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Demystifying Water

America’s most popular beverage is unexpectedly complex.

By Jan Walsh 

Photography by Beau Gustafson


I grew up drinking water from the tap. I also drank from the water hose on a hot, summer day. But I no longer drink tap water because I do not know what is in it. 

Although I bought a whole house water filter, even it can’t filter fluoride. I am also concerned about pharmaceutical residues and other hormone disrupting chemicals in drinking water. Although these chemicals are not regulated, studies have shown that they are showing up in trace amounts in tap water. According to the National Sanitation Foundation, there is currently no testing available to measure the potential ability of home water treatment systems to reduce pharmaceuticals. So I not only avoid drinking tap water, I also wash food, cook in, and give my pets bottled water. 

I am not alone. In 2016 Americans bought 12.8 billion gallons of bottled water, up almost nine percent from 2015, according to Beverage Marketing, a research and consulting company. This is 400 million gallons more than the 12.4 billion gallons of carbonated soft drinks consumed. Ditching the GMO sodas for bottle water is a smart move. 

But more than half of all bottled waters are only tap water in a bottle. The EPA regulates tap water but only to your curb. If you have old pipes or other means of contamination on your property, you can’t rely on their reports for what is in your tap water. The FDA regulates the bottled water industry. But it does not require bottled water companies to provide much information on their labels nor does it require them to publish water quality tests. And all water is not equal. Waters have differing amounts of calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. And they come from different sources, resulting in differing flavors. 

The FDA established standards which define waters by type: Artesian, Mineral, Purified, Sparkling, and Spring. Artesian water comes from a well tapping a confined aquifer (layers of porous rock, sand and earth containing water) where the water level stands above the top of the aquifer. Mineral water contains more than 250 parts per million total dissolved solids originating from a protected underground water source, with constant levels and relative proportions of minerals and trace elements at the source. No minerals may be added to the water.
Purified water is produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis, or another process that meets the definition. Sparkling water contains the same amount of carbon dioxide in the bottle or can, after treatment and possible replacement of carbon dioxide that it had when it emerged from the source. Spring water may be collected at the spring or through a borehole. It is defined as any water that comes to the surface.

The Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting is the world’s most prestigious water tasting. It rates waters for clear appearance (or slightly opaque for glacial waters), lack of aroma, clean taste, light mouthfeel, and aftertaste. I do not find it difficult to find many great tasting waters. But their labels tell little of what’s inside or their source because the FDA does not require it. Thus I am more concerned with the water’s quality—cleanliness and safety—as well as the possible contamination from its plastic vessel. This has led me to only buy water in glass vessels and cans that can be reused or recycled. And there is a regional option that has won gold and silver Berkley Springs International Water Tasting accolades and meets my demand for water quality. Arkansas’ The Mountain Valley Spring Water has been bottled at the same spring source, in the Ouachita Mountains, since 1871. This spring is surrounded by 2,000 acres of protected forest. It was the first bottled water to be distributed from coast to coast in 1928. The Mountain Valley Spring Water offers spring and sparkling waters, and flavored waters, in glass bottles and in recyclable plastic. And it has local, Birmingham metro delivery of its 2.5 and 5 gallon jugs and other bottles. Visit MountainValleySpring.com for their quality report and local delivery information. 


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