Anybody who has grown up in a middle-class household is familiar with the rituals surrounding drinking water. We drink a lot of water. There are always water glasses on the table at meal times and in some households – mine, for instance – there is even a superstition about drinking a glass of water before you leave the house.
Because tap water in India is rarely drinkable, all of us have our own methods of purifying the stuff that comes out of the tap. In Bombay, in the Sixties and Seventies, the water was always boiled and sometimes, when there seemed to be too many impurities suspended in it, a filter was used to remove them. The boiled water was allowed to cool down and then decanted into bottles (in my house, old empty bottles of whisky or sherbet) and kept in the fridge for drinking.
When I was young, I assumed that the rest of the world shared our attitude to water. But as I travelled abroad, I discovered that other countries had their own methods. For a start, you didn’t always find water on the dining table at meal times in England and you rarely found it on the Continent. In France or Italy, if you wanted water with your meal, you had to order it, rather as you would order a Coke, and they would charge for the bottle – sometimes even more than they would charge for a Coke.
Nobody I met abroad had bottles of drinking water in their fridges. In England and America at least, you drank water straight from the tap. If the weather was very hot (which was rarely the case in England) then you put some ice into your water glass.
Over the years, that began to change. The English-speaking world followed the experience of the Continent and began serving bottled water in restaurants. People started buying bottles of water (often described as ‘mineral’ or even ‘vitamin-enriched’) to keep at home. Though the tap water was still safe to drink (mostly), a new generation grew up thinking of water as something that you bought in a bottle, not the sort of thing that you could get at home for free.
The rise in the popularity of bottled water was accompanied by a new drink-more-water orthodoxy. Any woman who has read a fashion magazine will know that beauty editors swear by water. Readers are advised to drink gallons of water every day. Celebrities claim that the reason they have such good skin is because they drink lots of water.
Now, the dieticians have got in on the act. One way of losing weight we are told is to drink lots of water. It will clean out your insides. It will suppress appetite. And you have a slightly contrary school of thought: some dieticians say you should drink lots of water but never during meals "because it dilutes the digestive juices."
I have watched the cult of water grow with a sense of mounting horror. Regular readers of this column will be aware of my campaign against restaurants and hotels which push you into ordering overpriced mineral water when you would be just as happy with normal water.
In my home, we use a RO device (which works on reverse osmosis), sort of like an upgraded Aquaguard, to purify the tap water and don’t bother with mineral water. In fact, the only reason that I can think of for drinking bottled water in India is that it is usually clean. In a slightly dodgy place where you are not sure of hygienic standards, it makes sense to ask for bottled water.
But the global boom in bottled water is not based on concerns about cleanliness. It is based on the claim that lots of water is good for your health.
Up to a point this is clearly valid: all of us need to be rehydrated. But doctors advise us to drink lots of fluids while beauty editors, dieticians and so-called health experts stick to the view that only water will do; other fluids, we are told, cannot do the work of water.
Every doctor I’ve consulted has told me that this is nonsense. If you drink a litre of say, Diet Coke rather than a litre of water, you may or may not have problems with the other constituents of the Diet Coke (aspartame, caffeine etc.), but as far as the body is concerned, it has received a litre of fluid. The notion that the body will refuse to accept Diet Coke and hold out for mineral water to quench its thirst is so absurd that only a beauty editor at a glossy magazine could possibly believe it.
Fortunately, there is now a backlash against the trendy mantra of drink-only-water. Doctors and scientists are speaking out against the gibberish spouted by self-appointed health experts who, in turn, are fed this nonsense by the bottled water companies.
Last month, Emine Saner, in The Guardian, took apart the myths surrounding water. Her conclusions:
There is absolutely no scientific basis for the view that water improves your skin.
There is no connection between water and weight loss. No matter how much water you drink, it will not help you lose weight.
The average adult man needs 2.5 litres of water a day and a woman needs 2 litres. These are not excessive quantities and up to 20 per cent of our water intake comes from food anyway.
If you take your fluids in tea, coffee, drinks etc., that’s fine too. It does not have to be pure water.
The claim that lots of water "flushes out toxins" from your body has no medical foundation at all.
The idea, promoted by bottled water companies, that our bodies are constantly on the verge of dehydration is rubbish. When our bodies need water, we feel thirsty. If you don’t feel thirsty, it is usually because you do not need water.
Bottled water companies tell us that it is beneficial to drink five litres of water a day. It is beneficial – but it is beneficial to the bottled water companies who make money from selling more of their over-priced product, not to you and me. We will just pee the extra water out and feel lighter in the bladder and the wallet.
Watch out for so-called "enriched" waters, which make bogus health claims. Many "vitamin waters" contain sugar. It does not matter if the water comes from a stream, a glacier or an oasis in the Sahara desert. Your body does not care – it is just a fluid.
The most idiotic profession of the last 20 years is the "water sommelier", a guy who recommends waters to suit your food as though they were fine wines. Yes, different bottled waters do have different tastes but 99 per cent of us cannot tell the difference.
Whenever I am in the mood to humiliate an F&B professional, I organise a blind tasting of bottled waters. They always fail – because, truth be told, the differences are not so massive and few of us have any water-memory.
So what should you do?
Here’s my view. Drink when you are thirsty. Drink when you like – in the middle of the meal if you want, no matter what dieticians may say. Do not pay for water unless you have no choice. If you are not sure of the safety of the water available, then do buy a bottle of ‘mineral’ water. Otherwise, do what our parents used to: purify your tap water using one of the many devices now available (most of which were not around when our parents used to get the water boiled every day).
And the next time somebody lectures you on the advantages of the minerals in expensive water or tells you how five litres of water will make your skin glow, tell them to take a flying jump.
The one thing we have always understood in India is how to purify our own water and when to drink it. We do not need to fall victim to the marketing patter of bottled water companies or to follow the fads of the West.
In this – as in so many other things – our parents knew best.
From HT Brunch, August 7
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