There is no question that staying hydrated by drinking lots of water is a healthy choice. But things get a little more complicated when it’s time to decide what kind of water to drink. It might seem silly — water is water, right? — but the truth is that not all water is created equal. Look at all the bottled water in the cold cases at your local grocery store or pharmacy, and you’ll see an abundance of different varieties, from mineral water to triple-distilled to reverse osmosis and beyond. So what do all these terms mean, and do they matter for your health? And what’s the best bottled water to choose? We’ll break it down for you in this guide.
The Basic Kinds of Water: Tap, Filtered, and Bottled
When it comes to H20, the first choice you need to make is whether you’re buying a bottle of the stuff or drinking from the tap. While bottled water may offer you more glamorous-sounding choices (see the following section), and in certain highly polluted countries, cities, and towns is safer than tap water, it also contributes to the major environmental problem of plastic waste. Plus, you’re likely ingesting microplastics if it’s in a plastic bottle, and there is very little regulation about what goes into bottled water so you don’t really know what you’re drinking. A 2018 study of 259 plastic bottled water brands showed 90% had microplastics in the water, the lowest (best) levels were in San Pellegrino (74 per liter in the most contaminated bottle tested), followed by Evian (256). Another 2018 study that tested 19 bottled water brands for microplastics found that Boxed Water, Fiji, Ozarka and Evian, Icelandic Glacial and Crystal Geyser had the highest levels of contamination, respectively. How could Evian be on the better end in one study and the worse end in another? The level of microplastics differed from bottle to bottle, not just brand to brand. So what can you do? See below.
Water from the sink, a water fountain, or your refrigerator, on the other hand, allows you to help out the planet by using a glass or metal reusable water bottle. The drawback, of course, is that tap water will always have certain contaminants, which vary depending on where you live. Our favorite happy medium is to fill our reusable bottles with tap water that we’ve filtered using the best water filter for our particular water supply. You can get the full lowdown on water contaminants in your area, as well as your best bet for a water filter to get rid of them, in The WellBe Water Filter Guide.
Choosing the Best Bottled Water Brand and Deciphering Labels
If you’re buying bottled water (and we get it, we buy bottled water occasionally and definitely in airports), you have a lot of different options to choose from. Each label is covered in all sorts of terminology that sounds pretty fancy and impressive but doesn’t mean a whole lot to most of us (kind of like when you go to buy eggs). And the truth is, a lot of those terms are pretty much just marketing. But some of them really do have significance when it comes to our health. Most of us have trusted marketing and hoped that certain companies are doing the right thing by not misleading us, which we now know is not always necessarily the case.
Here’s a breakdown of common terms you’ll see for different kinds of water, and what each means:
Distilled Water: Distilled water is water that has been boiled into a vapor and then condensed back down into liquid to remove impurities. Distilled water can be a good choice in areas where the tap water contains impurities; however, the distillation process removes any potentially beneficial minerals from the water (which is a big reason why you’re drinking it!), and there’s concern that distilled water could leach trace amounts of minerals from your body. Therefore distilled water wouldn’t be our first choice for everyday drinking water.
Mineral Water: Mineral water refers to any water sourced from a mineral spring. According to the FDA, which regulates bottled water, mineral water must contain at least 250 parts per million “total dissolved solids” that originate from a “geologically and physically protected underground water source.” Mineral water can contain minerals including magnesium, calcium, sodium, and zinc, among others, and has been shown to have significant health benefits. A drawback of mineral water is that it can have a high sodium content, which is a concern for those with high blood pressure.
Alkaline Water: Alkaline water is water that has had nutrients added to it to achieve a higher pH, making it less acidic than other water. A lot of claims have been made about the potential benefits of alkaline water, including that it can neutralize acid in your bloodstream, slow bone loss, and expel toxins more efficiently; some even argue that it can protect against heart disease or cancer. There have been studies showing that alkaline water can improve bone strength, reduce acid reflux, and lower blood pressure, but all of these were small studies that can’t necessarily lead to firm conclusions, so more research is needed. On the negative side, tipping your body’s balance too far to the alkaline end can mess with the natural acidity of your stomach — stomach acid helps break down food, which you want!
Electrolyte Water: Electrolyte water is basically a subcategory of mineral water since electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity when dissolved in water. Electrolytes are usually associated with sports drinks like Gatorade because they help with a number of functions associated with athletic recovery: they rebalance your fluids and help your muscles contract. To tap into the benefits of electrolytes, some bottled water brands will add in electrolytes, like potassium and magnesium. While these can certainly be beneficial, the fact is that unless you’re drinking distilled water (which has no minerals), your water already contains electrolytes. This term is definitely more marketing than anything else.
Reverse Osmosis Water: Reverse osmosis, like distillation, refers to a filtration process used to remove impurities from tap water. In this process, untreated water flows through a semipermeable membrane, which traps things like salt, chemicals, minerals, and impurities. Just like distilled water, reverse osmosis water offers a healthier alternative to people who live in areas with contaminated tap water, but it also strips out healthy minerals that could be beneficial to our health. In fact, the World Health Organization released a statement over their concerns about people drinking demineralized water. The best kind of reverse osmosis systems put the minerals back in the water after they remove everything, but these systems are usually quite pricey.
Spring Water:As defined by the FDA, spring water is “derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth at an identified location, may be collected at the spring or through a borehole, tapping the underground formation that feeds the spring.” Spring water, like mineral water, goes through very little distillation to retain naturally-occurring minerals. In fact, spring water is very similar to mineral water, except that mineral water, as the name suggests, contains more minerals. Spring water doesn’t need to contain a minimum amount of minerals. Despite the FDA definition, be warned that the term “spring water” doesn’t necessarily mean the water is pure and clean. Because so many springs are now contaminated, many items marketed as spring water contain contaminants you’d probably rather not be drinking. In fact, Poland Springs currently has a class action lawsuit against it claiming that they falsely marketed groundwater as spring water.
The Clear Truth
It can be easy to get bogged down in all the flashy terms above, but, ultimately, water doesn’t need to be that complicated. Just keep a few key points in mind to keep your body properly hydrated with the right kind of water:
Drink enough water. Staying hydrated is the #1 priority here.
Always use a filter to extract bacterial contaminants, chemicals, heavy metals, and other toxins. There is almost no water system in the U.S. that is not contaminated with some of the above-mentioned pollutants, some areas are much worse than others. Check out our water filter guide to find your best filtration option. The important thing to realize is that you know nothing about the contaminants in bottled water. Low levels are arsenic have been found in many popular water brands.
Don’t reuse plastic water bottles. We’re all about reusable bottles here, but simply reusing a plastic water bottle does not cut it. You may be slightly reducing waste, but you’re also subjecting yourself to health risks, as reusing plastic bottles can leach chemicals into the water you drink and promote the growth of dangerous bacteria. Plastic (vs. glass and metal) is a porous material, making it easier for bacteria to accumulate in it, and for chemicals to leach out of it into the water.
Know the terminology and adjust accordingly. For instance, if you’re drinking distilled or reverse osmosis water, make sure you’re getting minerals another way, like from your diet and/or supplements.
On the rare occasion that we buy bottled water, we opt mostly for San Pellegrino (as a refreshing treat in between meals as it can interfere with digestion), Evian, Mountain Valley or Volvic in glass bottles or Fiji, Evian or Volvic plastic water bottles in an airport, where glass water bottles aren’t sold. Hopefully, this guide has helped you wrap your head around all the different options you have when it comes to different kinds of water. Let us know in the comments below what kind of water you drink, or any questions you have that we didn’t answer here!