Water Transparency: What’s in Your Beverage?


Once through the entire brewing process, a typical beer will be composed of 90-95% water. 

For juice from concentrate, where water is removed before transportation and added in at a later stage, that would be approximately 85% to 90%.

Despite beverages being so different from one another, water is more often than not the crucial ingredient. So much so that in Germany, a purity law called Reinheitsgebot is specifically put in place to ensure German beer consists of only three ingredients: barley, hops, and water. 

“The typical beer is comprised of 90 to 95 percent water, so brewers worth their brewing salt spend a lot of time fretting and fussing over the stuff.”  

Water quality is often scrutinized when it comes to plain drinking water, and yet it seems the same can’t be said for other beverages largely composed of water – like plant-based milks, or carbonated soft drinks that often use tap water from municipal water systems.

As such an important component, it would be remiss to say that the water quality – and purity – in these beverages would not affect the quality of the beverage itself. In fact, some breweries use their water source – spring water – as a means of emphasizing a high water quality. This ultimately points to a need for more active water transparency across the Food & Beverage industry, arguably more than ever.

Number One Ingredient

In addition to sugar, caffeine, and flavoring, the number one ingredient for carbonated soft drinks tends to be water. For example, the Coca-Cola website states: “approximately 90% of Coca-Cola is water”. Similarly, for soft drinks like Mountain Dew, the label mentions “carbonated water” as one of its ingredients, along with high-fructose corn syrup.

And yet it still seems at the bottling company’s discretion as to the source (and quality) of that water, and whether they actively communicate this or not.

US sparkling soda company Dry Botanical Bubbly explains that “purified carbonated water” is an ingredient of their soda, followed by cane sugar, natural flavor, and phosphoric acid. How that water is purified, however, whether through reverse osmosis or distillation, is not at the forefront of their communication. 

For soda served on tap, there are also opaque water quality requirements. What’s certain is that Soda fountain systems used in restaurant chains or cinemas use a five-gallon “bag in a box” syrup that is typically mixed with water at a ratio of 1 to 5. Where the water comes from, is however at the restaurant’s discretion, and in most cases is tap water – a resource that is hard to have control over in terms of quality and purity. 

Reports back in 2009 even found nearly half of 90 beverages from soda fountain machines containing microorganisms and bacteria. A more recent report found that in India, even when soft drinks reach drinking standards, all soft drinks contain very hard water, the highest of which was Mountain Dew with 528mg of hardness per liter. And that’s not discounting that water contamination in tap water is specific to your location, own individual pipe system in your building, and water regulations (or non-regulations).

Ambiguity in Regulations

Even with more innovative, touch-screen soda fountains that require water filters for use, water quality can still be problematic. 

More innovative soda machines are high-tech dispensers designed to give a bigger choice of soft drinks to the consumer, whilst being easily accessible at the tap of a finger. For Coca-Cola, they’re called Freestyle machines, for Pepsi, they’re called Spire. These machines rely on cartridges packed with flavorings, as opposed to the traditional hose and five-gallon plastic-bag-lined boxes of syrup. But the need for water as a key ingredient is no less important, nor is its quality.

A typical specification for using these machines might be to use a water filtration system. For Coca-Cola, this means the water filter used must meet NSF standard 42 – a water quality standard outlined by the National Sanitation Foundation. Reaching this particular NSF standard can mean removing all contaminants present in the source water, or it can mean reaching the most reduced level of contaminants present as possible.

The NSF standard 42 is also a water quality standard designed to address what’s called “aesthetic impurities” such as taste and odor. Rather than the NSF standard 53 which addresses more health-related contaminants like heavy metals or inorganic contaminants such as fluoride.

Water Quality Across Beverages

This ambiguity in water transparency can also be said for other beverages. For some plant-based milk, simply “water”, “pure water“, or “filtered water” is stated as an ingredient or description. The water systems used to filter or purify that water are, however, not stated. Ultimately, this leads to a great deal of ambiguity and variation in quality and contaminants.

A recent study found that every juice product tested had measurable levels of the following heavy metals: cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead or mercury.

For juice from concentrate, a study looking into grape and apple juice found that roughly 10% of juice samples from five brands had total arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water standards. “Most of that arsenic was inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen”, stated the report.

A more recent study found that every juice product tested had measurable levels of the following heavy metals: cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead or mercury. Twenty-one of the 45 juices have levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, and/or lead. All of which have known negative health effects.

Most of the juices tested were from concentrate, meaning that all water was removed from the pressed fruit at the source, and then added back in at a factory. The source of heavy metal contamination might have occurred from contaminated soil and water, or from the water added back in at the factory. What’s clear, is that this is also at the discretion of, and unique to each company’s own water sourcing and testing.

“Of the companies that responded,” says the report, “most said they did their own testing and adhered to all government regulations. Some also noted that heavy metals can be naturally occurring.”

Gerber was one company that, as a result of the report, now focusses on “adhering to recommended limits” in heavy metals, and now “purifies the water used in its juices through reverse osmosis” – a method that can reduce, albeit not remove, certain heavy metal contaminants. 

A Move Towards Transparency

For beer, a water quality check in the brewing process is an integral step in achieving a certain standard for taste and quality. This does, however, largely depend on the specific practices of a brewery, and whether they proactively seek a city tap water report, or conduct their own quality checks.

And yet, without quality checks, the brew would – at worse – suffer, or – at best – be unpredictable. Water hardness, pH levels, Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), and sodium levels are among the many factors that can vary in water – all of which can affect the taste of beer. 

Max Unverferth, a brewer from US mobile beer company Nowhere in Particular, explains that “East Coast beers tend to be a little earthier, West Coast beers are danker, and Midwestern beers are juicier”. He emphasizes that whilst a lot of these differences can be due to particular ingredients or brewing methods, “you can’t overstate the importance of water in the overall taste of the beer.”

This importance isn’t lost on other breweries. For Blue Mountain Brewery in Virginia, they state that their beer is made with malt, hops, and deep well water from the Blue Ridge Mountains. For German beer brand Krombacher, like US beer California Spring Lager, spring water is highlighted as key to the taste and flavor of their beer. 

An emphasis on pure water is particularly underscored with Swedish beer brand PU:REST, who makes a point of using purified wastewater to brew their beer. The impact of which is two-fold, and perhaps points to the benefits of water transparency in beverages as a whole: to raise awareness about the value of safe and clean water, whilst also harnessing the benefits and possibilities that water with different compositions can bring to beverages.

As the PU:REST founders state, their beer holds a “clean, crisp taste” specifically due to “the use of such a unique type of water”. 

By Lauren — Oct 26, 2020
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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