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Water on the Brain

An exploration of the bottled-water phenomena

August 12, 2008, 12:00 am

By Michelle Nijhuis

Journalist Elizabeth Royte drinks tap water, but she spends a lot of time thinking about the bottled kind. In her new book, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, Royte investigates the causes and consequences of the bottled-water business’ astounding growth. With her refillable water bottle in hand, Royte travels to Fryeburg, Maine, where a water-pumping operation for Nestle’s Poland Spring label divides the town.

In the course of her research, she also tastes fancy bottled waters with a water connoisseur, monitors her 8-year-old daughter’s water intake and conducts an informal poll of friends and acquaintances, asking whether they know where their tap water comes from. “Most people, even those who knew exactly how many miles the arugula on their plate had traveled, had no idea,” she writes.

We caught up with Royte to talk about hydration myths, anti-bottle mayors, and the very dubious connection between bottled water and better yoga poses.

SFR: Twenty years ago, you write, bottled water was a niche market in the US. Today, it’s a more than $10 billion business. What the heck happened? Why did Americans start drinking so much bottled water?
ER: The simplest reason is marketing. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on advertising that either told us explicitly or implied that bottled water was better. [Bottled-water companies] used words like pure and natural, and used images of athletes and models and celebrities—the advertisements were aspirational, they told us we’d be more like these people if we drank this product.

While this marketing juggernaut was going on, there was also, until quite recently, a total absence of criticism. There was no competition from tap water, because utilities don’t have their own marketing budgets or ad budgets to tell us, ‘Tap water is great! Drink more tap water, and you’ll be thin, and look more beautiful, and do better yoga poses.’ So on the one hand you had this tremendous force trying to persuade us that bottled water was better, and on the other there was no criticism of that message.

Some of the ads criticized the quality of tap water.
Yes, they’d let us know that this was the same water used to flush toilets. But I have to say that there are places where bottled water makes sense to many people. It doesn’t help that there are hundreds of thousands of [municipal] water-main breaks a year [in the United States], and whenever a water main breaks you get a boil water alert. In today’s day and age, ‘boil water’ means ‘buy water.’

Do we really need as much water as the ads claim—should we conscientiously be drinking eight 8-ounce glasses every day?
That was another part of the marketing. It was very clever of advertisers to tell us to drink more water—Pepsi actually spent $20 million on an award-winning campaign for Aquafina that just said, ‘Drink more water.’ No one has found the definitive source [for the eight-glasses advice]. Some people point to a report from the National Research Council in the 1940s that said that the average adult needs to drink what works out to 64 ounces of water a day—but in the next sentence, it said that most of that water can come through the foods that we eat.

Fruits and vegetables contain a lot of water, and I was told recently by [nutritionist] Marion Nestle that meat contains 40 percent water. Pasta and rice are two-thirds or more water by weight. But the bottled-water campaigns just told us to drink more water, and that’s why portability became so important. If you’re going to drink all that water, having it in a nice neat plastic bottle is crucial.

So is there a consensus among nutritionists about how much water you actually need to drink?
Nutritionists that I’ve talked to say that if you’re physically active, yes, you do have to hydrate, you do have to drink more—they’re hesitant to tell you to drink less.

And the elderly have to be reminded to drink more, because when you’re old the sense of thirst is one of first senses to go. But there’s no sound medical basis that we have to drink that much water—doctors basically say to drink when you’re thirsty.

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