Are we out of our minds to pay over 35 cents per glass for bottled water?
Published July 1, 2004. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 5: Winter Supper
It is rather baffling that a substance as fundamental and as abundant as water can form the basis of an astonishingly large business, and sales and consumption of bottled water are only expected to grow further. To meet the demand, retailers have stocked their shelves with a multitude of brands, both domestic and foreign, many donning labels that suggest pristine alpine springs or crisp, clean mountain air. That the bottles differ in labeling is clear; what is less apparent is the extent to which they differ in taste. To better understand what—if anything—distinguishes one bottled water from another, we conducted a blind tasting.
We arrived at nine brands that covered the still-water spectrum—both domestic and imported. We also included a water not expressly meant for drinking, ultrapure plasma-grade water. Used in sensitive chemistry applications, this water is double-distilled and virtually free of all minerals and impurities. We reasoned that by including in the tasting water in its near-purest form, we might gain some insight into what makes water taste good—purity or impurities, in a manner of speaking.
There are several types of bottled water, but three categories stand out: spring water, artesian water, and purified water. A bottle labeled "spring water" must contain water that came from an underground water formation that flows naturally to the earth's surface. The location of the source must be identified. The water is collected either at the spring or through a hole that has been made to tap the source that feeds the spring. Spring water is sometimes bottled without additional treatment (this is particularly true of European bottled waters), but domestic bottlers often use carbon filtration to remove odors, micro- or ultrafiltration to remove fine particles and impurities, and/or ultraviolet light or ozonation to disinfect the water.
Some producers tap several springs, bottle each separately, and yet sell all under the same brand name. This means that a bottle of brand X purchased on the East Coast may not be from the same source as a bottle of brand X purchased on the West Coast. This practice is common among domestic producers and better allows suppliers to meet demand and minimize the cost of transport. But it also means that the flavor profiles of the same brand may differ from one region of the country to another. Many European and foreign producers bottle water from a single source—and are proud of it. Of the nine brands we assembled for our tasting, six were spring waters.
Artesian water differs from spring water in that its source must be an underground formation known as a confined aqui...
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