The notion that drinking bottled water with a high mineral content – or total dissolved salts – will assist you attain your ‘recommended daily allowance’ is an old-fashioned one. 

So much so, in fact, that South African packaged water legislation does not define ‘mineral water’ according to levels of mineralisation but rather as ‘a water that has passed through a rock formation and in so doing has acquired the mineral signature of that rock’. 

Waters from the Cape tends to have low levels of TDS, those from Gauteng slightly higher and those from the Karoo higher still. However, as long as the water has been produced according to South African packaged water legislation and complies with the South African National Bottled Water Association’s Bottled Water Standard, the mineral content of that water will fall within allowable limits regardless of its source and will not include any impurities that adds to the TDS. 

That’s the message from SANBWA Chairman, John Weaver. Weaver, who is also a consulting hydrogeologist, admits that mineral content of various waters is a topic that people tend to fuss over. In his view, and that of many consumers, much more important is drinking safe water to ensure proper hydration.  

“The modern demand for bottled water is for a safe-to-drink and refreshing water; in other words, an ‘on the go’ water. In our modern and food-educated lifestyle, we get more than sufficient minerals in our diet. So, the little that is contained in bottled water is not of great importance to our overall health,” he said.

“Another important factor to remember about natural waters is that it has taken many, sometimes hundreds, of years to pass through the rocks at its source. In doing so, the water has reached a natural balance of minerals with the parent rock. In contrast, reverse osmosis water has had all the dissolved minerals removed, and does taste ‘manufactured’ and ‘out of balance’.”

Weaver explained that bottled water has gone through two cycles of demand. The first started around the 1880s and ended during the Great Depression. The second cycle started in the mid-1970s, and shows no indication of ending.

“The first cycle had its beginning in the fashion for ‘taking the waters’. Here, the wealthier class in Europe would go to highly mineralised hot springs, soak in the waters, and go through a regime of light exercise and drinking multiple glasses of water for the perceived therapeutic benefits. 

“Legend had it that these waters would cure many diseases and ailments such as gout, liver complaints, dyspepsia, arthritis and many more ‘humours’. It stood to reason, therefore, that those ‘taking the waters’ wanted to have access to these ‘curative” waters in their own homes, and bottling of these became big business. 

“For example, from Austria came Gleichenberger, a bottled water with dissolved salts over 5 000 mg/Litre. Consider that the maximum allowable limit for Municipal Water in South Africa is less than half that at 2 000 mg/L, and you realise that Gleichenberger would be called ‘brack’ (or ‘brak’ in Afrikaans) and also unpalatable to the modern palate. 

“The change during the mid-1970s is called the ‘Perrier Effect’ after Perrier, a French bottled water, which ran a series of amusing adverts punning on the French word for water ‘eau’. For example, ‘eau no’ and ‘eau la la’ with accompanying fun pictures.”

Weaver pointed out that European and USA bottled water legislation goes into semantic byways trying to define and describe various levels of dissolved minerals. The semantic byways, he suggested, are remnants of the old-fashioned demand for highly mineralised water.

But, he mused, the consumer is king. Poland Spring is a bottled water from the USA with a low mineral content about 50 mg/L and a reputation for being ‘refreshing’. In the 1960 and 1970s, it bottled around 1 million litres annually. Today, under the ownership of Perrier, it bottles over 1 billion litres each year.

“I have presented many bottled water tastings to well over a thousand people in South Africa. At the end of the tasting, I ask for a show of hands for preference. The low mineral content still water normally gets about a 90% support. For the carbonated version of the same waters, the vote is usually split about 50:50 with a tendency towards the low mineral version,” he concluded