The Elemental Guide to Water

The Plain Truth About Fancy Water

Is there any benefit to drinking alkaline water, electrolyte-infused water, or ionized water?

This story is part of The Elemental Guide to Water, a five-part special report on the health benefits of water, the science behind seltzer, the truth about fancy H2O, the safety of tap water, and how much water you really need to drink.

Everyone has a favorite water these days.

There’s alkaline water like Bai Antioxidant Water, which claims to have a pH balance of 7.5 to help neutralize the acid in your body and ensure you don’t “throw your body out of its delicate balance.”

Hydrogen water like HFactor infuses hydrogen molecules into plain drinking water, with the promise of “easing muscle soreness and reducing lactic acid buildup.”

Coca-Cola’s Smartwater purports that its brewing process first removes all impurities from the water, then “re-mineralizes” it with electrolytes like potassium and magnesium.

Flow and Blk market their water products as non-GMO, implying that all the other water you’ve been drinking throughout your life has been riddled with genetically modified agents.

Wellness trends are typically built around the idea that the way you’re living is wrong and inefficient and that there’s a better, healthier, smarter way — if only you pick the right product. But water is such a straightforward, good-for-you “product” already. Is it really possible to build a better one? According to many experts, the short answer is no.

“Let’s use the alkaline water trend as an example,” says Tim Caulfield, author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? and an expert in health science. “Our bodies carefully regulate the pH of our blood. We can’t change our pH level through the food that we eat. Our bodies have evolved to handle this. There is no evidence that alkaline food and beverages have any health benefits. It is all just wellness woo noise.”

When held up to scrutiny, most other options in the enhanced water revolution fall flat as well.

Hydrogen water, which can cost as much as $60 for a 24-pack, has yet to hold up in a comprehensive medical study. While companies like HydrogenX claim to offer a product that increases brain functionality, improves mood, and boosts weight loss, Caulfield disagrees with each of those points. “There is no good evidence to support the claims of better health and well-being,” he says. “Companies will often reference the existence of studies, but these are usually just small or preliminary studies that haven’t been replicated.”

“Water was never broken. There was no need to fix it.”

Folding in more hydrogen molecules to a bottle of water doesn’t make much chemical sense, either. As soon as you open a bottle of hydrogen-rich water, those molecules will begin to escape the container, eventually rendering the liquid inside comparable to normal H2O. That’s not really a bad thing. Staying hydrated is good for you, no matter how many hydrogen atoms are bouncing around inside the glass.

Electrolyte-enhanced water such as Smartwater also fails to offer anything your body isn’t already getting from a normal diet. While electrolytes are required to retain hydration, nobody needs to consume extra electrolytes, unless you’ve been exercising intensely for an hour or more.

Caulfield reserves the brunt of his venom for Blk’s promise of non-GMO, gluten-free drinking water. “That is like saying sheet metal is gluten-free,” he says. There’s never been a moment in human history where we’ve supplemented our water with cereal particles, but it’s taken until 2019 for a company to use that fact as a selling point for water bottles. “It is a great example of how companies are going to great lengths to use health halos to make their water seem ‘enhanced,’” adds Caulfield.

“Enhanced” water is a trend that’s at least as old as Vitaminwater — a brand introduced in the early 2000s, equipped with a clinical label and an antioxidant-rich name that also happens to contain a comparable amount of sugar to Coca-Cola, its parent company’s namesake product.

David L. Katz, founder of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, says that consumers have a natural weakness for miracle health trends. For some reason, suspicion falls by the wayside when a bottling plant delivers a chic design and a laundry list of holistic benefits.

“Marketing nonsense is routinely accepted as reliable information,” he says. “People don’t tend to do this with other things that matter — cars, bank accounts, or even vacuum cleaners — but when it comes to nutrition, people will believe anything. That’s very unfortunate for the consumers of nonsense, but it sure is good for the sellers!”

“This marketing also leverages — and spreads — the misperception that we all need to be drinking some magical amount of water,” says Caulfield. “The ‘eight glasses of water a day’ nonsense. In reality, drink when you are thirsty.”

Caulfield adds there is one silver lining to this trend. Even if the benefits of alkaline water and hydrogen water are questionable, they’re still water, and it’s good that people are choosing water over soft drinks and energy beverages.

So is there any way to actually disrupt hydration? If not by alkaline or hydrogen or electrolytes, then by something else? Scientists aren’t holding their breath.

“Water was never broken,” says Katz. “There was no need to fix it.”

This story is part of The Elemental Guide to Water, a five-part special report on the health benefits of water, the science behind seltzer, the truth about fancy H2O, the safety of tap water, and how much water you really need to drink.

Illustrations by Shuhua Xiong

writer and reporter - Red Bull, Sports Illustrated, PC Gamer, Vice, Rolling Stone, Daily Dot, Gawker Media, Buzzfeed, Verge etc - winkluke at gmail

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