The act of drinking water seems to have become unnecessarily confusing. What is the average person to make of advertisements for “alkaline water” and discussions of “total dissolved solids?” How different can water taste? And what environmental impact do our decisions about bottled water have?
For guidance, we turned to water expert Martin Riese, who has been a certified water sommelier since 2010 and has studied water for more than a decade. He's also developed extensive water menus for restaurants, including fine-dining destination Patina and Ray’s & Stark Bar at LACMA, and regularly teaches Water 101 classes for those who want to learn more.
Riese believes it's important to educate people about the differences in water types and to bring an increased sense of value to water. “People say 'only in L.A.' about having a water menu,” he admits, “but we are wasting water like crazy in the city, and I say it’s 'only in L.A.' that we live in the desert and no one cares about water.”
From tap water to infused waters, here's the lowdown on source, taste, health and possible environmental implications of all kinds of H2O.
Los Angeles Tap Water
Providing citywide safe drinking water requires disinfecting the water to kill harmful bacteria. Over the course of the past year, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power made the switch from chlorine to chloramine (a combination of ammonia and chlorine) as its disinfectant. Chloramine is not a new treatment, but it is new to L.A. On the LADWP website, the switch is explained as an effort “to improve taste and odor, and to comply with more stringent water-quality regulations.”
The city follows legal guidelines to keep the chloramine at an acceptable level for human consumption, although chloramine-treated water is not suitable for people on dialysis or for use in fish tanks. For those who are sensitive to it or don't like the taste, chloramine presents a challenge because it's notoriously difficult to filter out. Those who do like the taste are in luck, since this is the least expensive and most eco-friendly drinking water option, unless you have access to well water.
Riese says he does taste a difference in our tap water since the switch. “The chlorine is not as overpowering now,” he says, “but I’m still not really a fan. You still can taste it, but at the same time I totally understand why they have to do it. They have to make sure it’s safe.”
Lest anyone think a water sommelier is just too fancy for tap water, Riese assures us he has enjoyed the tap water in many cities — his favorite being the tap water in Flensburg, Germany, the source of which is glacier water. Riese, who is German, points out that if you ask the best German breweries why the beer is so good, they'll say it's because of their great spring water.
Without access to glacier-fed tap water, many people in L.A. choose to use purified water for drinking, showering and even brewing. Purified water is simply water that has been processed to remove minerals and chemicals, resulting in a very low TDS, or Total Dissolved Solids, in parts per million — a measurement of the mobile charged ions in water including dissolved minerals, salts and metals. Magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium are some of the minerals commonly found naturally occurring in water, absorbed from the surroundings, along with trace elements like zinc and fluoride. Purified water that has had these minerals removed can refer to both distilled water (where water is vaporized, which leaves the minerals behind, and then condensed into water again) and heavily filtered water.
Riese is among the many experts who believe purified water is not a healthy drinking water choice. “People think it’s just clean and sounds so good for you,” Riese explains, “but it’s actually very harmful water. This water is good for machines. In Europe it's labeled ‘do not drink.’” He adds: “The body runs on minerals, that’s the reason we’re eating and drinking.” The UN's World Health Organization has published a report entitled Health Risks of Drinking Demineralized Water, which includes a warning that this water is “highly aggressive” and can leach metals from pipes and minerals from food.
Many purified-water products have a few minerals added back in to improve taste and to address health concerns about drinking “empty” water. At Intelligentsia Coffee locations, you can try reverse osmosis–filtered tap water that has been blended with water that retains some minerals — this is the water they currently use for everything from brewing coffee to the dispenser of complimentary drinking water. Many bottled water brands on the market are reverse osmosis–filtered tap water with minerals added. Coca-Cola and Pepsi long ago admitted that their water brands, Dasani and Aquafina, are filtered tap water. (Dasani bottles, for instance, are labeled “purified water enhanced with minerals” and the ingredients read: purified water, magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride, salt.) Nestlé Pure Life brand also uses municipal water and has a plant in Sacramento.
Bottled-water brands often have bottling operations in California and purchase access to the public water here. As we continue to struggle with a serious drought, the idea of shipping our water around the country and buying our own water back from corporations rankles. If filtered water is your preference, the drought provides another nudge to save money and limit pollution by filtering water at home and using refillable travel containers. However, to keep water use in perspective, the bottled-water industry accounts for less than 1 percent of the water usage in California.
Spring and Mineral Waters
If taste is your priority in drinking water, it's easy to see why spring and mineral waters are such big business. With a fascinating variety of water from all over the world, you can drink Iskilde one day, a still water with a rare mineral profile from an isolated aquifer in Denmark, and Vichy Catalan the next, a strong-tasting, naturally carbonated hot springs water from Spain that has been bottled since 1889.
It's the difference in the mineral amounts (the TDS measurement), as well as the specific minerals present, that gives each water a unique taste. Consider that Iskilde has a TDS of 426 while Vichy has an astounding TDS of 3,052. (TDS levels for a single brand can vary from bottle to bottle.) Voss, a naturally low-mineral spring water from Norway, has a low TDS of about 22.
To be labeled mineral water, a water source must have a relatively constant TDS level of 250 parts per million or higher. Spring water must come from an underground aquifer that either pushes to the surface naturally (referred to as an artesian spring) or is tapped so the water can be pumped up. The ground prevents contact with air and naturally filters many contaminants from the water while imparting minerals. Spring and mineral waters must be bottled at the source, and this water can be minimally processed to remove elements such as iron, but the bottled product must reflect the same composition as the original water.
Riese feels that many people no longer appreciate water varieties and their health properties, and he points out that everything from mineral deficiencies to overeating to headaches can be linked to dehydration and poor water choices. He traces the history of bottled water to the early popularity of healing mineral springs — when people couldn't get to the springs, bottled water brought the springs to people. Roi, a Slovenian mineral water with the highest TDS Riese has ever encountered (7,500), is labeled the most magnesium-rich water in the world (you can even see the sediment on the glass), and it has been bottled since 1647.
As for bottles, Riese prefers glass ones, which are better than plastic at protecting water and do not affect taste the way plastic can. The shelf life of a glass bottle is three years, while it's just one year for a plastic bottle.
And therein lies the catch: To enjoy these waters anywhere but their place of origin, you must buy bottles. If you want to avoid disposable bottles and pollution from bottling and shipping, tap water is the safer environmental choice (not to mention the economical one). But if you are choosing among all your bottled beverage options like juice and soda, bottled water has the least environmental cost. “Nobody is saying something about wine and beer, and those are much worse [in environmental impact],” Riese points out.
Riese is brief on the subject of alkaline water. “A pH of 7.5 or above is all it means,” he says. “It's a big marketing tactic.” Indeed, many places in L.A. — gyms, spas, juice bars, water specialty shops — offer alkaline water and propose that the high pH is beneficial to health.
Proponents of alkaline water usually argue that it's important to “neutralize” the body's pH and keep it from being too acidic. However, our bodies have more than one pH, not to mention incredible regulating systems to keep those pH levels stable.
Many mineral waters do have a higher pH than purified waters or low mineral spring waters, but some people seem to be mistakenly using alkaline to mean remineralized filtered water. Remember Vichy and Roi, two waters with extremely high mineral content? They both can have a fairly neutral pH of 6.8. Although it's easy to feel as if you need a degree in chemistry to understand the nuances of pH, it's worth noting that even doctors who are vocal supporters of alternative health treatments have debunked alkaline water claims.
Simply adding enough baking soda can make water more alkaline, while vinegar or lemon juice will make it more acidic — both of which many people drink in the form of Alka-Seltzer or lemon-infused water.
Infused Water and Performance Beverages
“When people say, 'I like my tap water when I add cucumbers,' I say, 'Great,” Riese says. “They’re drinking water, and that’s good.” But he adds, “Water already has a taste. You don’t need to add something.” That is, if you’re drinking tasty water.
If you prefer infused or flavored water, watch out for overpriced water products that are either bottled tap water with some fresh produce added — like the infamous $6 asparagus water found at a Whole Foods in Brentwood — or calorie-loaded, sugar-heavy drinks like Vitamin Water.
“You're better off making your own,” Reise recommends. “Add in some cucumber or some ginger. That’s very nice in water.”
As for performance beverages and health tonics, Riese finds that the range of natural spring and mineral waters offers enough variety to tailor his beverage choice to his hydration needs. For daily hydration he might go with a water like Fiji, but after a workout, he chooses a mineral water like Vichy, which he tells us has almost the same electrolyte level as Gatorade but no calories.