One of your friends buys carbonated water by the pallet, another swears by the benefits of mineral water, and another complains that it is all marketing hype. Your mom won’t touch anything that isn’t branded as “purified spring water,” but your partner will refill their glass water bottle out of the tap anytime, anywhere. With all of these bountiful options, what truly is the best water to drink? Is there even such a thing? Let’s find out!
What are the Different Types of Water?
The water we all consume generally comes from private wells, municipal water systems, or natural springs. Each of these sources will contain a unique amount of dissolved minerals, bacteria, and other microscopic content that makes the water distinct. It's worth noting that much of our drinking water is treated to affect pH balance, remove potential pathogens, and improve taste. Each water source whether it be a natural spring or municipal system offers a unique mineral profile.
Here are some common types of drinking water and the differences between them:
Tap water is the water you draw straight from the faucet. It is sourced from nearby dams, rivers, and reservoirs, and it gets to your tap by traveling through a network of pipelines. Tap water is used for most household purposes, including cleaning, cooking, and washing, and it is the most common type of water consumed in American households.
In most cities, tap water is regulated by the local municipality to ensure that potentially harmful substances like lead are not entering the local supply for residents. If you own your home, you may receive a report from your district with their annual water quality results. You can also gain access to these tests as a renter, you will simply have to request the public records.
Thanks to (what remains) of our environmental safety regulations, tap water is safe (generally speaking). But it is not pure. Tap water is usually treated with fluoride as a means to protect tooth enamel. Many people are opposed to water fluoridation, which has been a regular practice in the United States since the 1940s and is a separate conversation altogether.
In addition to fluoride, tap water contains many trace contaminants that are deemed safe under EPA standards (but still worrisome). This includes pesticide residue, aluminum, plastic, microplastic particles, and other metals. Also, just like public swimming pools, tap water is commonly treated with chlorine. Chlorine is added to water to kill bacteria. Although our bodies can handle it in small doses, ingesting chlorine regularly can lead to a variety of health conditions including gut complications, and cancer.
Research shows that the majority of plastic bottled water on the market is simply repackaged tap water – these companies often use predatory marketing tactics with buzzwords like “natural water” and “pure water”.
Mineral water comes from springs that are typically rich in sulfur, magnesium, manganese, and calcium. Even though our body craves essential minerals, it is not something we produce and it must be ingested. To be classified as mineral water, water needs to have at least 250 parts per million of dissolved solids with a consistent threshold of minerals at its source. The good news is that manufacturers cannot add minerals as a “filler” and market their product as natural mineral water.
Spring Water, Glacier Water, or Raw Water
Spring water or glacier water is also commonly referred to as “raw” water. In its rawest form, unfiltered spring water can help your body and cells regenerate – this is due to the naturally occurring and rich mineral content found in these springs. Different springs have different mineral profiles depending on the sourcing location. Technically, spring water must come to the surface naturally and cannot be pumped from an underground aquifer. There are many factors including soil, climate, and geolocation which determine the mineral profile of each spring. Keep in mind, storing your water in a safe vessel is as important as the content of the water itself. When water is consumed from a high-grade borosilicate glass water bottle that is inert, sanitary, and free of synthetic material, it is among the purest options for safely storing and drinking spring water.
Anyone who has had the privilege of consuming from a spring will tell you it is the best tasting, thirst-quenching water they've ever had. Unfortunately, some bottled water companies will use language like this which can be downright false and misleading. The healthiest way to consume water is often to drink it in its raw form from natural sources. This will allow you to preserve the structure and mineral content of your spring water, without the trace chemicals and synthetic plastics used by most water bottle companies.
Sparkling water, also known as carbonated water, is infused with carbon dioxide. Natural sparkling waters are sourced from mineral springs so they tend to have a high mineral content. For certain brands (Perrier), the carbonation is readded during the bottling process to match the carbonation of the source spring.
As you may have noticed, flavored sparkling water has become incredibly popular. The increase in demand is partly because of health-conscious consumers who have slowed their consumption of soft drinks, and instead opt for sparkling beverages. Generally speaking, sparkling water is better for you than a soft drink (which sets a very low bar), but scientists continue to study the effects of sparkling water on the body and how it compares to traditional water sources. Like soft drinks, many of the popular sparkling water brands use chemical flavor enhancers made in a laboratory. While carbonated water appears relatively harmless, consumers who drink excessive amounts may want to consider switching to spring water for an organic mineral profile free of synthetic additives.
Purified water is often tap water that has been treated. The purifying process removes all contaminants like bacteria, fungi, parasites, and other dissolved solids so that the water is potable. However, purification also means that potentially beneficial substances like minerals and probiotic bacteria are removed from the water.
Without naming names, many of the leading bottled water companies simply purify municipal tap water, rebrand, and resell it in wasteful (and harmful) plastic bottles. While purified tap water isn’t necessarily the best choice for drinking water, a home filtration system can reduce the impact of many of these harmful contaminants.
Distilled water is water that has been boiled into a vapor and condensed and collected as a liquid. Inorganic minerals or metals have a higher boiling point than water, so they are left behind when the water turns into steam at 212° Fahrenheit. The distillation process separates contaminants and provides ultra-pure water (great for industrial applications where mineral buildup and corrosion is a factor). That being said, nearly all of the beneficial minerals your body needs are absent from distilled water.
In some ways, it’s helpful to think of distilled water as sanitized water. This includes sanitary medical procedures, kitchen applications, and in automobiles and machines. It is devoid of potentially harmful contaminants, but it also lacks the essential minerals that your body needs. Distilled water has various use cases, but regularly drinking distilled water is hard on your body. In fact, there is good evidence to show that it’s important to drink mineralized water – most folks will stick exclusively to purified water which can eventually become problematic for your health.
Alkaline water comes from sources near mineral-rich volcanoes. Alkaline water has dissolved (ionized) water that raises the pH level and is less acidic than most other types of water. Proper pH levels can slow down the aging process and have been shown to prevent cancer. Likewise, too much acid (that is, foods and beverages with a low pH level) can negatively impact our health. As a result, Alkaline water is often sought after for its higher and less acidic pH levels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates our public drinking water, recommends a pH between 6.5-8.5 on a scale that ranges from 1-14. The pH measures the electrically charged particles in a substance. Purified water and natural spring water have a pH around 7 which is considered “neutral” because it has neither acidic nor basic qualities. Alkaline water on the other hand, has a higher level that lies in the range of 8-9 on the pH scale.
There are many claims about the positive health impacts of consuming alkaline water including immune system enhancement, and colon-cleansing properties. The scientific evidence is not comprehensive, and some studies do show positive (but minor) impacts of alkaline water on blood viscosity, blood pressure, and acid reflux. However, it’s important to remember that too much alkalinity in the body can negatively impact your health.
Additionally, while there are places in the world with naturally occurring alkaline water, most off-the-shelf alkaline water is not natural. Many of these commercially bottled brands take tap and subject it to a process called electrolysis in order to reduce acidity artificially.
Hard water contains higher levels of dissolved minerals. Hard water can sometimes have excessive amounts of calcium, magnesium, iron, aluminum, and manganese. Generally, if water has a concentration of less than 60 milligrams of calcium carbonate per liter, it is classified as “soft.” If it has 61 to 120 milligrams of calcium carbonate per liter, it is considered “moderately hard.” Any water with more than 120 milligrams of calcium carbonate per liter is classified as “hard” to “very hard.”
Water becomes “hard” in this manner as a result of percolating through rock formations, like limestone, chalk, or gypsum. Hard water can naturally occur in any geographical location, but it is more common in the U.S. in lands west of the Mississippi River and east of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Hard water is often an issue for people who source their water from a private well. Due to the excessive mineral content, hard water can taste significantly different than other types of water. A lot of people do not like hard water as the heavy dissolved minerals can lead to dry skin and dulling of the hair. Hard water can also corrode plumbing fixtures – many homes that only have access to hard water will install water softeners to reduce the mineral content.
Well water comes straight from the ground and is most commonly found in rural areas. You will typically find wells used for properties that are spaced far apart when it is not efficient to build direct pipelines from a nearby municipal system.
A well collects water that has seeped into the soil from rain and snowmelt, or when streams and rivers drain into surrounding grounds. This water is raw and untreated like spring or glacier water, but it is not as pure because it can attract surface pollution.
Depending on where the well is located, contaminants like e-coli, heavy metals, as well as other toxins can leach into the water. Well water is not covered by the EPA’s water safety regulations, so homes sourcing water from a well should test the water for bacteria, nitrates, pH levels, and other contaminants every year.
Some well water is bottled and sold commercially as “artesian water.” In addition to the potential presence of contaminants, this may be an unsustainable practice. In many regions, well water and underground aquifers are being depleted more rapidly than the natural pace at which they are replenished. This leads to ground subsidence or sinking, which occurs as the water is taken from the ground and the soil begins to compact.
Surface water is a broad term that includes any water that comes from the Earth’s surface including the ocean. For freshwater sources, this includes streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands. Freshwater sources only make up 1.2% of the world’s freshwater reserves. The majority of the world’s freshwater is frozen in glaciers and ice sheets. Spring water is a type of surface water, but well water and groundwater are not. Because it is so easily accessible, surface water provides 78% of the freshwater we use but makes up a very small amount of the world’s freshwater supply. For this reason, it’s vital that we keep surface water free of pollutants.
Ground water comes from beneath the earth’s surface. As water seeps through the earth, soil, sand, and porous rock all act as a natural filter. However, when we draw water rapidly, and from shallow wells, there is a greater chance for contamination as the water does not have as much time to “seep and filter”.
What Is The Healthiest Water To Drink?
When sourced and stored safely, spring water is typically the healthiest option. When spring water is tested, and minimally processed, it offers the rich mineral profile that our bodies desperately crave.
Water acts as a fundamental life force and flushes bacteria through the kidneys and out of the bladder. It aids in digestion and transports nutrients throughout the body. It carries oxygen to the cells, prevents constipation, regulates temperature, and maintains your electrolyte balance. Water also supports important organs, energizes muscles, lubricates and cushions our joints, and protects our spinal cords and other sensitive tissues.
What Essential Minerals Can We Get From Drinking Water?
Common minerals found in water include:
- Calcium facilitates bone development and regulates muscle contraction and myocardium activity. It also aids in blood clotting, nerve impulse transmission, and the regulation of healthy cells.
- Chlorine aids in the formation of hydrochloric acid, which we use for our digestive process.
- Chromium creates enzymatic reactions and is involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins.
- Copper improves the functionality of several enzymes found in blood and muscles.
- Fluorine (fluoride) aids in the protection and prevention of tooth decay and bone development.
- Iodide is essential for the synthesis of hormones involved in growth and body development.
- Iron supports blood and muscle tissues.
- Magnesium is critical for bone formation, nervous and muscular activities, lipid metabolism, and protein synthesis.
- Manganese supports the synthesis of several enzymes involved in the metabolism of proteins, sugars, and bone development.
- Molybdenum aids in the production of enzymes associated with uric acid, which has important antioxidant effects and may be important for neurological health.
- Potassium aids in myocardium activities, neuromuscular excitability, acid-base balance, water retention, and osmotic pressure.
- Sodium is fundamental to the regulation of cell permeability. It is necessary for the energy generated in cells to be released through the cell membrane. It is also a key component of important body fluids like blood plasma.
- Sulfur is a building block for essential amino acids, including those that create our cartilage, hair, and nails. Sulfur also supports enzyme activity in redox processes, cellular respiration, and intestinal movements.
Of course, you can always have too much of a good thing. If water is imbalanced, meaning that it contains too much sodium or tends to be more acidic than regular water, it can be harmful. This is particularly true for people who need to maintain a low sodium diet or suffer from tooth decay. But by and large, spring water is a well-balanced option for healthy drinking water.
Why Is Spring and Mineral Water So Good for You?
Spring water contains unique minerals and organic compounds that offer several health benefits. Drinking two liters of spring water per day provides 10% to 15% of our daily calcium intake and about 33% of our required magnesium intake. The high amounts of calcium, bicarbonate, and magnesium can help maintain healthy bones, making it particularly important in the diets of the elderly.
If you find yourself spending far too much time at the latrine, consider increasing your intake of mineral-rich water. Magnesium also draws water into your intestines and relaxes the intestinal muscles which alleviate constipation.
Does Water Have A Taste?
Yes, water has a taste! Water activates the sour taste receptor cells on our taste buds. The amygdala (which is the part of our brain that processes emotions) is also capable of sensing acidity, so our emotional brain also affects the way water tastes. As a result, everyone has a personal preference as to what makes their favorite water so tasty. Believe it or not, some people do not enjoy the taste of water, and they look to the increasing diversity of flavor additives (think LaCroix and other bubbly alternatives).
Some people can easily distinguish between tap water, bottled water and spring water, particularly when they have a sensitivity to these flavors. There are four distinct minerals that most affect our taste perception: bicarbonate, sulfate, calcium, and magnesium. Additionally, we can taste bitterness or sourness in our food and water. This is important for identifying spoiled or potentially poisonous foods and liquids.
In a recent study, experts concluded that three properties contribute to the “flavor” or "taste" of water:
- bitterness from poor-quality mineralized water
- a neutral taste, and
- the saltiness and acidity of highly mineralized water
Water can have a sour or bitter taste from excessive (or uncommon) minerals. For example, we can taste trace amounts of copper that leach from underground pipes where tap water flows. We may also be able to taste the fluoride, chlorine, or other compounds added to treated municipal water. Certain chemical compounds can cause a salty taste in water, which is very objectionable to many people.
We may also be able to detect a tinge of certain materials in the soil that groundwater and well water travels through. Dissolved minerals like sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate, and sulfate are “common constituents” of groundwater, meaning that they are often found in drinking water sourced from underground aquifers. Each of these common constituents have a distinct taste when found in high enough concentrations. Many of us can even taste the plastic from a water bottle, which is one reason we always recommend high-grade borosilicate glass water bottles which won’t hold any taste since they are inert and sanitary – especially when exposed to extreme temperature changes in your car or on the go.
Generally speaking, “good tasting” water is associated with a cool and neutral sensation that we typically get from drinking unprocessed water with a medium level of mineralization. This is commonly found in spring water from high-quality, natural, uncontaminated sources.
What Types of Water Are Unsafe to Drink?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a set of regulations that ensure the safety of public water systems. Despite regulation, throughout the years, water sources have been threatened by pollution and contamination. This includes agriculture runoff, industrial factories, animal waste, and other types of wastewater that can be very harmful. Here are a few water sources you should avoid:
Wastewater is any water that has been tainted by human activity like agriculture, urban water use, stormwater runoff, and sewer inflow. Wastewater is not safe and should never be used for drinking or cooking unless it has been through an extensive purification process.
Some cities are supplying wastewater to golf courses and parks for evergreen landscaping. Still, it is not safe for consumption. As a result, it’s important to distance children and pets from public sprinkler systems especially if there is a track record of contamination in your municipality.
Stormwater is rain and snowmelt precipitation that flows over impervious surfaces (like pavement or extremely dry soil) without ever seeping into the ground. Because it picks up ground-level pollutants like oil, fertilizers, and radiator fluid, stormwater is a type of wastewater that is not safe for humans, livestock or pets.
Drinking contaminated water can cause a variety of health issues like gastrointestinal illness, skin discoloration, nervous system and organ damage, or developmental and reproductive limitations. The impact can vary based on the type of contaminant, its concentration, individual susceptibility, and the amount of contaminated water consumed. However, even subtle exposure over an extended period of time can lead to chronic or long-term conditions like cancer. It’s best to ensure the water you and your family are drinking is safely sourced.
How Can I Make Sure Water Is Safe to Drink?
To ensure your drinking water is safe, you can start by testing it yourself or by retrieving it from a pure, uncontaminated source. Fortunately, drinking water in the United States is generally safe. Here are some questions you should ask:
- Where is the water being sourced?
- Has the water been tested by a third-party lab? If so, how often is it being tested and can you request the results?
- What is your budget and how much are you willing to spend on mineral-rich water?
- Are you using a synthetic bottle that is leaching contaminants into your water? If so, consider alternatives like a borosilicate glass water bottle
Your risk of waterborne diseases can also be reduced when purified or filtered through distillation. Also make sure to filter and test any questionable water source, particularly wells. Even at low levels, toxic water contaminants like lead and mercury can cause nervous system damage and developmental disabilities in children.
What is the Best Water to Drink?
At the end of the day, the best water to drink depends on your specific needs. Here are some things to consider when you’re thinking about what drinking water is best for you:
- For purity. Distilled water is great for laboratory applications, aquariums, medical devices, and other uses that require purified water. However, minerals and salts are removed during the distillation process. This means that drinking only distilled water can affect your body’s sodium, potassium, chloride, and magnesium levels.
- For pregnancy and general health: Spring water is a good choice for pregnant women and general health. It also helps compensate for a decrease in minerals like iron and calcium. That being said, it is important that spring water is sourced safely and tested by a third party. In urban areas, your best bet is to order from a local company with a delivery service.
- For babies and children. Mineral water can promote bone mineralization in children and it’s an important dietary source of calcium – a great alternative to calcium supplements.
- For great coffee. The hardness or softness of water can impact the taste of your brewed coffee. As a result, hard water brings out significantly different flavors in coffee. A minimum mineral content of 150-200 parts per million (on a scale from 0-250) is best for good extraction.
- For convenience. Tap water is the cheapest and most convenient option for drinking water, although it is not always the healthiest. No matter how convenient it may seem, try to avoid bottled water at all costs. Bottled water commonly contains plastic contaminates and other carcinogenic compounds. As long as tap water satisfies municipal codes, it is actually safer and more convenient than bottled water in most cases.
Spring water tends to be the best tasting of the bunch and it has various health benefits due to its balanced mineral profile. With that being said, what you find suitable for you and your family is going to be based on your health goals and budget. Whatever the case, you should never drink water from unsafe (or questionable) sources. Generally speaking, it's a good idea to test the quality of your drinking water or to request a water report from your city if you choose to drink tap.
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