Know the Facts About Bottled Water

Janis Hunter,
Home & Garden Information Center

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Water is the perfect beverage. It is calorie-free, sugar-free, fat-free, cholesterol-free and sodium-free or low-sodium.

Amount Consumed in the U.S.

Although tap water is less expensive than bottled water, sales of bottled water have more than quadrupled in the last 10 years. In 2009 over 8 billion gallons of bottled water were consumed in the United States, according to the International Bottled Water Association. Bottled water is the second leading beverage in sales behind sodas.

Reasons Consumers Choose It

Consumers choose bottled water for its convenience, taste and perceived health benefits. They have the perception that bottled water is “purer” and “healthier” than tap water. However, bottled drinking water sold in the United States is not necessarily cleaner or safer. In fact, most of it comes from the same municipal water supplies as tap water. The National Resources Defense Council (1999) reported that 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water—sometimes further treated, sometimes not.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) generally sets more stringent quality standards on local water treatment plants than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) places on bottled water. Researchers have found that some bottled water products may contain up to10 times the amount of bacteria found in municipal tap water.

Some families regularly use bottled water in infant formula, to prepare family meals, and as their primary source of drinking water. Most bottled water does not contain fluoride (required of tap water); therefore, public health officials are concerned that this may be linked to the increase of cavities among youth.

Types & Sources

All drinking water comes from similar sources that we can see (e.g. rivers and lakes) or sources we can’t see (e.g. underground aquifers). Some bottled water is classified by its source.

  • Artesian Well Water: This water comes from a well tapping a confined aquifer (layers of porous rock, sand and earth that contain water). When tapped, the pressure in the aquifer pushes the water above the top of the aquifer, or the water may be brought to the surface by other means.
  • Mineral Water: Mineral water comes from a geologically and physically protected underground water source and contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids. Minerals and trace elements must come from the underground water source and cannot be added later.
  • Spring Water: Derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface at an identified location, spring water must be collected only at the spring or through a bore hole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring. When an external force is used to collect water through a borehole, the water must have the same composition and quality as the water that naturally flows to the surface. Spring water is no guarantee of safety, since springs can be contaminated just as easily as any other ground water source. If the location of the source is not listed on the label, “spring water” could be tap water with minerals added to improve taste.
  • Naturally Sparkling Water: Sparkling bottled water must come from a natural carbonated spring. It is water that, after treatment and possible replacement of carbon dioxide, contains the same amount of carbon dioxide that it had at emergence from the source. Sparkling bottled waters may be labeled as “sparkling drinking water,” “sparkling mineral water,” “sparkling spring water,” etc.
  • Well Water: This is water from a hole bored or drilled into the ground, which taps into an aquifer.

Other terms, such as “mountain water” or “glacier water,” are not regulated standards of identity and may not mean that the water is from a pristine area.

Treatments of Municipal Water

Bottled water that comes from municipal sources (the tap) is usually treated in one of the following ways before it is bottled.

  • Distillation: Steam from boiling water is recondensed and bottled. This kills microbes, removes natural minerals and gives the water a flat taste.
  • Reverse Osmosis: Water is forced through membranes to remove minerals.
  • Ozonation: Ozone gas, an antimicrobial agent, is used to disinfect the water instead of chlorine, which can add residual taste and odor to the water.
  • Absolute 1 Micron Filtration: Water flows through filters that remove particles larger than 1 micron (.00004 inches) in size, including Cryptosporidium, a parasitic pathogen that can cause gastrointestinal illness.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) Light: Water is passed through UV light, which kills most microbes, depending on dosage applied.

After bottled water has been treated, it may meet FDA’s standards that allow it to be labeled as “purified water” or “sterile water.” That means it has been processed to remove chemicals and pathogens, yet may or may not be free of microbes.

Labeling

To understand what you are buying, carefully read the label on bottled water. Labels contain most, but not all, of the following items. For additional information, contact the bottler directly.

  • name of product
  • type and/or source
  • volume of water (net content)
  • treatment method
  • contact information for the manufacturer, packer or distributor
  • pertinent nutritional claims

Bottled water may contain flavors, extracts and essences derived from spices or fruits, provided these additions are less than 1 percent by flavor limit. It may contain safe and suitable antimicrobial agents and fluoride within the limits set by FDA. Bottled water cannot contain sweeteners or chemical additives and must be calorie-free and sugar-free.

Beverages labeled as containing sparkling water, seltzer water, soda water, tonic water or club soda are not bottled waters under FDA’s regulations. They are considered soft drinks, regulated separately and may contain sugar and calories.

Emergency & Short-term Uses: Bottled water is valuable in emergency, short-term situations when a private well is contaminated or when the public water supply is temporarily unsafe (e.g. after a flood, earthquake or other publicized contamination problem.

People with weakened immune systems (e.g. from chemotherapy, transplant medications or AIDS) or other specific health conditions may choose high quality bottled water, because they need to take special precautions with the water they drink due to vulnerability to microbial contaminants in drinking water. Other alternatives include boiling drinking water for a full minute or using a point-of-use filter (e.g. a filter using reverse osmosis or one labeled as “absolute one micron filter” or certified by an American National Standards Institute). In addition, people with weakened immune systems should consider the safety of water used for brushing teeth, making ice cubes, washing fruits and vegetables and preparing meals.

Others who choose bottled water include pregnant women or families with children in areas where lead or nitrate content of municipal tap water is a concern.

Safe Storage Tips: Store bottled water in a dry place, out of direct sunlight, and away from volatile chemicals (e.g. cleaning compounds, paints and gasoline). Consume bottled water by the expiration or “use by” date. If you use a water cooler, clean and sanitize it regularly according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

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