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Howard’s End: There’s Water & Then There’s Water

As worldwide concern mounts about water quality, fitness and health, bottled water has grown globally into a $NZ120 billion industry. John Howard writes.

Walk down a grocery aisle in most city's across the world and you'll be bombarded with a virtual tidal wave of bottled water brands.

But as the earth becomes more polluted there is now a perception that even "natural" water from a spring, well or aquifer may also be polluted because water readily absorbs things like minerals, salts and other "flavours." Even the choice of water container is very important.

However, perhaps because of the simplicity of water and the perception that bottled water could be little more than tap water, it is one of the most regulated of global food products.

Nevertheless, it's very important to read the label on the bottled water you purchase because not all bottled water is equal.

Bottled waters can be variously labelled drinking water, mineral water, purified water, spring water, sparkling water, artesian water, glacial water and well water. Each of them has different characteristics.

For example, the United States Food and Drug Administration, arguably the leading authority on water standards, defines mineral water as bottled water containing no less that 250 parts per million total dissolved solids and may be labelled as mineral water.

Mineral water is distinguished from other types of bottled water by its constant level and relative proportions of minerals and trace elements. No minerals can be added to the product.

"Spring Water" is defined as water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth and it must be collected only at the spring or through a bore hole tapping the underground formation.

Where controversy exists is over boreholes which some bottlers use by drilling nearby springs. So water from a borehole must have identical chemistry to the spring water and the spring must continue to flow even with pumping water from the same aquifer.

On the other hand, European bottlers using bore holes do not see the necessity to maintain a flow from the spring and that has been the source of a raging debate at the CODEX standards meetings in Switzerland.

Some European bottled waters do not meet the US standards and cannot be sold there.

Then there's water labelled "purified." This is water that has been produced by distillation, deionisation reverse osmosis or other suitable processes.

Clearly, then, we should carefully read and understand the labelling of bottled water before making our purchase because in the nutrients facts panel some bottled waters have a lot of zeros for fat, carbohydrates and proteins.

It seems to me that the nutrients panel space would be of more use to consumers with an analysis of what is in the water - rather than what is not.

Most consumers would like to know where their bottled water actually comes from and they should be given the information about the spring and its location.

After all, springs are an important point of difference between the brands and source disclosure and location should be a requirement.

A German water scientist friend recently told me that New Zealand has to be "just the luckiest country in the world when it comes to water."

She said on the West Coast, with no measurable air pollution, crystal clear atmosphere and high rainfalls, the water must be among the purest in the world. That claim is about to be tested.

But it's another story when water actually hits the ground because, like in every other place in the world, the water may have to be treated for things like giardia and e.coli bacteria before drinking.

She said there is less than 1% of the total of the earth's water that is available for human consumption.

Apparently, 97% of the earth's water is too salty and can only be used if processed by desalinisation plants. A further 2% is not available because it is polluted or part of the ice caps.

The human body contains over 75% water. It is the transport system which moves nutrients around the body as well as carrying waste out of the body. Water also breaks down food, keeps out body temperature balanced and helps our skin to remain elastic.

We can live for weeks without food but only a few days without water. Some doctor's say we should be drinking eight glasses of water each day to detoxify our body and to prevent dehydration - attributed as one of the causes of many modern ailments.

Film stars like Tom Hanks, Cybil Shepherd, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Elizabeth Taylor all have a passion for bottled water. Jack Nicholson even smuggled a one litre bottle into the recent Oscar's where beverages were not allowed. Rachel Welch washed her hair in it and Michael Jackson bathes in it.

Bottled water with a twist of lemon or lime is a favourite and sparkling water with a dash of bitters is a good alternative to alcohol for designated drivers.

Can we be confident and feel secure when buying bottled water? The simple answer is yes.

But knowing what you are buying requires some research along with scrutiny of the label and understanding the nuances of the words on the labels.

Armed with proper information, we can then make an informed purchase decision on our next visit to the supermarket.


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