#271 The Bottle Battle

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I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man.

Henry David Thoreau

Should You Drink Bottled Water?

By Steve Edwards

Glass of WaterWhen San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom banned the city from purchasing bottled water for its facilities last month, it was the tip of a plastic-bashing iceberg. Facing charges of low regulatory standards, poor health practices, and overinflated prices, the bottled water industry is finally feeling consumer pressure. A week later, a Chicago councilman proposed a 10- to 25-cent tax on bottled water to help pay for a $40 million water and sewer fund deficit, which came about because people weren't drinking as much tap water. Now, Aquafina has announced that it's changing its labels to admit that, yes, in fact, its product is nattily dressed tap water. The backlash begs the obvious question: why are we drinking so much bottled water in the first place?

It's not like we're a developing nation that lacks infrastructure. The United States has some of the highest tap water standards in the world. Higher, in fact, than the standards set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for bottled water. When PepsiCo was finally forced to admit that its Aquafina brand came from municipal water supplies, sales of the top-selling bottled water took a hit. "It's a tough time to be in bottled water," Joseph Doss, CEO of the International Bottled Water Association, told USA Today. "We're facing a great deal of controversy."

AquafinaWe covered this story back in early 2006 (What's In Your Water?). It created a big stir in our community but little in the bigger picture. We did receive one letter from a Pepsi employee, a casual dismissal stating, "The person who wrote this article is obviously ignorant of the facts on bottled water," (read the Mailbag reply). Now the facts we were "ignorant of" are exactly what PepsiCo is currently addressing. Word on the street is that Coca-Cola's Dasani brand will be following suit.

The entire industry is now in full-scale backpedal mode. "It's unfortunate that people are turning this into a tap-water-vs.-bottled-water issue," said Doss. "We don't disparage tap water. We think if consumers are drinking water, whether it's bottled or tap, it's a good thing." While not exactly a lie, this isn't the marketing hype that encouraged consumers to shell out 15 billion dollars on bottled water last year. Especially when you consider that, according to one estimate, a typical monthly water bill would exceed $9,000 if the cost of tap water were equal to the cheapest bottled water on the market.

Down, but not out

Even under fire with negative press, the bottled water industry is still projecting sales to increase over 7 percent in the upcoming year. While it may be a dip from previous years—growth in the U.S. has hit nearly 15 percent—it's still a far cry from pure panic mode and begs the question: why the increase in sales?

P90X®Of course, drinking plain water is vital. At Beachbody, encouraging our members to drink more of it is one of our most harped-upon themes. Especially when you're exercising—whether it is P90X® or Turbo Jam®—adding more water to your diet is one of the healthiest things you can do. But why is the public under the impression that it needs to be bottled water? Are those Evian commercials really that influential?

It makes sense that the bottled water industry would be strong in countries where potable water is scarce. But the United States now consumes more bottled water than any other country in the world. Given that we also have some of the best tap water in the world, this is confusing. Further confounding the issue is the fact that bottled water is less regulated than tap water in the U.S. In a study cited in our earlier article, 22 percent of the bottled waters tested had chemical contaminants higher than state limits allow for tap water.

Bottled water, which is regulated by the FDA, "is not tested as thoroughly or as frequently as tap water, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency," said Jon Coifman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in USA Today. "It's not that bottled water is going to kill you . . . But there's also no reason to believe it's better, despite marketing that is all about health, wholesomeness, and purity."

Water Treatment PlantEven with our high standards for water safety, there are still occasional problems with municipal supplies that could create misconceptions. Just last week, for example, a small Massachusetts community was warned about a potential E. coli outbreak in their water. But this theory that municipal supplies are less safe doesn't hold up because drinking bottled water is not statistically safer. In fact, the current bottled water regulations allow bottled water to contain "some contamination by E. coli, or fecal coliform, and don't require disinfection for cryptosporidium or giardia."

So who knows the answer? Maybe the bottled water folks are great marketers (Coke and Pepsi do lead the way, remember), or maybe we just like those cute plastic bottles.

The plastic problem

On that note, the pollution factor has also been getting more attention recently. It's estimated that more than 60 million plastic water bottles are thrown away every day in the United States. Since it can take up to 1,000 years for these disposable water bottles to decompose, we don't need a statistician to show us how this could present a future ecological crisis.

Mike Layton, a project manager for Environmental Defense, a Toronto-based environmental organization, told the St. Catherine's Standard that drinking bottled water could significantly hurt the environment. "The product is really the bottle, which is actually a petroleum-based product. It is mined and made into PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles. One kilogram of plastic requires 17 kilograms of water to make it, not to mention all the other greenhouse gases released into the air in the manufacturing process."

LandfillIn 2006, over 50 billion plastic water bottles were purchased in the United States alone. The one and a half million barrels of oil required to produce those 50 billion plastic bottles could fuel at least 100,000 vehicles for a full year. The manufacturing of every ton of PET produces around 3 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Thus, bottling water created more than 2.5 million tons of CO2 in 2006, which is about 0.1 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

And that's just in the bottle manufacturing process. We also transport "exotic" water from places like Fiji and New Zealand. "We're paying for the water to be driven or often flown from other parts of the world, when we have good clean water running right out of our taps," said Layton.

So what's the easy answer?

There's no need to drink store-bought bottled water in the United States and Canada. It's cheaper, safer, and more time efficient to filter your own water and store it in your own bottles for portability.

All municipal water suppliers are required to provide annual water-quality reports to their customers—and it's free. You can then choose a home water filtration system that specifically rids your water of any local contaminants. A quick Internet search will provide dozens of options, most of which filter your water so that it's often clean beyond the legal limits for contamination. And even if you're lazy, any random filter system will probably improve your 22 percent chance of getting contaminated bottled water.

Bottle of WaterHome bottling is also the safest and most environmentally friendly alternative. The dangers of cheap disposable water bottles are debated, but companies that specifically make water carriers, like Nalgene, test all of their products to ensure that they're safe. These bottles are practically indestructible, leak proof, and will last most of your life. And if the time involved in filtering your own water seems inconvenient, consider the time and gas it takes to drive to the market just to get a drink of water.

What if I want my Aquafina?

For those of you who still want to buy bottled water but would also like it to be safer, here's what you can do. Write letters to your Congress members, the FDA, and your governor, and urge them to adopt strict requirements for bottled water safety, labeling, and public disclosure. Specifically, refer to these points suggested by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

  • Set strict limits for contaminants of concern in bottled water, including arsenic; heterotrophic-plate-count bacteria; E. coli and other parasites and pathogens; and synthetic organic chemicals such as "phthalates."

  • Apply the same rules to all bottled water, whether carbonated or not and whether sold intrastate or interstate.

  • Require bottlers to display information on their labels about the levels of contaminants of concern found in the water, the water's exact source, how it's been treated, and whether it meets health criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control for killing parasites like cryptosporidium.

To take even further action, you can encourage your bottlers and the International Bottled Water Association (a trade organization that includes about 85 percent of water bottlers) to voluntarily make labeling disclosures such as those listed above.

Contact information:
Jane E. Henney, M.D.
Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

Beverage Marketing Corporation 2006 Market Report Findings; Canadian Bottled Water Association; P.H. Gleick 2004. "Bottled Water." In P.H. Gleick (editor), The World's Water 2004-2005: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Island Press, Washington, D.C.; The National Resources Defense Council, "Gaping Holes in Government Bottled Water Regulation."; Pacific Institute – Bottled Water and Energy: A Fact Sheet; J.G. Rodwan Jr. (2005), "Bottled Water 2004: U.S. and International Statistics and Developments," Bottled Water Reporter, International Bottled Water Association April/May 2005.

Steve Edwards If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, just email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

Check out our Fitness Advisor's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. If you'd like to receive Steve Edwards' Mailbag by email, click here to subscribe to Steve's Health and Fitness Newsletter. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope.

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The Great Diet Soda Debate

By Denis Faye

Diet CokeTo many weight loss enthusiasts, diet soda is the nutritional equivalent of getting away with murder, a naughty indulgence to be enjoyed without fear of repercussion or, more importantly, weight gain.

But are Coke Zero and Diet Pepsi truly the nectar of the gods? Truth is, it's hard to say. Unlike with trans fat, there is no hard and fast evidence showing that diet soda rots your insides. However, there's also no evidence showing that it benefits you. There are, however, plenty of studies indicating that diet sodas are, in a word, weird. Whether it might cause heart disease, or it might make you eat more junk food, or it might give you cancer, the big question about diet soda is: is it worth it?

A little history

Bags of SweetenersDiet soda bubbled into popular culture in 1952 when Kirsch Beverages of Brooklyn, New York came out with No-Cal Ginger Ale, a saccharine-sweetened drink aimed at diabetics. In 1962, Royal Crown came out with Diet Rite Cola, this time sweetened with saccharine and cyclamate. Coca-Cola rolled out Tab in 1963. Pepsi followed suit in 1965 with Diet Pepsi. And the race was on.

In 1970, the artificial sweetener cyclamate was banned in the United States when it was found to cause cancer in lab rats. In 1977, saccharine came under scrutiny for the same reason. In the 1980s, soft drink manufacturers switched to aspartame. Today, while most diet sodas still contain aspartame, some—Diet Rite and Hansen Natural Sodas—use sucralose, aka Splenda. Others such as Coke Zero and Diet Red Bull throw a little acesulfame potassium into the mix. When the legitimacy of the saccharine/cancer connection came into question in the 1990s, saccharine-sweetened Tab returned to the market.

Some sweet science

If you're wondering which of these sweeteners are good and which ones are toxic, the answer is hazy at best. For example, one minute saccharine kills on contact, the next minute it's harmless. Science gets even more wobbly for the other sweeteners, given that most of them have only been around for a few decades. That's not much, considering it took almost a century for anyone to figure out saccharine's potential health-risk issues.

For a more detailed explanation of artificial sweeteners, check out this article.

Nothing for something

Drinking Diet CokeA far more obvious concern with diet drinks is that people think they've somehow cheated the system when this is most likely not the case. A study by the University of Alberta published in the August 2007 issue of the journal Obesity found that feeding a diet of low- and zero-calorie food to young lab rats tampered with the body's ability to recognize calories and regulate food intake, so that later in life, the rats tended to overeat, even highly caloric foods.

Granted, these are rats, not people, so the rules are very different, but this is still food for thought, so to speak. How many times have you ordered diet soda at the movies, thinking that it somehow made the accompanying giant tub of buttered popcorn acceptable? Because you passed on a 150-calorie drink, you're now "allowed" to eat a 400-plus-calorie fatty snack? Hmmm.

In fact, a 2005 study by the University of Texas Healthy Science Center showed that there's a 41 percent increased risk of being overweight for every can of soda a person consumes in a day. While the popcorn theory isn't the proven reason for these findings, it is a definite possibility. Another plausible theory is that diet sodas alert the body of a possible influx of calories without delivering the goods, causing further calorie cravings.

Backing up this study is a July 2007 study by the Boston University School of Medicine. When 6,000 middle-aged men and women were observed over four years, it was found that those who drank one soda or more a day had approximately a 50 percent greater risk of metabolic syndrome—a group of risk factors including excessive fat around the middle section of the body, low HDL (good) cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other health-risk symptoms.

But seriously . . .

Of course, it's easy to explain most of this research away with chicken-and-egg logic. Is diet soda making people unhealthy, or are unhealthy people drawn to diet soda in a misguided attempt to turn things around?

And while we're debunking anti-diet-soda theories, it's worth noting that, contrary to popular advice (including, in the past, my own), carbonation does not pull calcium from your bones. According to a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2001, the calcium problem only occurred when the carbonated drinks also contained caffeine.

Brewed TeaBut these two concessions are small potatoes compared to the overwhelming, ever-increasing body of research suggesting that diet sodas are problematic. True, none of the evidence is entirely conclusive and even the researchers involved are quick to admit that their studies need to be taken with a grain of salt. But, at the same time, every time you open a can of Diet Coke, there's a giant question mark floating among those bubbles. You don't really know what you're drinking and you have no idea what it's doing to your body. It's up to you to decide, if it's really worth it when you could have brewed yourself an iced tea (without sugar, of course)?

For some suggestions, check out "12 Teas to Brew Up Better Health."

Denis Faye If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, just email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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Test Your Water IQ!

By Joe Wilkes

True or False?

  1. Bottles of WaterTRUE: The average human body contains 37 liters of water. The human body is about 66 percent water, explaining why dehydration is so bad. The average person should consume at least two liters of water every day to maintain proper hydration. The brain is 75 percent water, which is why headaches are often the first symptom when we're a quart low. Blood is 83 percent water and bones are 25 percent water.

  2. FALSE: Five percent of the Earth's water is OK to drink. Only one percent of the Earth's water is safe to drink. And by safe, we mean it's not saltwater (97 percent of the Earth's water) or frozen (two percent of the Earth's water). The freshwater supply has become increasingly contaminated since the middle of the twentieth century, coinciding with the increased use of chemicals in manufacturing.

  3. ChickensFALSE: It takes two gallons of water to produce one chicken egg. It takes an average of 120 gallons of water to produce just one egg. But that's better than a car, which requires almost 40,000 gallons of water for its production.

  4. TRUE: The average individual uses 100 gallons of water every day. And almost two-thirds of this water usage is in the bathroom. We use about two gallons of water to brush our teeth, about five gallons to flush the toilet, and 20 gallons for a five-minute shower. Americans hold up the high end of the average, using five times more water than Europeans.

  5. Gathering WaterFALSE: Ten million people in the world are without safe drinking water. Over two BILLION people in the world, a third of the world's population, are without safe drinking water, due to drought and pollution. Every day, it is estimated that 10,000 children under the age of five die due to illnesses related to unsafe-water consumption. There are currently over 70,000 known water pollutants, most associated with chemicals. And at a conference this week, it was disclosed that over 70 countries and 137 million people had dangerous levels of arsenic in their drinking water, elevating incidences of lung, bladder, and skin cancer in those populations.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, just email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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