The Skinny on... Water

Today's choices include vitamin-enhanced water, flavored water, mineral water, spring water and more. We try to make the complicated world of water crystal clear.
Skinny on WaterThe Skinny On

Water is pretty much the simplest, healthiest drink you can choose to quench your thirst, hydrate your body and satisfy the occasional hunger pang. Except when it isn't. There are so many name-brand waters on shelves these days that choosing which water to sip can be trickier than deciding on an espresso beverage at Starbucks. Allow us to help by distilling all the information down to the essential news you need.

Tap vs. bottled
Turns out, bottled water isn’t necessarily better than plain old tap water. In a four-year study, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that about 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle. And about 22 percent of the brands tested had levels of contaminants that exceeded state health limits (bottled water isn’t as tightly regulated as tap water). To find out where a particular brand gets its water, the onus is on the consumer: Call the company and ask directly.

Water 101

Shopping for just plain water? Here are some of the options available at your local grocery store.

  • Artesian well water comes from layers of rock or sand underground. When the well is tapped, the pressure pushes the water to the surface.
  • Mineral water comes from an underground source that contains a specified amount of minerals and trace elements.
  • Spring water also comes from underground, but unlike artesian water, it flows naturally to the earth's surface.
  • Filtered water can be produced at home with a filter on a water spigot, a carbon-filter pitcher such as Brita, or a refrigerator that dispenses water through a filter.
  • Purified water has been treated by distillation, reverse osmosis or another process approved by the FDA.
  • Distilled water is water that has been turned into a vapor — to leave the minerals behind — and then condensed back into water.

The bottles themselves are also a potential problem. Several studies have shown that phthalates — chemicals that have been linked with hormone abnormalities — can seep from the bottles into the water. And bottles, when not recycled, create a lot of waste. In 2005 alone, 2 million tons of them wound up in landfills. They also contribute to global warming because they’re often shipped long distances — even if they contain the same stuff you can get from your own faucet.

So what’s the solution? You could opt instead to carry filtered tap water in a reusable stainless-steel bottle. If you want to know how pristine your tap water really is, call your local water company. A "right-to-know" clause in the drinking water law means your tap water supplier is obliged to give you water-quality reports.

When it comes to filtering tap water, look for a filter certified by NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International. Also be sure to follow manufacturers’ recommendations about replacing the filter — because without a functional filter, you might as well just drink straight from the tap.

Another downside to bottled waters is the expense. You can get the same great flavors for a much lower price by making your own infused waters. "One of my favorites is to add slices of lemon and lime to water; both together is very delicious," says Frechman. She also likes slices of cucumber, which she lets steep. The same goes for mint (she often mixes the mint and cucumber).

Mashed strawberries add a nice flavor too, even if they are messy. "It's more effort to go natural," Frechman says, "but it's healthier." The best part is that these infused waters can count fully toward the six glasses we're supposed to drink every day.

Vitamin-enhanced water
These claim to do everything from clear up your skin to make you skinny. Can we believe the hype? Be wary, says Linda Yerardi, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, a dietitian at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "I have mixed feelings about fortified waters," she says. "They're OK to do in small amounts. But for most of the American population, they're either giving not enough vitamins to make a difference or too much."

The lure of these waters is that they're a quick health fix for busy people. Problem is, there's no such thing as health in a bottle. "If you're deficient in a vitamin, you need to build it up over the long term," Yerardi says. "It's not like you can drink the water and assume you have everything you need."

The most important thing you can do is read the labels. Make sure it's not loaded with calories. And none of the vitamin amounts should exceed 100 percent of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI). While Weight Watchers recommends taking a multivitamin-mineral supplement daily, steer clear of supplements that contain excessive amounts of vitamins and minerals.

And what about waters touting energy boosts? They're usually laden with herbal additives or caffeine, which can disrupt sleep. Fatigue is one sign of dehydration, so regular water might just perk you up on its own.

Bottom line: Drinking fortified waters in moderation because you like the taste is one thing, but don't think about it as a move for health. Your best bet is to eat a balanced diet to get your vitamins from your food.

Flavored water
Some flavored waters contain added sugar — and added calories — while others have calorie-free artificial sweeteners or just the essence of a natural herb like mint. "When you're watching your weight, you need to read the labels to be sure you're not getting extra calories," says Ruth Frechman, registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Look at the number of servings per container (often more than one) and the calories per serving; multiply the two numbers to figure out how many calories are in the bottle. The label will also tell you exactly what it is you're drinking.

"If you drink a flavored water, you're still getting the hydrating benefits of fluid," Frechman says. "Many people tell me they don't like water, so if this is a way to make people drink more water, it's a good idea."

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