Of all the inventions, fads and fashions of the 21st Century, nothing annoys me as much as the cult of bottled water. At its peak, fancy restaurants even had water sommeliers (can you think of a sillier job description?) who curated vast lists of bottled water sourced from all over the world.
For us, in India, there is only one good reason for drinking bottled water: it is safer than tap water. In much of the West, even that’s not true. The tap water in most of the US, for instance, or in the UK is completely safe and you don’t need to splash out expensive bottled water.
At some level, that’s true of India as well. The biggest culprits in the great mineral water scam are the five-star hotels who keep urging you to buy expensive bottled waters. All five-star hotels have installed top grade water-purification plants and often, even the water in the bathroom taps is clean enough to drink. But because they don’t make money unless you pay for water, they play down the cleanliness of their own water. At some really greedy hotels I have found that even room guests are not given drinking water and have to order over-priced mineral water from room service or raid the minibar.
So why do people drink so much mineral/bottled water at restaurants? Partly, this may be due to concerns about safety, though frankly if a restaurant can’t be bothered to purify its water then it is a safe bet that no real care will be lavished on food safety either.
But mostly it is because we have been conned into believing that bottled water has special qualities that make it worth the price.
In fact, all of the claims made for bottled water are bogus.
The first is the notion that it tastes better. It does not. I’ve done blind tastings with restaurateurs who brag about the quality of their bottled water and discovered that they can’t identify a single water by taste alone; they need the bottle. In the UK, a survey of 1000 people found they could not tell the difference between tap water and expensive bottled water.
The second bogus claim is the notion that bottled water is full of minerals which are good for you. The government has clamped down on this ridiculous assertion and most bottled water companies have been forced to remove the word “mineral” from their labels.
And finally, there is the claim, advanced in favour of fizzy water, that it is “naturally carbonated”. The suggestion is that springs throw up water that is as gassy as soda from the bowels of the earth and that all the bottlers have to do is to capture this water and package it.
It took a scandal about Perrier, many years ago, to explode that particular myth. We now know that the manufacturers add gas to create fizzy water. (It’s the same principle as soda water).
And I’m not even getting into the environmental objections to bottled water, which are numerous and valid.
But, as a general rule, unless you are concerned with safety, the best thing to do when a hotel tries to push mineral water is to ask what I always do: Is your regular water not safe for drinking?”
They’ll usually back down and look embarrassed. And you’ll save some money.
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Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.