IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Bottled water labels don’t tell the whole story

TODAY food editor Phil Lempert discusses little-known facts about the real source of much of the H2O Americans drink, a $15-billion a year industry.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Bottled waters may soon be getting clearer. No, I'm not talking about the clarity, or even purity, of the waters that we Americans spent $15 billion on last year. I'm talking about labeling!

Water labels do have federal regulation requirements; however, it's easy to be misled.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that about 75 percent of bottled water sold in the U.S. comes from natural underground sources, which include rivers, lakes, springs and artesian wells.

And the other 25 percent?

That comes from municipal sources, which is exactly the “source” of two leading brands of bottled water — Dasani (Coca-Cola) and Aquafina (PepsiCo).

The FDA requires that when a community water system source is used, the label must include “from a community water system” or “from a municipal source.” However, and here's where both brands’ labels can be misunderstood, if the water is distilled, deionized or uses reverse osmosis, it can be called “purified water.” And it does not have to state on its label that it is “from a community water system” or “from a municipal source.”

Aquafina announced last week that it is thinking about making a change on its label. Currently, its tag line reads “Pure water pure taste” under an image of a mountain, and their Web site indicates that their proprietary filtering system purifies the water several ways. The source of the water is not named and the company admits that Aquafina's water is purified from public reservoirs. It has also not announced that the change is definitely going to be made or, if it is, by when.

The proposed label change comes not from any federal regulation, or even corporate responsibility for truer labels, but from pressure mounted by the Think Outside the Bottle campaign being waged by the Corporate Accountability International consumer advocate group.

Among the many bottled waters from natural sources are Calistoga and Arrowhead of California, Poland Spring of Maine, Volvic, Evian and the favorite of many celebs, FIJI.

Is our tap water really so bad that we are forced to pay up to $3 for a half-liter of bottled water? The answer is no.

While various U.S. municipality water sources can range from very hard to very soft, cleanliness is rarely an issue. Bottled waters are certainly convenient, and for some show their status. But the reality is that all those empty bottles are also creating a plastic nightmare of countless tons of nondisposable waste in pubic landfills as well as using too much of the global energy footprint in production and shipping.

There are alternatives being tested in some cities: San Francisco city employees are banned from buying bottled water when tap water is available; Ann Arbor has banned commercially bottled water at city events, and Salt Lake City has asked its department heads to eliminate bottled water.

For me? A filter on my sink faucet (and shower) is fine for home. Tap water at restaurants, since most restaurants also filter their water, tastes great.

And those times, especially in the 90-degree heat of the summer, when you just gotta. I give in.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .