Bottled Water and Vitamin-Enhanced Beverages: The Real Story

Basket of Vasa Bottled Water (2 of 3) - Starbucks

“The beverage industry has proven to be the cornerstone of the functional food revolution. Beverages are ideal platforms to deliver health [and] wellness, and in most cases [they] provide both experiential and convenient benefits to consumers,” says Peter Leighton, a recognized leader in both established corporate and start-up ventures with a focus in consumer products, biotechnology, nutraceuticals, functional foods and human nutrition, and subject-matter expert consulting through

The bottled water industry, specifically, makes a significant contribution to the U.S. economy. A 2009 study sponsored by the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) found that the industry contributes just under one percent of GDP, or $129.1 billion in output, including salaries and benefits, federal, state and local taxes and state sales taxes on the consumer side.

Bottled water sales slumped in 2008 and 2009 during economic low points but rebounded in 2010. Reports indicate a 4.5 percent increase in sales between 2009 and 2010.

Purified tap water makes up 59% of bottled water available, according to Unesco. The remaining 41% of bottled water is comprised of spring water and mineral water. Purified water comes from public sources, and is sometimes put through additional purification processes before being bottled and sold to the public.

Spring water is water collected from an underground spring flowing to the surface of the ground.  Interestingly, you may have purchased two different brands of bottled spring water that have actually come from the same spring. Mineral water also comes from underground, and contains a consistent level of minerals and other elements. Bottled mineral water has not been purified, processed, or added to in any way.

Artesian water does not make up much of the bottled water on the market. It’s worth mentioning, however, because Fiji water, found to have high levels of bacteria in one study, is Artesian water. Artesian water comes from a well that taps an aquifer. Fiji water, according to New York magazine, comes from tropical rain.

Major beverage brands have taken advantage of the bottled water trend and have developed their own brands of bottled water. Aquafina, picked frequently by critics as the best flavored water, is owned by Pepsi. Coca-Cola owns Dasani water, and Dr. Pepper/7 Up has its own brand of bottled water, known as Deja Blue. Nestlé, although not specifically a beverage brand, markets several popular brands of bottled water, including Deer Park and Poland Spring.

Why Choose Bottled Water?

There’s no disagreement among experts that water, in general, is good for the body. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services recommended Americans drink more water in their 2010 dietary guidelines, and according to (The official website for the International Bottled Water Association):

“Water is the single most abundant substance in the human body, making up to 60 percent of an adult’s weight and up to 80 percent of an infant’s weight.


A person can live several days without food, but just a few days without

water. Like air, water is essential to life.


Because water is so important, health and nutrition experts recommend

drinking at least two liters of water each day. This makes bottled water a

convenient way to help ensure that enough water is consumed at home,

work or wherever a person may be.”

According to Mike Brunett, former VP of Manufacturing for Coca-Cola Refreshments in its largest division in the U.S., “The bottled water category (now largely supplied from municipal sources or private wells) is the only category within the multiple beverage category that competes with a free and at face value, equivalent product for a consumer (e.g. tap water). The fundamental difference that has attracted consumers into the bottled water category and away from tap water boils down to two differences though: taste and convenience. Consumers have voted over the past 20 years using these two differentiators and consequently the bottled water category has grown in per capita consumption in the early 1990s from 9.0 gallons to now a figure north of 30 gallons.” Brunett, who offers consultations as a subject-matter expert through, currently owns Manufacturing Solutions, LLC.

A 2011 report issued by the IBWA says that consumers choose bottled water for taste, convenience and quality. Most Americans who consume bottled water also consume tap water, depending on the circumstances, suggesting that bottled water’s primary appeal may be convenience. Bottled water is considered more portable than tap; while the same convenience can be obtained by filling an empty bottle with tap water, most consumers don’t take the time to complete this added step.

Further, bottled water is a safe alternative when public water sources are compromised due to natural disasters and has been credited with coming to the aid in crisis situations. In developing countries, public water sources are rarely safe, and bottled water is often the only safe supply of drinking water available. U.S. consumers consistently report the belief that bottled water is safer and often have strong loyalties to their favorite brands, much like the enthusiasm for certain brands of carbonated beverages.

Bottled Water vs. Tap: A Healthy Alternative, or Consumer Psychology?

When asked, most consumers will say they choose bottled water for its taste, but in blind taste tests, tap water consistently ranks average or better compared to the top bottled water brands tested. discusses results of a number of blind taste tests, all of which have similar results: Consumers can’t tell the difference between bottled water and tap when they’re not identifiable through packaging. Further, hosts of Penn & Teller: Bullshit pulled off an interesting guise by having a water sommelier hand out water menus at an upscale Southern California restaurant. Patrons were willing to pay $7 per bottle for what they thought were fancy brands, oblivious to the fact that each and every premium bottle had been filled with the restaurant’s own tap water from the kitchen.

Results are quite different when consumers can identify what they’re supposed to be drinking. Consistently, tasters will choose bottled brands over tap if they’re not blind to the source. attributes this phenomenon to something akin to self-actualization: Consumers think bottled water tasted better, because it’s supposed to taste better.

In the consumer’s eye, bottled water is perceived as a healthy alternative to municipal water sources. Expert analysis has found higher levels of bacteria in some bottled water brands in a direct comparison to tap. However, the IBWA maintains a firm stance that the bottled water industry is heavily regulated and all bottled water must comply with strict state and federal regulations. According to the IBWA, bottled water undergoes a multi-barrier approach to ensure safety and minimize contamination, including one or more of the following:

  • Source protection
  • Source monitoring
  • Reverse osmosis
  • Distillation
  • Micro-filtration
  • Carbon filtration
  • Ozonation
  • Ultraviolet (UV) light

A 2010 study undertaken by researchers from Ccrest Laboratories in Canada evaluated microbiologic levels of samples from various supermarket brands of bottled water and found that 70% of the bottled water samples exceeded heterotrophic bacteria recommendations from the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), which suggests levels of less than 500 colony-forming units (cfu) per millimeter in drinking water. A number of the samples tested were found to contain heterotrophic bacteria levels at 100 times the recommended limits.

While some tests indicate that bottled water contains higher levels of bacteria than tap water, most test results show that there is no difference between the two in terms of health or safety. Tap water is, however, held to stricter testing regulations than bottled water. Scientific American reported that while tap water must be tested more than 100 times each month for coliform bacteria, bottled water plants are only required to test for this bacteria once per week.

A mere 30% of bottled water is regulated by the FDA, however, bottled water manufacturers are required to clearly label the bottle with the water source. If the bottle says that the water comes from a municipal source or from a community water system, the water is simply tap water in a bottle. Some brands do put the water through additional purification processes, although some do not.

Despite many brands being purified tap water, bottled water is significantly more expensive than tap. Fine reports that bottled water was a $22 billion industry in 2007, with Americans spending about $10,000 per minute on what they believe is the best tasting and healthiest water available. Prices range from 79 cents per gallon to more than $6.82 per gallon, which is up to 10,000 times more expensive than tap water.

According to other experts, the relative health or safety of a given brand of bottled water depends on its source and how committed the company is to safety. James B., a Zintro subject-matter expert with more than 15 years in the premium beverages industry (including beer, spirits, wine, water and soft drinks), says, “Bottled water can be completely different from tap water, everything depends on what brand/source we’re talking about! Bottled water can come from a municipal source but there are restrictions. The main difference between two waters is the components like Na+, Mg2+, SO3…and the fact that a specific water can content a low level of minerals.”

But are we wasting our time and energy trying to end the debate of bottled water versus tap in terms of health? Mike Brunett, subject-matter expert for, thinks so: “The matter of tap or bottled water being healthier or safer (although a lightning rod issue for the last two decades) is in many ways, misguided energy. Notwithstanding a ‘boil water order’ issued from a municipality, both public and bottled water are safe alternatives for hydration. The issue at play however is not a matter of food safety but one of taste and portability. It is difficult to take your kitchen sink to the beach. Conversely, a chilled bottle of water in a convenience store point of sale, offers immediate value for healthful hydration to a consumer.”

In essence, any water from a credible source is worth drinking and is a healthier alternative to sugary or carbonated beverages, whether you choose bottled water for convenience or taste preferences, or you prefer to transport municipal water in a reusable water bottle.

Ecological Impact of the Bottled Water Industry

The IBWA reports that the bottled water industry maintains a strong commitment to environmental protection, stating that bottled water waste contributes to about .33 percent of the country’s total waste. The rate of recycling of the PET plastic used in most water bottles is also on the rise, with about 31 percent of PET plastic being recycled. This rate has doubled during the five-year period between 2004 and 2009. In comparison, about seven percent of total plastic waste is recycled.

One area of growing concern to consumers is the use of BPA (bisphenol-A) plastic that is frequently used for products like baby bottles and in other hard, clear plastics meant for reuse. The primary issue surrounding BPA is the possibility that the plastic could leech harmful chemicals into foods and beverages, although this has not been proven conclusively.

The soft, disposable plastics typically used for bottled water don’t usually contain BPA; instead, they’re often made with PET plastics, which don’t pose the same concerns as BPA.  Zintro expert Mike Brunett says, “Although the evidence on bisphenol A migration is yet to be conclusive and further studies have had variable results regarding the safety of BPA consumption, the industry has recognized this as a consumer concern. One of the larger players in this category has recently switched plastics material from polycarbonate, (the perceived underlying culprit to BPA) to PET plastic. Time and more studies will be needed and although the science may never be fulfilled here, consumer preference and market movement may be the ultimate forces that change the landscape in this area.”

Beyond BPA, the primary ecological concern surrounding bottled water is landfill waste contribution. Brunett elaborates:

“Unfortunately, there is no greater iconic symbol for unsustainability than an empty bottle of water seen as litter. This is in large part, a double-edged sword the category faces due to its widespread consumer popularity/growth, smaller usage of the larger reusable home and office containers and the fact that in the U.S., recycling has not achieved critical scale yet. Regardless of these dynamics, the larger companies in this category do understand the vital importance of providing sustainable alternatives in their packaging. This is illustrated through:

  • Reduction of mass in packaging where over the last 10 – 15 years, 50-60% reductions in plastics weight have occurred across the major players (e.g. Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and Nestlé Waters North America).
  • Support of Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPR) for recycling (Nestlé Waters North America).
  • Recycled content where the major players have implemented or have committed to immediate to short term recycled content levels anywhere from 10 – 25% in their containers (e.g. Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and Nestlé Waters North America).
  • The use of bio-based resins from renewable feedstock (i.e. sugar cane and switch grass) exemplified by Coca-Cola’s newest PlantBottle® launch in early 2011 that uses 30% PET from renewable plant feedstock. Pepsi-Cola subsequently announced the launching of a 100% plant feedstock bio-based bottle.

“Given the more recent consumer scrutiny over the sustainable nature of bottled water, the industry has responded in hyper-drive and on multiple fronts to demonstrate their corporate commitments to improve their sustainability and reduce their carbon footprint. These measures have included:

  • Stated water use ratios in corporate websites that range in the 1.5 – 1.6 liters of total water used for every liter of finished product produced (Nestlé Waters N.A. and Coca-Cola). Pepsi-Cola reported a 19.5% reduction in water use intensity against 2006.
  • Reduction in carbon footprints (i.e. Coca-Cola Enterprises has committed to “Reduce the overall carbon footprint of our business operations by 15 percent by 2020, as compared to our 2007 baseline” from its 2009 Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (CRS) report). Pepsi-Cola has also committed to a 25% reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) in U.S. operations in their 2010 annual report and Nestlé Waters North America reports a 12% overall reduction in GHG from 2006 through 2009 from their website.
  • Significant reduction in mass of primary and secondary packaging materials coupled with furthered movement into higher levels of recycled content in PET (rPET).”

Raghavendran Badrinath, subject-matter expert at and Director and Owner at Vincent, a Real Estate and Food and Beverage research and consulting firm founded in 1994, notes that the ecological responsibility technically falls into the hands of the consumer. While manufacturers can make efforts to produce packaging that is environmentally-friendly in terms of using recycled materials, it’s ultimately up to the consumer how he or she disposes of an empty water bottle.

Enhanced Beverages: Super Water?

If standard bottled water is a safe and convenient alternative to municipal tap sources, what about the vitamin-enhanced “super” waters we now see populating the shelves of grocery stores across the country? Are these vitamin-enhanced waters better for the body or the brain than plain bottled or tap water?

Again, the answer lies in consumer choice: These enhanced beverages often offer value-added vitamins and minerals, although not such that cannot be obtained through another source, such as healthful foods. That said, critics have attacked the enhanced-beverage industry with research demonstrating the sugar content of these beverages is often akin to their less-healthy counterparts: Carbonated soft drinks.

Consumers, whether the result of advertising or personal choice, sway a different direction, demonstrating a strong preference for plain water’s flavored counterparts.

Further complicating matters is, of course, the individual brand. expert Mike Brunett says, “Glacéau’s smartwater® has no sweeteners – it is a vapor distilled water product with a special formula of minerals added to the base water. Glacéau’s vitaminwater® on the other hand is sweetened with crystalized fructose and sucrose while the zero calorie ‘vitaminwater® ZERO’ has no artificial sweeteners, but is instead sweetened with Truvia and fructose, a natural fruit sugar. The amount of fructose used does not hit the radar though to even register one gram of sugar on the nutrition facts label.”

Andrew Phillips, subject-matter expert for with more than 15 years  experience as a GM and Vice President in the value-added food business, says of the difference between enhanced waters and carbonated soft drinks, “There is usually a significant reduction in the sugar content and type of sweetener (HFCS versus pure), and yes, reduced sodium, the addition of nutraceuticals for whatever product position is desired, will always trump [carbonated soft drinks].”

In comparison to sports drinks, such as Gatorade©, Phillips says, “Usually a sports drink is heavy in sodium and potassium, and pretty much belly-wash (cheap to make). The ingredients in a vitamin-enhanced beverage are usually more expensive, since you are loading up the blenders, losing a lot in processing and the retention of the formula over shelf life due to the packaging medium.”

Peter Leighton, subject-matter expert, notes, “One segment of the functional beverage category is vitamin-enhanced and zero-calorie beverages. Developing these products requires substantial expertise in terms of formulation, nutritional science, regulatory review, manufacturing and marketing [and] distribution. As companies look to deliver healthier products, and products which provide greater functional benefits, the market has proliferated with these types of beverages. In fact, much of the beverage industry growth is driven by these products. Yet a vitamin-water or zero-calorie beverage may not be much healthier than a carbonated soft drink. The use of certain sweeteners, artificial ingredients and other active constituents can negatively affect the profile of the product. However, consumers usually perceive these products to have an added health benefit. The ability to deliver clinically proven health benefits is often harder to do in reality, and in many cases the addition of bioactive compounds requires significant research, formulation work and often a specific regulatory designation (which brings additional legal requirements).”

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