By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
As reports of contamination in a top bottled water brand are investigated, Britain's biggest suppliers are reportedly preparing to launch a major new brand at under 24s. But why are we turning our backs on the tap?
With some 250 brands crowding the shelves, there's no shortage of choice for those who like to sip, gulp or swig their water from a designer source.
Would anyone notice another newcomer to the bottled water market? They surely will if the latest speculation in the industry is anything to go by.
French food giant Danone, which already owns one of Britain's top bottled water brands, Evian, is rumoured to be planning a major launch of a new water in the new year, aimed at under 24s.
While British shoppers have gushed in ever greater numbers to buy bottled water in recent years, they still represent a relative trickle compared to consumers on the continent.
Sales are projected to rise by 20% in the coming five years, proving this is one sector that's far from saturated.
Even the latest in a string of health scares is, judging by previous examples, unlikely to have any lasting damage. The BBC has discovered some bottles of Volvic, which sells three million bottles a day, contained a potentially harmful chemical called naphthalene.
Danone, which owns the brand, says it is investigating the matter, but that it had appeared to be an isolated incident.
PRICE AND POPULARITY
Average daily cost per household for water - 68p
Average supermarket price for a two-litre bottle of Evian - 68p
52% of adults drink bottled water, compared to about 90% in France Germany and Italy
Source: Water UK, Which?, TGI survey, Marketing magazine
Last year Coca Cola withdrew its Dasani brand of bottled water after it was found to contain illegal levels of the chemical bromate, and it's 15 years since supermarkets cleared their shelves of Perrier after it was found to contain the chemical benzene.
Yet still bottled water is seen as the archetypal health drink.
This is partly down to a growing backlash against sugary soda drinks. But sceptics say the logic starts to tail off in light of the fact that tap water has never been of higher quality in the UK.
A quick comparison of the prices and one might deduce the bottled water firms have pulled off something close to modern-day alchemy. The average daily cost for an entire household's water - from the tap to the loo flush, and everything in between - is 68 pence, exactly the same as the typical supermarket price of a two-litre bottle of Evian.
At these prices, a family of four could expect to shell out almost £1,000 a year on bottled water if they were each drinking their recommended daily two-litre intake.
So why do millions of us choose to pay a huge premium for what we can otherwise get for almost nothing from the tap?
A question of taste
Taste is a common concern. Many people believe bottled water tastes better, principally because it doesn't have the chlorine used to clean tap water - some bottled varieties use ozone, which is more expensive.
It's a subjective issue, but the Drinking Water Inspectorate claims that if tap water is chilled, most of us can't taste the difference.
Northumbrian is one of several firms to bottle tap water, to make a point
Portability is perhaps underrated by many. Bottled water is easy to pick up and throw away, and some brands have a street cachet.
Psychology also plays a role. Despite what we are told about tap water being cleaner than ever, it's hard not to be at least mildly repulsed by the thought that in some parts of the country at least, it has been recycled several times.
In contrast, mineral water brands use words such as "pure" and "unspoiled" to reinforce the natural image of their product.
Fears of modern life; a growing suspicion of science, driven by food and other health scares, also drives us to the bottle, according to research.
"Bottled water is the natural antidote to chemicals and technologies full of risk and hazard," says Simon Wessely, a psychiatry professor at King's College, London.
While chemicals are bad, minerals are good in the public consciousness - another persuasive argument for mineral water supporters, especially those drawn to the emerging range of waters with added minerals and vitamins.
But nutritionist Joanne Lunn of the British Nutrition Foundation is sceptical.
"You shouldn't be choosing bottled water over tap water as being better for you," she says. "There's very little difference in the calcium and phosphates found in either, but we get the vast majority of our essential minerals from our food. Water is for hydration, not its mineral content."
Fellow nutritionist Adam Carey is more doubtful, saying the quality of tap water varies greatly around the country.
KNOW YOUR WATERS
Natural mineral water - must come from natural source and be free of harmful bacteria and pollution
Spring water - must also be from underground source, but treatment is allowed to reduce mineral content
Bottled drinking water (table water/spa water) - no restrictions on source, but must meet basic criteria
"For probably the vast majority of people, the worry about tap water is exaggerated and this has allowed companies to feed on the hysteria."
But he is concerned by findings which point to rising oestrogen levels in river water, thought to derive from nitrates in fertilisers and residues from contraceptive pills, and the effect these might have on humans when water is recycled.
There's evidence that some male fish are changing sex, perhaps because of this, and Dr Carey questions whether it might explain why average sperm counts among men have dropped significantly in a generation.
In 2002, the Environment Agency said oestrogen in water did not present a risk to people as it was routinely treated with chemicals that removed pollutants, including oestrogens.
But some continue to doubt the theory.
"I'm not saying anything is certain here, but I'm not prepared to take chances," says Dr Carey, who advises the English rugby team on nutrition.
But bottled water is no panacea, he believes, because tap water is still used in cooking and tea and coffee. He uses a reverse osmosis filter at source, so his tap water comes out ready filtered.
"You can even bottle it and take it with you. Some people would even sell it."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
An interesting article. I buy fizzy supermarket mineral water - I like it and it is cheaper and more drinkable than fizzy pop or fruit juice.
Why don't I just chill tap water? I don't know... In fact I am going to try. I just need to borrow someone's SodaStream.
David White, UK
Living in Edinburgh, I drink water from the tap all the time, but on a recent trip to London found the water totally unpalatable. It has a distinct taste, which as far as I'm aware, water should not have, and had to be mixed with diluting juice before it became drinkable. I can entirely understand why bottled water is gaining in popularity if this is the case in other English cities.
Craig Topp, Edinburgh, UK
There is one word missing from every single brand of bottled water. The word is 'drinking'!
You have to ask yourself why this is. Tap water is by far the best. Fill a bottle, leave the lid off for twenty minutes and store in the refrigerator. Much better than any of this bottled stuff.
Andy Holman, Norfolk
Spending money on bottled water? What's Evian spelt backwards?
David , London
Why would I want to drink my tap water? It tastes disgusting, particularly when boiled, it spoils the taste of tea and coffee, vegetables, etc. There is a definite difference when the water has been filtered. I know my local water authority tells me that my water is safe to drink, but quite honestly I'm not convinced of that when my bath water comes out smelling of chlorine - Would I go down to my local swimming pool and drink from it? No I wouldn't, and I'm not drinking my swimming pool flavoured water either.
Alison, Margate, UK
I was finding that my drinking tumblers were going milky white instead of transparent, so I did a test. I took one and scrubbed it, dried and polised it and it stayed transparent. I then rinsed it with tap water inside and out and let it dry naturally. I couldn't see through it. That's how much other stuff was in the tap water.
I don't go for the big name brands, though, they add cost without adding quality, I go for the "table water" which still has to meet quality standards.
Chris C, Aylesbury, UK
I understand perfectly people drinking bottled water if their tap water tasted as disgusting as ours. I live in a hard water area which suffers from showers & taps becoming stained with a hard brown crust.
John, Telford, Shropshire
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