In a way, it's amazing that anyone could make a buck off of water; for many of us in the developed world, it's an easily accessible, inexpensive resource. But if you've wandered down the beverage aisle of your local supermarket anytime during the past decade, you've probably noticed a trend: there are more options for buying water than ever and the price of many of those options is creeping ever upward.
But is price an indicator of quality? And what else should we think about when we're buying mineral water? We spoke with Marcelo Pino, one of the world's top sommeliers (the top one in Chile, number 2 in the Americas, and number 26 in the world) and creator of the first guide to waters of Chile and Latin America, who answered these and all our other questions about mineral water.
Mineral water has become a highly commercialized—and often expensive—item in recent years, but it's been around for centuries, if not millennia. Why the sudden interest in something so basic?
“It's true, bottled water has been a part of our lives for several centuries,” Pino says, “and that's thanks to the kings of those bygone eras. They were aficionados of different sources of water because many of the sources were considered to be fountains with healing waters. Over the years, some of these fountains and sources became known worldwide; such was the case of the water Francesa Chateldon, which carried the symbol of the Sun King, Louis XIV.”
The modern market for bottled water has grown for several reasons, Pino explains, “ranging from the desire to live a healthier life to the inability to drink water from the tap because it's contaminated. In the case of 'luxury' waters, which normally are sourced from remote places and are associated with exclusivity and are packaged attractively, these are generally promoted in the worlds of high glamour and gastronomy, and so their values become quite elevated, within the reach of the more moneyed class.”
What are the main regions of the world where mineral water is produced?
“Mineral water is produced in practically every country; they are differentiated by the greater or lesser concentration of minerals in the region and whether the water comes from deep or superficial underground aquifers, as well as the story we've created around that source or brand of water. France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, among others, are the principal bottlers and exporters of mineral water at the global level,” said Pino.
What are the typical properties of mineral water and the range of characteristics a consumer should be aware of?
In the case of mineral waters, Pino says, shoppers should actually look at, well, the mineral content. The range of what's acceptable in terms of the types and amounts of minerals in a bottle of water varies from one country to another, and the consumer should be sure that the water he or she is considering falls within their country's acceptable range. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of regulating bottled water, and information about the types of bottled water, packaging, and what bottled water contains, as well as safety, can be found on the FDA's website. The country's Centers for Disease Control also provides useful information.
Pino also recommends that shoppers check the expiration date of the water they want to buy. “Water is considered a food,” Pino says, “and as such, it has an expiration date.” He adds that any shopper with a medical condition, such as hypertension, should consult with their doctor to ensure that the water they're consuming is safe. He points out that many mineral waters can have high sodium and may not be suitable or safe for consumers with specific medical conditions.
How should a consumer select mineral water?
While the bottom line when it comes to buying bottled water is the consumer's own taste preferences, Pino also suggests shoppers consider the following factors when buying mineral water:
Country of Origin and Bottling: Look first for waters bottled in your country or region. It's vastly preferable if the water is bottled at the source rather than transported from one area to another to be bottled.
The label “mineral”: There are also purified, filtered, and flavored waters. Be sure to read labels carefully to buy the one you're looking for.
Price: Pino points out that local waters will always be more economical than imported waters, which carry additional costs.
What do mineral water producers and experts know that the consumer doesn't but should?
Not all bottled waters are available in the supermarket; some are so local that they're available only at the source and these will be the most pure and have the least intervention.
In the case of Chile, Pino says, the phrase “LIBRE DE SODIO” (“SODIUM FREE”) that you might see on labels doesn't actually mean that there is NO sodium in the water; it means that there's less than 0.5mm of sodium per serving. Be label aware and know the meanings that correspond to the terms found on labels in your country.
What should shoppers know about the best use of mineral water?
Pino offers the following advice:
Storing: Make sure you store your water in a cool place, free from sunlight and strong odors.
Shelf life: While this varies from country to country and product to product, the general rule of thumb is that bottled water is good for a year. Check the regulations for your country and make sure the water you're buying hasn't expired.
Serving: Pino recommends serving water sin gas (ie: not sparkling) at temperatures around 55-56 degrees Fahrenheit; sparkling water should be served a bit cooler, around 48-49 degrees.