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Functional water: science or sorcery?

Peter Rejcek

April 23, 2008

7 Min Read
Functional water: science or sorcery?

The lament of that oft-quoted Ancient Mariner might go something like this today: Fruit-flavored and functional water everywhere—but which one to drink?

The latest generation of bottled water boasts that it reshuffles the bonds between water molecules for quicker absorption, or adds aloe vera to improve immune system response. Consumers are increasingly opting for these and other types of H20 beverages in containers over old-fashioned tap water, elevating bottled water to second place—behind soft drinks—among marketed beverages.

SPINS, the natural products industry market research and consulting firm, reports that enhanced water sales hit $30.3 million, up 13.5 percent from a year ago (SPINscan Natural, 52 weeks ending 3/24/07). These same products are also rapidly disappearing off the shelves of conventional stores, with sales at more than $228 million, an increase of 107.5 percent from a year ago (SPINscan Conventional, 52 weeks ending 3/25/06).

Packaged plain water is also selling well, according to SPINS data, accounting for more than $43 million in the naturals channel (up about 6 percent) and $2.4 billion in conventional stores (up more than 13 percent). Enhanced water includes products with vitamins, minerals or herbs and is associated with a specific health benefit or health claim. Waters containing added nutrients to enhance taste and flavor are included in packaged water, a category that includes brands like Poland Spring and Penta.

Water is certainly a commodity we can't live without. "It's our most important nutrient," says Tara Gidus, a registered dietitian in Orlando, Fla., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Water makes up about 60 percent of the adult human body (even more for children), and assists with metabolizing food, vitamins and nutrients. It's also key in regenerating cells and muscles.

Most of these types of benefits flow straight from the tap. "A lot of bottled water actually does come from city municipal water, and it just goes through a water purification process," Gidus says. "It could just be whatever city's municipal water and they filter it, put it in a bottle, and slap their name on it, and people think it's that much better."

Whatever the motivation, the demand for bottled water—from spring to seemingly supernatural—is obviously there. The question then becomes: Are companies selling science or sorcery in a bottle? For the retailer wondering which brands to stock, the answer isn't always obvious.

The Food and Drug Administration parts the waters in half when it comes to categorizing bottled H20. Water is either a food or a dietary supplement, wrote Susan Brienza, a Denver attorney who specializes in food and drug law, in a March 2003 Natural Foods Merchandiser article. She says structure/function claims are permitted only for dietary supplements, with claims for food restricted to taste, aroma and nutritive value. She says the word functional doesn't hold water in the legal sense; it's a marketing term.

Not much has changed since she wrote the article, Brienza recently said, though the FDA gave notice late last year that it is considering how it should regulate conventional foods marketed as functional foods under its existing authority.

Currently, "the FDA will take issue with water products sending mixed messages to consumers, such as those that are presented and labeled as foods, include a nutrition box, yet also contain structure/function claims on the label. In short, a product can't have it both ways," she wrote in NFM.

So a product like Aloe Breeze, touted as the first line of certified organic drinks that harness the power of aloe vera but use stevia as a sweetener, are marketed as dietary supplements and carry the usual disclaimer that the FDA has not evaluated the product's claims.

While aloe vera is generally considered a topical treatment for burns, about 60 percent of aloe is consumed internally worldwide, according to Brad Holmes, president and chief executive of Phoenix Beverage Co., the maker of Aloe Breeze. "What we have done ? is take the functional benefits of aloe and put it into a product to drink, something you can drink with a purpose."

Each 16.9 ounce bottle contains about 1.7 ounces of aloe vera juice, Holmes says. The plant's properties (amino acids, vitamins and minerals) can increase the bioavailability of antioxidants, repair skin damage and aid in digestion, he says. The new product was to be sold in Wild Oats stores nationwide by June, along with Whole Foods Market stores in Southern California and the Midwest, among other natural food stores.

In the enhanced bottled water category (but not a dietary supplement) are products like Smartwater, produced by Whitestone, N.Y.-based Glac?au, which seem to fall just a few drops short of a full-on sports drink. Gidus says such functional waters are "basically water that's going to have some vitamins or minerals added to it." She says most people can get those same nutrients from a balanced diet.

Packaged waters found in the natural food channel run the gamut, from the ubiquitous offerings by the big players such as Nestl? (think Arrowhead and Ozarka) to the premium manufacturers like Penta and Biota.

Penta goes beyond simple purification, according to its Web site. It employs a 13-step, 11-hour process that uses multiple filters, deionization and reverse osmosis (to remove particles), and infuses ozone into the water (to treat microbes). Eight hours of the treatment are devoted to what the company calls the Penta Process, a patented physics practice that Penta says transforms its water, giving it a higher boiling point, higher viscosity and a lower surface tension. The company says on its Web site that those properties aid with hydration.

A newcomer to the structured water market is Hydrate2O, an Eagle, Idaho-based company.

"We market it as a higher end performance water," says Brian Thompson, marketing director for the year-old company. "Water that's been re-engineered or changed would be the label I would attach to ours. The surface tension is different, the viscosity is different. If you were to put this under the proper microscope, it would look different than normal water based on these two measurements. It's a thinner water. It's why we call it a wetter water."

Again, the idea is that, through a patent-pending process, purified water takes on a different molecular structure to form smaller, more consistent water clusters. Thompson says the process creates smoother water that the body absorbs eight times more efficiently at the intracellular level. The claim, he says, is backed by a third-party study it commissioned through Fenestra Research Labs with 170 subjects.

Critics of structured water claims agree that it can be altered but then the liquid's cellular structure bounces back to its original shape. Gidus says she has not seen any scientific studies to substantiate claims that certain kinds of water hydrate faster than others.

"As far as I know, water is water is water in terms of absorption," she says. "I haven't heard of a particular type of filtration that causes you to absorb water more quickly. Once you start swallowing water, it's going to start being absorbed into your gut and then digested and into your cells."

Thompson says Hydrate2O's process creates a stable molecular bond so the water retains its new physical properties. "That's where we believe our proprietary technology separates us from any other structured water company," he says. "We're getting a lot of natural foods stores interested."

A Los Angeles-based company called H2Om taps into a whole different system to differentiate its bottled water from the competition. Its spring water undergoes conventional treatment such as using ultra?violet light to sanitize the water before it is pumped into storage tanks. Along the way, the water is infused with, well, good vibrations.

"Water is extremely receptive to outside influences, particularly vibrational influences via music, spoken word," says Lex Lang, chief executive officer of the 15-month-old company. Lang says research, notably by Masuru Emoto, whose influence was obvious in the unconventional 2004 documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!?, shows that water's frozen crystalline structure changes when exposed to different types of frequencies.

The bottles are labeled with positive words like Love and Joy, then infused with various sounds such as the om chant for about 20 minutes before shipment. "We surround the water with speakers and play these frequencies and these oms," Lang says.

Sharon Begley, the science editor for The Wall Street Journal, reported in a March 2006 column that scientists published a paper in Materials Research Inno?vations that "water can indeed have its properties and hence its structure changed rather easily." She reported that from their review of more than 100 studies, they conclude that water is "a 'zoo' of mixed sizes of molecules," suggesting "a potential relevance to homeopathy."

Does water respond to a higher power? That's probably between the drinker and one's chi. One thing is certain: Customers seem willing to pay to find out.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p.22,27

About the Author(s)

Peter Rejcek

Formerly the world’s only full-time journalist in Antarctica, Peter Rejcek is a professional editor and writer with nearly 30 years of experience covering science, technology, business and health, including the natural products industry. He also previously served as a senior editor for the supplements and health section of the Natural Foods Merchandiser.

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