in the beverage business. Americans are happily paying good money for something that was once free and freely taken for granted, creating a multibillion-dollar market for bottled water.

And purveyors are asking, if consumers clamor to pay for it, why shouldn't there be more shelf space devoted to pricey H2O?

Two giants of the beverage business, PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Co., have discovered that profits from bottled water can benefit the bottom line.

According to The Wall Street Journal, both companies see bottled water as their single biggest growth opportunity. No wonder: Bottled-water sales grew by 30 percent in the United States last year, compared to a mere 0.6 percent growth for soft drinks. Consumers have made Pepsi's Aquafina and Coke's Dasani the leading bottled water brands in the country, despite the fact that both products are basically purified tap water.

Actually, much of the water sold in bottles around the world comes not from pristine springs but straight from municipal water supplies, according to a study released last year by the World Wildlife Fund. That doesn't mean Aquafina or Dasani or the others will taste like the water from your kitchen tap. The water is treated to remove "impurities" that can affect the flavor.

It is the taste, especially the consistency of its taste, that makes bottled water appealing to many consumers, according to the International Bottled Water Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that represents more than 1,200 American and international bottlers, distributors and suppliers of bottled water.

But there are other reasons for bottled water's appeal. One is the role image plays in any retail product. Consumers also are opting for bottled water because of health concerns, pointing to occasional stories about water contamination or, after Sept. 11, worries about sabotage to municipal water supplies.

By and large, U.S. drinking water is among the safest in the world. But the IBWA notes that bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as a food product and must meet the appropriate food packaging regulations, while tap water is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is treated as a public utility.

Some critics say despite government regulation of bottled water, it is not necessarily safer.

A four-year study by the Natural Resources Defense Council tested 103 brands of bottled water and found that, while most were of high quality, some contained levels of contamination - including bacteria and arsenic - in at least one sample that exceeded allowable limits under state or bottled-water industry standards or guidelines. Those findings prompted recommendations that people with compromised immune systems choose their bottled water carefully.

Groups like the NRDC and WWF stress that the only way to ensure good water for everyone is to protect the environment, and the WWF urges consumers not to buy bottled water if they have access to safe tap water. Its Web site says, "Transporting water from its source to the supermarket shelves is an expensive waste of energy. And the plastic and glass bottles add to the already-high mountains of rubbish that we produce."

Even so, consumer behavior seems to be running counter to this advice, whether for reasons of taste, convenience or image appeal. And many see the growth of the bottled-water business as largely a good thing. Bottled-water companies, retailers and restaurants like the profits this new water-consciousness generates, while nutritionists and other health care professionals like the fact that as water bottles become ubiquitous, it's easier for consumers to choose a healthy alternative to calorie- and caffeine-laden beverages.

Frances Largeman, a dietitian with Foodfit.com, says the popularity of bottled water "is a great option," and is preferable to beverages with high caffeine or calorie counts.

"I think it's fantastic because people are still drinking a lot of caffeinated beverages," she says.

"Every metabolic process in the body requires water," she says. "In hot weather you need more water. And in hot weather if you're active, you need even more."

The usual recommendation is for eight to 10 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Largeman says people who exercise should drink 8 ounces of water 20 minutes before a workout and pause for a 4-ounce drink every 15 minutes during their workout. They should drink another 8-ounces after finishing their workout.

Largeman and other nutrition experts suggest caution when looking at the new enhanced and flavored waters that have come on the market. Many of these products carry extra calories or artificial additives that outweigh nutritional benefits.

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