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Blowing bubbles in new extreme bottled waters

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The Big Pitcher promises to oxygenate your drinking water and thereby improve your health. (Photo courtesy of The Big Pitcher)

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The air is pretty thin at 30,000 feet. Thankfully, airplane cabins are pressurized so, instead of worrying about the lack of oxygen outside, passengers can sit back, open an in-flight magazine and worry about the amount of oxygen in their drinking water.

The Big Pitcher is one of the items for sale in the SkyMall catalog, distributed by 38 airlines in the U.S., and it claims to increase the oxygen level in drinking water from 2 to 11 parts per million. That boost, the company says, will lead to “increased energy and metabolism, improved sleep patterns, reduction in circulation problems and healthier, younger-looking skin and hair.”

Back on terra firma, the Big Pitcher has competition, as other companies tout their own oxygenated water products. Oxygen-saturated water, however, is not the only unusual take on nature’s oldest form of refreshment. At a time when sales of bottled water are at an all-time high, a number of surprising water products are trying to carve out niches in the market. Consumers can indulge in deep-sea water drawn from 3,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean and purported to be unrivaled in its purity. For those of a more religious bent, holy water is available for drinking, complete with “Sinners Beware” labeling.

But many experts argue that attempts to improve on plain old H2O are more marketing than science. Even as unusual forms of water gain in popularity, skeptics say their claims are pretty hard to swallow.

“If you need oxygen, it’s through breathing,” says Dr. Joshua Barzilay, a Georgia-based internist and co-author of “The Water We Drink: Water Quality and Its Effects on Health.” “This is just playing on people’s desire to be healthy. There’s no scientific evidence for any of this.”

People’s desire to be healthy was one of driving factors behind the bottled water industry’s explosive growth in the past few decades. By the 1970s, the environmental movement had hit its stride, and concerns over the contamination of tap water encouraged a shift to bottled and filtered water. By the 1990s, millions had made the switch, and bottled water started to be seen as fashionable and convenient for an on-the-go lifestyle. Backed by aggressive marketing, the size of the bottled water industry in the United States expanded to more than $12 billion in 2008.

With hundreds of brands of water on the market today, along with a wide variety of filtration devices, new companies have relied on their creativity—and the distinctiveness of their products—to try to find a niche. But Teri Mathis, the inventor of the Big Pitcher, says it is unfair to write her product off as merely marketing. In her former career treating industrial wastewater on the Texas Gulf Coast, she learned purification techniques involving oxygen. Starting in 2000, she began conceptualizing the Big Pitcher—an electrical appliance about the size of a blender that takes oxygen from the air and bubbles it through a volume of water. The dissolved oxygen content increases, she says, which leads to health benefits.

“Besides the chemical property of water that we all know, H2O, there are also physical properties that include oxygen saturation,” Mathis says. “Our system brings oxygen content to its natural maximum saturation, and drinking our water is one of the ways to have an oxygen-balanced body.” That, in turn, leads to a host of benefits, from the maintenance of a healthy weight to better sleep, according to Mathis. A promotional brochure for the Big Pitcher even says, “Drinking oxygenated water discourages cancer cell growth.”

Mathis acknowledges that many of her claims are based on anecdotal evidence but says she is planning to fund studies of oxygenated water in the future. “Most of this is logic,” she adds.

Mathis says interest in the Big Pitcher, which sells for $250, has steadily risen. Although she declined to provide sales figures, she claims that last month was the company’s most successful.

“What this tells me,” says Barzilay, “is that people have too much money and don’t know what to do with themselves.”

He is equally skeptical of the claims made by sellers of deep-sea water. MaHaLo Hawaii Deep Sea says its product is “a modern miracle enriched by thousands of years of protection from pollution and brimming with life’s essential minerals.” The handful of other companies hawking water plumbed from the ocean depths make similar claims. They also charge as much as $75 per case, not including shipping.

“Essentially, what they’re doing is taking out salt from the water and giving you mineral water, which you can get from springs and aquifers and all kinds of other places,” Barzilay says. “It’s a fad.”

“The claims don’t bear out,” agrees Tom Lauria of the International Bottled Water Association, the industry’s largest trade group. “We don’t represent any of the companies that sell so-called oxygenated water or deep-sea water because they’re not selling water—they’re selling myth.”

But the opinions of experts may be irrelevant when it comes to other types of water. Faith healers might be better suited to comment on H2Om, or “Water With Intention,” a product from Los Angeles that prides itself on “hydration vibration.” Flavored waters can’t compare to the varieties of H2Om, which include Love, Perfect Health and Prosperity, each infused with its respective property based on, among other things, the music played at the bottling plant.

Churchgoers might be the experts when it comes to drinkable holy water. Now sold by at least three distributors around the country, the holy water is blessed by men of the cloth before it is shipped.

Brian Germann is president and CEO of California-based Wayne Enterprises, a company that sold computer software for law enforcement before diversifying into drinkable holy water. His inspiration for the product came on a special day. “It happened to be June 6th of 2006, which was 6-6-6 day, and I was saying to my niece that of course this is the day where the devil is going to try anything he can to get as many people as he can,” Germann recalls. “I looked up at a bottle of holy water on my mantel and I thought, ‘Too bad we don’t have some holy drinking water that we can drink and that will help protect us.’”

Wayne Enterprises has sold around 10,000 bottles since then, each featuring a “Sinners Beware” label that warns of burning, vomiting and rashes among the other maladies that may befall an unfit drinker. Germann says that the warning is not meant to be taken seriously and instead serves a dual purpose: to safeguard his company against lawsuits and to attract a younger (and more curious) clientele.

Germann says he is not hoping to make a profit from his holy water. Instead, his main aim is to promote good behavior. As the business grows, he plans to use the profits for charity or to fund scholarships. But he is sure that his water is already making a positive impact. As proof, he notes that customers have paid for approximately 85 cases of water to be sent to troops in Iraq. On home soil, there are other stories, including one with a decidedly Old Testament ring to it: Members of a family were driving across the country when their car overheated. With nothing but a case of Germann’s holy water on hand to fill the radiator, they decided to give it a try. “They never had to fill the engine back up with any water for the rest of their vacation,” Germann insists, “and they drove through seven different states.”

Germann’s product, called simply Holy Drinking Water, will soon be available in 5-gallon jugs for home and office. It is also meant to be compatible with a variety of faiths. “So far, we have a Catholic priest, an Anglican Communion priest and a first Presbyterian clergyman to bless the water,” he says. “We have applications from representatives of many different faiths who are willing to bless the water, but we’ve only had three pass all the background checks. We wouldn’t want anything to come back on the product in a negative sense because of something that happened in this person’s past.”

When it comes to water, it seems, even faith has its limits.

Email: rbs2130@columbia.edu