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Behind the label: Volvic Touch of Fruit

Pat Thomas

3rd October, 2007

Don’t hit the bottle, warns Pat Thomas, else you’ll do more than swallow marketing hype

INGREDIENTS: Volvic natural mineral water, acid:citric acid, strawberry natural flavour,flavour, preservative: potassiumbenzoate, sweeteners: sucralose,acesulfame K.

Without water, we die. Irish hunger strikers lived for around 60 days without food, but would have died within four days if they hadn’t drunk half a litre of liquid a day. We instinctively know we need water, and after air it is the most plentiful substance on the planet. And yet instead of drinking from the tap, when we are thirsty we meter it out to ourselves in half-litre plastic bottles like thirsty refugees.

In the UK we spend a mind-boggling £1.85 billion a year on bottled water and brands from the Danone stable, Volvic and Evian, claim the lion’s share – around 30 per cent – of that market. Clearly, we love our daily bottles but not as much as on the continent. In the UK our per capita consumption of bottled water stood at just over 33 litres in 2004, well below the western European average of 112 litres.

At an average of 95p per litre, bottled water costs almost as much as petrol, compared to the average cost of tap water in the UK, which is £1 per 10,000 litres. According to a recent report by Sustain, Have you bottled it? How drinking tap water can help save you and the planet, in spite of the outrageous cost of bottled water, analysts are predicting that we will buy more than 2 billion litres in 2007, with the market projected to grow by six to seven per cent annually.

There are various reasons why we are prepared to pay such a premium for water in a bottle. Portability and taste count for a lot, but mainly we buy it because we believe it is healthier.

Many consumers are willing to swallow the sales hype that ‘mineral waters’ are better for us than tap water. Others wish simply to avoid the toxic chemicals that may find their way into tap water – aluminium, nitrates, pesticides, chlorine, and fluoride, a systemic poison that can increase the risk of uterine and thyroid cancers, brittle bones and damage the immune system.

When water is fluoridated, the recommended amount of fluoride added to the water supply is 1mg/litre (i.e. 1000mcgs per litre). An EU directive implemented in 2003 introduced an upper limit for fluoride in mineral water of 5mg/litre, and a limit of 1.5mg/litre in other bottled waters. While present in the bottle, fluoride is rarely listed on the label.

Water hype

Most of us have grown up with the idea that we should drink eight 8oz glasses (approximately 1.5 litres) of water a day to stay healthy. And what could be more natural than water? Especially water with ‘volcanicity’, Volvic marketing-speak for the high levels of minerals dissolved in the water from volcanic rocks.

Bottled waters that are high in minerals can be hard on the kidneys over the long run. However, a 2003 laboratory analysis in the consumer magazine Proof! found that, compared to other brands, Volvic was not significantly higher in minerals than other brands, except for its fluoride content, which was measured at 220mcgs per litre. In the same analysis the water was also shown to be relatively high in nitrates, suggesting that someone may have been intensively farming near those volcanic rocks. Neither mineral content, nor fluoride nor nitrate content, is listed on the label, making it impossible for to make an intelligent comparative choice between Volvic and other brands.

Certainly, water is an essential but overlooked nutrient. Yet, outside of the field of sports medicine, it is almost impossible to find good evidence to support the eight-glasses-a-day theory. Few of us are training for the triathlon (endurance sports are probably the only place where overconsumption of water, such as drinking up to a litre of water prior to extreme exertion, may be justified), and information on how much fluid sedentary-to-moderately-active individuals need is less clear-cut.

In the same way that adequate nutrition has little to do with how many vitamin pills you take, adequate hydration is not just a matter of drinking lots of water. It is a matter of checks and balances. How much you need depends on a number of different factors, such as your level of activity, what kind of foods you regularly consume and even the climate in which you live.

It is estimated that, every day, the body loses approximately 1.5 litres of water through sweating, breathing and urinating. This must be replaced. The good news is that your daily fluid supply doesn’t all have to come from a bottle or a glass. Fruits and vegetables supply water in a form that is easily used by the body while providing a high percentage of vitamins and minerals as a bonus.

In addition, we release about one-third of a litre of water into our systems every day when we burn glycogen (a starch-like carbohydrate) for energy. When the body digests carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose – to meet immediate energy needs – and glycogen. Glycogen is stored in the muscles and liver for future use. Each molecule of glycogen holds on to nine molecules of water, which are released during the course of your day and at times when you need it most, like during intense exercise.

Environmental madness

There is little evidence that bottled waters are substantially healthier to drink than ordinary tap water. And flavoured waters that contain artificial sweeteners and chemical flavourings – as does Volvic Touch of Fruit – are certainly not a viable alternative healthwise.

Even though there has been a handful of bottled water contamination scares – for example, the benzene found in Perrier in 1989, bromate in Dasani in 2004, and naphthalene in Volvic in 2005 – this does not seem to have made consumers more thoughtful about the cultural and environmental impacts of choosing to consume bottled waters.

First, there are the ‘water miles’. Many bottled waters come from far away. For example, Fiji water travels 10,000 miles (16,000km) and Naya water from Quebec, Canada, travels 3,000 miles (5,000km) to sit on our supermarket shelves.

Then there is the plastic problem. Chemicals from the plastic container may leach into the water during storage and especially with reuse. And while plastic bottles may brandish little arrows suggesting they can be recycled, in reality we do not recycle plastic in the developed world. Even if we did, most plastics can only be usefully recycled once, after which time they are not good for anything other than landfill or incineration – both of which are environmental disasters. Or maybe they just get tossed away into the sea (see feature page 34).

The bottled water culture also creates its own insatiable marketplace. Large multinational companies like Coca-Cola and Nestlé have identified water as the new oil and are busy buying up water supplies throughout the world. This greedy market activity means that local people – often living in very poor parts of the world – lose access to vital water supplies just so we can feed our frankly stupid addiction to bottled water.

Tap water has a number of advantages over bottled water. Firstly, it is extremely cheap. Secondly, the regulations about water purity are even more strict for tap water than for bottled, so it is highly likely that the water from your tap is cleaner than the water from your supermarket. Tap water is also plentiful. Psychologically, if you get into the habit of drinking only bottled water, you can easily reach a point where you believe that when the bottle is empty, you’ve run out of water.

There is no such thing as organic water and there is no such thing as ethical, environmentally friendly bottled water – no matter what some manufacturers say. Honestly, folks, keep drinking bottled water and we may run out – of habitable land, natural resources and water – sooner than you think.

What they wash over

Strawberry natural flavour,
Adds taste

Flavourings (and aromas) are perfumes by another name. They will be derived from petrochemicals and contain the same range of neurotoxins, carcinogens and allergens found in all perfumes.

Citric acid
Preservative, acidifier

On its own, citric acid is relatively harmless, though it can be harsh on tooth enamel. But when mixed with potassium or sodium benzoate (see right) it can – during storage, and especially at raised temperatures – aid the formation of carcinogenic benzene.

Potassium benzoate
Preservative
People who suffer from asthma, rhinitis or urticaria may find their symptoms get worse after consuming benzoates. In acidic solutions (such as sodas). Benzoates can breakdown into benzene, a known carcinogen. Surveys have shown that levels in soft drinks can be up to 40 times higher than recognised ‘safe’ doses.

Sucralose
Artificial sweetener

Produced by chlorinating sugar. Animal studies conducted by the manufacturers found a range of problems at high doses, including shrunken thryroid glands and kidney and liver problems. Human studies suggested that a dose at half the current approved level over six months could raise blood glucose levels. Consumer reports suggest a wide range of adverse effects from regular ingestion of sucralose, including gastrointestinal upsets, cramping, and bladder problems.

Acesulfame K
Artificial sweetener

Causes cancer in animals. Acetoacetamide, a breakdown product, has been shown to affect the thyroid in rats, rabbits and dogs. Although it is commonly blended with other sweeteners to cover its bitter taste, there are no studies to show if the combination is safe or whether it produces other toxic by-products.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2007

 

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