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Why you shouldn’t believe the hype behind ‘enhanced’ waters

You’d be just as healthy — and retain more of your hard-earned money — if you drank plain tap water.

water glass
One of the more incredulous claims made by the marketers of “enhanced” waters is that their product is gluten-free.
Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash

If you consume a lot of alkaline, ionized, electrolyte-infused or other “enhanced” waters, you’ll want to read an article published this week on the science-backed health and wellness site Elemental.

Doing so could save you a bit of money.

In the article, freelance journalist Luke Winkie pulls aside the marketing hype around such products — that they can neutralize the acid in your body, for example, or give your body extra hydrogen that boosts brain function — to reveal the truth:

You’d be just as healthy — and retain more of your hard-earned money — if you drank plain tap water.

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“Wellness trends are typically built around the idea that the way you’re living is wrong and inefficient and that there’s a better, healthier, smarter way — if only you pick the right product,” Winkie writes. “But water is such a straightforward, good-for-you ‘product’ already. Is it really possible to build a better one? According to many experts, the short answer is no.”

‘Beyond absurd’

Alkaline water — which marketers claim can “balance your pH” — is a case in point.

As Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health law and policy at the University of Alberta (and the author of “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?”) tells Winkie, “Our bodies carefully regulate the pH of our blood. We can’t change our pH level through the food that we eat. Our bodies have evolved to handle this. There is no evidence that alkaline food and beverages have any health benefits. It is all just wellness woo noise.”

Although Winkie doesn’t mention it in his article, some of the “woo noise” around alkaline water is that it can help with the treatment of cancer — a claim that a 2016 review of existing scientific literature on the topic said is “not justified.”

“Despite the promotion of … alkaline water by the media and salespeople, there is almost no actual research to either support or disprove [these ideas],” the authors of the review concluded.

Joe Swartz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Canada, is less polite about that lack of evidence.

“All this rubbish [the unproven health claims about alkaline water] … makes anyone with a chemistry background want to tear their hair out,” he wrote on his organization’s blog a few years ago. “Of course, the promoters of ionized alkalized water have an answer to that too.  They claim the water has a calming effect and can even grow hair.”

“Not only is there not an iota of scientific evidence for any of the claims, the notion of ‘ionized alkaline water’ having any therapeutic effect is beyond absurd,” Swartz added.  In fact, the term ‘ionized alkaline water’ is scientifically meaningless.”

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Other examples

Then there’s hydrogen water. Writes Winkie:

Hydrogen water, which can cost as much as $60 for a 24-pack, has yet to hold up in a comprehensive medical study. While companies like HydrogenX claim to offer a product that increases brain functionality, improves mood, and boosts weight loss, Caulfield disagrees with each of those points. “There is no good evidence to support the claims of better health and well-being,” he says. “Companies will often reference the existence of studies, but these are usually just small or preliminary studies that haven’t been replicated.”

In fact, the basic concept behind hydrogen water doesn’t make any sense. The hydrogen starts to escape as soon as you open the bottle, “eventually rendering the liquid inside comparable to normal H2O,” notes Winkie.

And what about all those pricey waters enhanced with electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium?

“While electrolytes are required to retain hydration, nobody needs to consume extra electrolytes, unless you’ve been exercising intensely for an hour or more,” Winkie points out.

The key word there is intensely. As a Consumer Reports article published earlier this year notes, beverage products with added electrolytes “were originally developed for hardcore athletes to replenish electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, that are lost in sweat, plus carbohydrates that muscles use for fuel.”

“The average exerciser needs to replace water, not electrolytes,” says Consumer Reports nutritionist Amy Keating in the article.

Of course, companies can’t make much money selling their electrolyte-infused products only to elite athletes.

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‘People will believe anything’

One of the more incredulous claims made by the marketers of “enhanced” waters is that their product is gluten-free.

“That is like saying sheet metal is gluten-free,” Caulfield tells Winkie.

“It is a great example of how companies are going to great lengths to use health halos to make their water seem ‘enhanced,’” he says.

“Marketing nonsense is routinely accepted as reliable information,” adds Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. “People don’t tend to do this with other things that matter — cars, bank accounts, or even vacuum cleaners — but when it comes to nutrition, people will believe anything.”

“That’s very unfortunate for the consumers of nonsense,” he says, “but it sure is good for the sellers.”

FMI: You can read the article on the Elemental website. It’s the latest in a series of articles on the health benefits of water. Elemental is part of the Medium online publishing platform.