The Debunker: Which Is "Better", Bottled Water or Tap Water?

by Ken Jennings

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, August is, just like the human body, at least 60 percent made of water: vacations to the beach, weekend trips to the lake or pool, big pitchers full of refreshing ice water. August is also National Water Quality Month, as you probably know, and it’s when we all have our big get-togethers to celebrate World Water Week (August 26-31!) and Sea Serpent Day (August 7). It may be hot and dry where you are right now, but at least Ken Jennings can make it rain knowledge with his August Debunker column, deflating everything you think you know about H2O.

Water Myth #3: Bottled Water Is Healthier and Tastier Than Tap Water.

With all the knocks bottled water takes, you’d think it must somehow be superior to tap water. Because of packing and transportation costs, it’s much worse for the environment, and it costs literally thousands of times more than tap water per gallon. Surely it’s better for you, or tastes better, or something. Otherwise, why the hell are people still drinking it?


Your guess is as good as mine. There are certainly parts of the world where bottled water is the only safe stuff to drink, but in the United States, as in most of the rest of the developed world, tap water is just fine. In fact, a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office found that the Food and Drug Administration regulations for bottled water are actually less stringent that the Environmental Protection Agency regulations that govern tap water. Repeated studies in Britain and America have failed to find any purity advantage to bottled water, and a 2008 study by an environmental group found the very same trace contaminants in bottled water that you’d get from the tap. That’s not surprising, since—unbeknownst to many consumers—many of the most popular brands of bottled water, like Aquafina and Dasani, are just reprocessed tap water from U.S. cities. In a 2005 ABC News report, even the scientist hand-picked by the International Bottled Water Association refused to claim bottled water’s superiority. “No, I wouldn’t argue it’s safer or not safer,” he said.

What about taste? That’s a more subjective contest, and different mineral contents mean that tap and bottled water from different parts of the world will have slightly different tastes to some palates. But it’s clear from looking at blind taste tests that much of the perceived “cleaner taste” of bottled water is psychosomatic. In a test conducted by Slate.com, New York City tap water beat Evian. In a 2007 panel of British taste-testers, London tap water beat 20 out of the 23 different brands sampled. In academic studies, about a third of all respondents typically end up preferring bottled water. Everyone else either doesn’t taste a difference or actually prefers tap.

Next time you’re tempted to buy a bottle of water, remember what Evian spells backward and head for the drinking fountain instead.

Quick Quiz: The label on Poland Spring bottled water boasts that it’s been selling “Natural Spring Water from” what state “Since 1845”?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr member stevendepolo. Used under a Creative Commons License.