Alkaline water is part of a tradition that dates back centuries: the search for better water.
That used to mean healing springs and the Fountain of Youth. These days, with a never-ending stream of new life hacks promising balance, better living and even longevity, it’s still about more than just staying hydrated. That’s why companies across the globe are pouring into alkaline water, a fast-growing segment of the US$17 billion (NZ$26 billion) US bottled water market and the latest wellness trend to push its way out of natural food stores and into the mainstream.
“Everyone is chasing wellness, but that’s not even good enough anymore,” says Ken Shea, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “You have to add value – you can’t go with a jug of water and think you’re going to make money.”
Alkaline water has been around for decades, but it has exploded in the last couple of years, fuelled by celebrity endorsements, social media and an ever-increasing interest in the latest wellness trends. The overall category, which is still a fraction of the massive bottled water industry, grew 36 per cent to nearly US$270 million in the US in the year ended in April, according to the data firm SPINS. And that has big-name companies piling in.
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There’s clearly money to be made. Less clear, however, is whether the special water is all that special.
Alkaline water is basically purified water-often with salt added for electrolytes and baking soda-that has a higher pH level, making it less acidic. While there’s scepticism about the science, advocates say it helps balance out acid in the body, and that drinking it, rather than what comes out of the tap, is better hydration.
Essentia, the top-selling alkaline brand in the US, says its pH level is at least 9.5, compared with roughly 7, or neutral, for most tap water.
Consumers pay a premium for the drink, which has caught on with athletes and celebrities, including American football star Tom Brady, who promotes a strict diet that includes 20 ounces of alkaline water every morning.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, whose oft-maligned Goop brand is influential in wellness circles, is also a proponent and has partnered with a brand of alkaline water called Flow, which emphasises its “naturally occurring essential minerals and electrolytes” and a pH level of about 8.1. Celebrities Mark Wahlberg and Sean Combs are investors in a brand called AQUAhydrate.
Americans, constantly searching for easy ways to feel better, are historically susceptible to wellness marketing, even if it’s based on shaky science. Companies have seized on that to push premium water, according to Kara Nielsen, who tracks food trends at CCD Helmsman in California. With alkaline, the message is resonating, particularly with younger consumers asking more from their food and drinks.
“We’re demanding more from everything – it has to have a purpose,” she says. “This is how the younger generation thinks about nutrients.”
The market leader, closely held Essentia, saw its sales surge nearly 80 per cent over the last year to more than US$181 million, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. But Big Water is also leaning in.
Coca-Cola got directly involved in the alkaline trend last year, launching a version of its Smartwater brand that is at least 9 pH and “vapor distilled” and offers “hydration for daily fitness.”
LIFEWTR, a PepsiCo brand launched in 2017 that isn’t marketed as alkaline but touts its “pH balance” and added electrolytes, saw sales rise 36 per cent over the last year, according to IRI. Keurig Dr Pepper bought Core Hydration last year for US$525m, acquiring a brand of purified water with “just the right amount of electrolytes and minerals to work in harmony with your body’s natural pH of 7.4 pH.”
Even Nestle, the largest seller of bottled water in the world, which doesn’t specifically sell alkaline, is calling Poland Spring “perfectly balanced” in a nod to the growing interest in the trend.
“We’re demanding more from everything – it has to have a purpose.”
In some ways, premium water is a perfect product for giant beverage companies, giving them a way to charge more for what is the ultimate commodity, often sourced from municipal water supplies. That’s especially important as Dasani and Aquafina, mainstream bottled water brands made by Coke and PepsiCo, respectively, each saw sales fall over the last year, according to IRI data. IRI says on average Essentia sells for US$2.59 a unit in the US, compared with US$2.08 for all bottled waters.
As is the case with products like coffee and beer, consumers are trading up for more premium water options, often in search of benefits that go beyond just eliminating thirst. The alkaline trend was helped along the way by television personality Dr. Oz, who touted it was a way to reduce acid reflux.
Alkaline88, made by Alkaline Water Co, doesn’t make any health claims, relying instead on simple ingredient labels and “simple, clean taste,” according to Ricky Wright, chief executive officer. The brand is preparing to make an advertising push for the first time after breaking into Walmart last year. It uses a proprietary “ionization” process that adds Himalayan rock salt as a catalyst to help boost the pH levels.
“We’ve done it with one additive,” Wright says. The company is expected to post revenue north of US$30m in the most recent fiscal year, up more than 60 per cent.
The question, though, is if regular people really need this stuff. The answer is probably not, at least if they’re not training for a triathlon or working out hard