Have you heard about this raw water thing? I had never heard of it until a couple of weeks ago. And, now, all of the sudden, it seems to be everywhere! Articles, news reports, blog posts, YouTube videos — everybody’s talking about the raw water trend.
I’ll be honest with you and say I started the first news report I saw on the subject decidedly half-heartedly. I intended to skim it because I was pretty sure the whole thing was going to nonsense. The phrase raw water had already set off my health-scam-radar. One cannot, technically, cook water, so there is no such thing as actual raw water. And a name for a movement that is (deliberately or otherwise) misleading, is always a red-flag. Then, the title of the article I was about to read was pointedly disparaging of the whole thing. I thought: Eh, this’ll be nothing.
As I got into the article, though, I started stumbling across some things that made me pause. There were a bunch of statements, on both sides of the argument (pro- and anti-raw water), that needed some clarifications. I decided to do some digging to get some real answers for myself and all the Nutrishativers (if I may call you such!).
Wanna see what I found? Here we go!
What is Raw Water?
Let’s start at the beginning. What is this stuff, anyway?
The obvious implication of the name raw water is that no one has cooked the water. Now, I know I just said water can’t technically be cooked, and it can’t. Cooking food requires complex changes in protein, sugar and fat structures and the loss of water when you heat it. Water (molecules of H2O) obviously has no sugars, proteins or fats that can change with heat. Nor can they lose water — how would that even work?
I’m entirely aware, however, that pointing this out is just a touch pedantic because, in common parlance, cooked can be used to mean heated, and you can heat water.
Okay, so is this simply water that no one has ever heated? That’s what the name would imply if you don’t take the term raw so literally.
Yep! And nope!
Turns out, the name is actually referring to a third meaning of raw that did not occur to me at all: unprocessed.
Raw water is water that has not been heated, filtered, chlorinated, fluorinated, distilled, treated with ozone or ultraviolet light. Nothing. It is simply plain ol’ river or spring water, exactly as you find it on the ground.
Why the Sudden Raw Water Craze?
Why’s raw water flooding the internet right now? The immediate reason is that the New York Times published this piece on December 29, 2017 discussing raw water, which put it front and center on the national stage and launched the tidal wave of secondary reports you’re seeing everywhere.
The reason the New York Times wrote the piece? This seems to be the success of several start-up companies selling raw water at exorbitant prices. According to the original New York Times piece Live Water, a raw water start-up from Oregon is successfully selling 2.5 gallons for $36.99. Another raw water company, Tourmaline Spring (also called Summit Spring Water) based in Maine, has customers buy just over third of a gallon of water for $46.57.
People’s willingness to shell out so much of their hard earned money for water is what seems, I think understandably, to have caught the New York Times’ eye and set-off this whole craze.
Which brings up the key question: why are people willing to spend so much money on raw water? Based on the New York Times report and raw water ads, there is a single answer to that. People are buying raw water in order to improve their health.
Commercial Raw Water Health Claims
The companies selling raw water, market it for all kinds of purported health benefits. In fact, this appears to be their only selling point, and what is drawing in customers. They claim that raw water is natural, unprocessed and healthier for you.
So, here’s where the good stuff starts. We’re going to go through their main selling points and the counter-arguments provided by those against raw water. We’ll see which ones, eh-hm, hold water.
1. Raw water is free from harmful chemicals or heavy metal contaminants.
Both leading companies make this argument. A real boost for their trustworthiness is that they don’t just leave the customer to take their word for it.
Both companies have published recent (although not 100% up-to-date) water quality test reports, which you can check out here and here. The analysis of the water was carried out by laboratories certified to carry out water quality testing. Looking through the list of possible chemical contaminants, both water sources do actually come out remarkably clean. Neither source (Tourmaline Spring in Cumberland County, Maine and Opal Spring in Madras, Oregon, respectively) was found to have any chemical or pharmaceutical contaminants at or above standard safety maximums set for drinking water in the United States by the EPA.
All-in-all, this seems like a positive. At least, there is no downside to the water not being contaminated with chemicals and pollutants.
The main critique of raw water in this regard is that all this testing does is show that the water meets the EPA legal standards for safe drinking water — the same as is used to determine if tap water or bottled water (which is truly, usually just tap water in a bottle) is safe to drink. In a weirdly circular logic, the companies are trying to prove to you that their water is better to drink than tap water or bottled water by showing that it meets the purity standards for tap and bottled water. If you think water meeting these standards is safe, you should drink your tap water. The goverment requires tap water to meet these standards, too, and should, therefore, also be considered safe.
Raw Water = Tap Water?
While I totally understand the logic in the tap water argument — I also understand why it rings untrue for some people. Americans are perfectly aware that, illegal or no, sometimes local tap water does not meet the EPA standards. We all just watched the Flint Water Crisis in horror and disbelief. We all just learned that the local and state government told flat-out lies about the water quality to Flint residents. People in Flint were told by their government officials that their water was safe while it was actually poisoning them. This erodes trust in reports about safe tap water everywhere.
Now, Flint was, hopefully, an extreme anomaly and most tap water cannot be that bad (the stuff was brown!). Statistically, most tap water is probably really very safe. I was, nevertheless, disappointed by news articles’ failures to at least acknowledge Flint’s existence and its effect on the American psyche regarding tap water quality reports.
In fact, many of the stories jumped over the main dichotomy people interested in the raw water movement have been grappling with. Do I trust that the government’s claims about my tap water or the CEOs claims about their raw water, more?
I can genuinely understand if you lean towards the CEOs. In fact, if chemical contamination were the only issue at hand, I’d say: you know what, go for it. The risk of pollutants in both cases are probably minimal. So, if you have the money and really trust the companies more, just buy the raw water.
Hold, though! There are other issues! Let’s look at number 2 now!
2. Raw water does not contain dangerous bacteria.
This is perhaps the most interesting and contentious of the arguments surrounding raw water.
The Tourmaline Water company prides itself on being contamination free. In the 2016 water quality report, they present the results of bacterial testing. Species specific tests for infectious E. Coli and coliform bacteria were conducted and none were detected. Additionally, they presented a total bacterial count, which indicates how many living bacteria of any species (infectious or not) are present in the water.
In a process similar to estimating the number of viable plant seeds in a bag by throwing the whole bag into fertile soil garden and counting the number of plants that grow, water analysts poured a sample of 1 mL of Tourmaline Water onto a plate of perfect bacterial food and watched to see how many thriving colonies of bacteria grew. They found that less than 1 active, healthy colony grew (>1 colony-forming-unit per milliliter (CFU/mL), which is below the legal cut-off for safe drinking water.
Live Water has taken a decidedly different approach. Though they also reported on levels of E. Coli and Coliform bacteria in their water (both undetected), they don’t offer a total bacterial count in their water quality report. This may be pretty readily explained by a quick look at the microbial report that they also provide. Again completed by a certified laboratory, this report shows that from a single 4 species, Live Water contains over 20,000 CFU/mL. The cut off for the EPA standards is 1 CFU/mL. That would have lit-up like a light-bulb on the contamination report.
What’s particularly fascinating about this report, is Live Water’s response to it.
Rather than hiding the fact that there are bacteria in their water, they advertise with it, claiming these bacteria are healthy and act as probiotics. The New York Times article was extremely dismissive of this point, calling probiotics raw-water parlance for healthy bacteria. Probiotics are a real thing, though, not just something the raw water people made up. Some bacteria are healthy and do make you healthier. Maybe the bacteria in this water really are probiotics?
Let’s check out the evidence for the 4 species listed in their report.
a. Pseudomonas oleovorans
A scientific database search for P. oleovorans and probiotics brought up nothing. In fact, it seems most of the time, human interest in this bacteria is limited to its ability to produce a type of biodegradable plastic.
That might mean no one has ever looked to see if it could be a probiotic, not that it’s not, right? Right! So I did some more digging — it it’s also harmless for human health, maybe it doesn’t matter if you drink it. Either it provides probiotic benefits, or it does nothing. In both cases, you’re fine.
It was looking decent until I came across this study. A little girl already very ill with a methicillin-susceptible S. aureus (MSSA) infection (a type of staph infection that can only be treated with special types of antibiotics) also became infected with P. oleovorans. This suggests that for most people P. oleovorans won’t do much to you, but if your immune system is compromised, it might make you ill. Hm, not great.
b. Acidovorax spp.
Studies have not found any probiotic properties for this bacteria, either.
Is it dangerous? As with P. oleovorans, it appears for most healthy people, Acidovorax spp. is unlikely make you directly sick, but there have been a couple of individual reports that it can infect people who are already ill.
Perhaps more concerningly, there is evidence suggesting Acidovorax spp. may help promote the development of colon cancer, though more evidence is needed.
Looks like this also might be something you don’t want to drink.
c. Pseudomonas putida
There is extremely little evidence regarding P. putida as a probiotic. In fact, I was able to find very little about P. putida in humans at all, which is, perhaps, better than finding evidence that it can cause infections.
The only research even suggesting a role one way or the other I found was this study, showing that normal, healthy gut bacteria (Lb. salivarius) is able to kill P. putida in a petri dish. Since one of the jobs of the normal gut bacteria is to kill of dangerous bacteria, this may be an indication P. putida is not something you want setting up camp in your gut.
d. Pseudomonas spp.
Typing Pseudomonas spp. into a scientific database search bar immediately brought up Pseudomonas spp. infection as a suggested search. Not a great sign.
Again, this is perhaps a bacteria you don’t want to be drinking, especially if you are already sick. Well, it looks like the probiotic angle really doesn’t really hold to the science at all.
No Probiotics, but also No Sterilization
Not finding probiotics in their water is a major blow to the raw water argument because keeping the probiotics alive was the primary motivation to not sterilize the water in any way, shape or form. Without probiotics present, there is no remaining justification for the lack of sterilization, which is the primary criticism of raw water.
It is also a valid criticism. Without any sterilizations procedures, there are absolutely no safeguards to prevent any kind of bacteria (or parasites or viruses for that matter!!) from taking up residence in the water. Literally anything water-borne microorganism could start growing into the water and you might have zero clue until it’s too late. E. coli, dysentery, even cholera could get into the water and there is nothing to kill them off before the water is shipped to you.
Testing once a year or maybe even every 2 years (Live Water’s last report is from 2015) is not enough to make sure they caught all dangerous bacteria before you get the water. Bacteria can grow fast. You know that even from your own, everyday experiences, such as watching bacteria wipe out a piece of fruit you left in the bowl too long. It takes days, not years.
Dangerous bacteria, even if they aren’t in the water right now, or at the time of the last testing, are a real risk with raw water.
3. Processed Water Loses its Health Benefits
Now, neither company stated this claim as such. I created this category title for a solid dozen statements made about processed water to convince customers that it is not as healthy as raw water because of the treatment processes.
I really wanted to go through and provide an evidence-based rebuttal for each of the health claims the companies. But there were just too many!
In their place, let me just offer an overarching rebuttal to the entire premise that water can lose its health benefits at all.
The fact of the matter is — water is water. As long as it has two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen, it can do what it needs to do in your body. It cannot be dead or too immature to work. No amount of adding energy (heating, treating with UV light), switching between gas and liquid form (distilling) or mixing with disinfectant chemicals (ozone, chlorine, fluoride) makes water not water, and as long as it’s water, it works to keep your cells alive and you healthy.
Yes, the water molecules can have things like bacteria, or heavy metals (as we saw in Flint), or plastic additives and pharmaceuticals (as Live Water’s website accurately points out) mixed in between them. These things can make you less healthy when you drink them with the water. The water molecules themselves, however, cannot become less healthy and no water is inherently healthier than any other water.
Commercial Raw Water: Yay or Nay?
Buying commercial raw water is a risk to your health. There is a genuine threat of a bacterial infection (or potentially even viral or parasitic). That said, if you trust the CEOs have presented accurate water quality tests (other statements on their websites are not accurate), there is a decently low risk of exposure to dangerous levels of other chemicals or contaminants from this water.
If you are otherwise healthy (do NOT buy this if you have AIDS, are on chemotherapy, are elderly, have recently been very ill and do not give it to young children), you could buy raw water if you really want to and you can afford it. Based on the available scientific evidence, if raw water does not give you an infection, it should be safe to drink.
However, it seems to me that the risk is not really worth the exorbitant monetary costs. Your tap water should be clean of chemical contaminants and bacterial contaminants and is a fraction of the cost. If you are genuinely concerned about the safety of your tap water, have someone come test it. It won’t cost you more than a lifetime supply of raw water by any means!
On the whole, I give commercial raw water a: nay.
Non-Commercial Raw Water
Finally, I want to end with a quick note on non-commercial raw water.
Live Water’s website has an outbound link called Find A Spring that allows you to look for free natural springs near your home where you can collect your own raw water. I explored the page a bit and it is simply a repository where everyone can register a natural spring and its location.
Listings generally just have a location and an anecdote or two relating personal experiences with the spring. Unlike the water from the commercial springs, where you have a decent hope that the water really has been tested and is free from the worst contaminants, like lead, mercury, arsenic, E. coli, coliform bacteria and potent industrial pollutants, here you have zero idea what might be in the water.
Please, please do not collect raw water from any untested source and drink it.
Even though its free, drinking non-commercial raw water it is an absolutely terrible idea. It could be extremely dangerous, potentially even life-threatening.
Non-commercial raw water gets not only a nay, but a quadruple-double-bold-nay. It is really, really not safe!
Take Home Message
Though it’s existed for a while, the raw water movement only recently sprang onto the national stage. Raw water is not just unheated, but completely untreated: unfiltered, unchlorinated, unfluoridated and untreated with disinfecting UV-light or ozone.
While this appeals to people right now, particularly in the aftermath of the Flint Water Crisis and the eroded trust in our government’s honesty about our water, the risks presented by your local tap water are, with almost absolute certainty, much lower than the risk of infection that comes from drinking commercial raw water.
Any potential benefit of commercial raw water’s low chemical contamination does not justify its extravagant cost. There are no extra benefits from drinking water molecules that have not gone through a treatment process.
The health risks of non-commercial raw water are even more extreme and you should entirely avoid drinking water from untested, untreated sources.
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